The old custom of hiring tour guides to explore and know about a particular city is now a thing of the past. Walking tours are gaining more prominence as they offer certain unconventional walks that let you rediscover a city in a completely new light.
A walk into the lanes of a city not only gives you a glimpse of the history but makes you admire the art and architecture, the culture, the lifestyle and more. Taking a walk into the lesser-known structures, while keeping history alive for future generations, heritage walks always gives one more than meets the eye experience.
The unconventional walk makes one experience a city in a completely new light. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital city of the east Indian state of West Bengal, is one such city that has a plethora of heritage sites, ancient structures dotting the lanes of the city and hidden history in the bylanes that once served as the capital of British-held territories in India that is yet to be explored not just by international tourists but domestic as well.
Heritage Walk Calcutta (HWC) is one such tour company in Kolkata that provides walking tours of Kolkata for locals and tourists to “enable them to experience the city in a new way and connect with diverse local communities.” From choosing cemetery walk that lets one explore one of the largest colonial cemeteries in South Asia, to discovering the remains of the oldest Chinatown in the world outside the sphere of Chinese cultural influence in Southeast Asia, with walks like these you can feel the heart of the city. Led by Tathagata Neogi, a doctorate in archaeology from University of Exeter, and his wife, Chelsea McGill, it is ‘an academic-run, research-oriented company that provides walking tours of Kolkata for locals and tourists.’
“Heritage walks are a public outreach tool that can translate scholarly research into accessible and interesting experiences. At Heritage Walk Calcutta, we aim to raise the historical awareness of the general public by specifically catering to the local audience, as well as visitors from elsewhere,” says Chelsea McGill, co-founder and chief innovation leader of HWC to Media India Group.
HWC organises unique theme based tours not that only deal with the culture, communities and festivities of a city but also organises tours focussed on history, murder and wars.
One such tour that they organise is the ‘Bengal Rising: Renaissance & National Movement Walk’, that features sites that were witness to the Bengali spirit of nationalism and cultural renaissance, through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
How many of you know that Kolkata was a major target during the Second World War? In the winter of 1942, Japanese bombers were flying regular scouting missions to destroy Calcutta’s industrial sector in an effort to harm the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India Theatre. War also brought worker strikes, food shortages, heightened surveillance, oppression, and a terrible famine. This tour covers the ‘inbound areas’ that were designated as safe zones’ for the Commonwealth and US forces and lets one experience the tales through eyewitness accounts.
Ever wanted to explore the lanes/houses of a place that have a gruesome history? The Murder & Mayhem tour takes one into the mysterious murder and missing cases in the history of Calcutta’s most challenging cases handled by the detectives of the Calcutta Police Department in the 19th century.
“International tourists without any background of the city generally ask for our “Kolkata 101” walks, Dalhousie and Chitpore. On the other hand, our Murder and Mayhem and Chinatown walks are nearly always sold out, and usually draw a majority of the locals,” says McGill.
It is a known fact that Bengal was the hub for many European entities and the state has many heritage towns that one can explore. HWC takes you on a tour to Bandel, a small town in West Bengal that lets you explore the Portuguese colony and its pre-colonial commerce that attracted the European traders, the remains of the erstwhile Dutch colony of Chinsurah, a city in the Hooghly district of West Bengal before wrapping the day up with a walk along the Strand as you learn about the French heritage of Chandannagar, another city close to Chinsurah.
“Original research based tours around such themes will cover the distance of the route, health and safety concerns, local food or refreshment options. We have multiple mock or practice walks before launching a new one,” adds McGill.
The grand festival walk
Durga Puja, the grand festival of Bengal where Goddess Durga comes home is a celebration of life and art. HWC not only gives you an experience about the lanes of the city but also takes one on the journey of the biggest festival in Kolkata. The Durga Puja Walk lets one explore the Durga Puja of some of the old traditional families in the Pathuriaghata and Jorasanko area of north Kolkata. Apart from the history of these families and their mansions, the celebrations itself becomes a heritage walk of north Kolkata.
“Our tours focus on Bonedi Barir (aristocratic families) pujas and the history of the neighbourhoods and families. This year we are offering two routes: our well-loved Jorasanko and Pathurighata Bonedi Bari Pujo walk, which premiered last year; and a new one in central Kolkata, near College Street,” informs Chelsea.