Intellectual tours conducted by scholars are catching on as a definite new trend

By TravelSmart Bureau

Intellectual tour of monuments and historical places is a fulfilling experience for any discerning traveller, especially when one has a sense of history. India’s Ministry of Tourism has several panels of experts with a variety of specialisation to draw upon when distinguished visitors are on hand.

These panelists have a rather busy schedule, and are called upon as frequently as three to four times in a week, according to a seasoned guide, who has taken up this as a serious profession, after having spent long years in the US.

According to a report in Times of India, the explosion of 21st century travel in the slipstream of rising incomes has enlarged the tribe of the `road scholar’.  So increasingly, anthropologists, naturalists, geologists, textile scholars and others with a fine focus on a discipline are being commissioned by travel companies to conduct `intellectual tours’.

“Those who have a specific interest, and limited time prefer an interaction with an expert,” says Mala Tandan, director of Greaves India, a tour operator with offices in the US, UK and India, providing expert advise and tailor-made itineraries. The company’s roster includes historians like Sohail Hashmi (for Old Delhi); William Dalrymple: (Lutyens Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhawan); Raaja Bhasin (Shimla and Himachal) and conservation architect Navin Piplani, a core member of the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative. Abercrombie & Kent commissions Sunil Raman, journalist and author (Del hi Durbar 1911 -The Complete Story).

“Many academics have reservations about conducting tours for lay people, probably feeling they’ve spent years in deep research, and may have to convey a dumbed-down version to the tourist,” says Dr Chithra Madhavan, a scholar in south Indian temple architecture and iconography, who is hired by Greaves to conduct tour lectures.

When a travel company first asked Dr Madhavan if she would accompany a group of suits to Mahabalipuram for the day and introduce them to Pallava temple art and architecture, she had her doubts. Though she was accustomed to the public lecture, this was another kettle of fish. Where should she begin? How far in should she wade? She developed a technique: “I try to gauge my audience at the very beginning by asking them questions. That’s when I know how to pitch my delivery without making it too shallow or too complex,” says the scholar.

“The academic part of the tour can go for a toss when you have someone asking you for a good place to eat,” says conservation AHARAJ architect Vikas Dilawari, who showed Prince Charles around Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

The job is well-paying for those willing to dip their beak in -from Rs 10,000 ($155) to Rs 50,000 ($775) a day depending on the expert’s celebrity, popularity, and the size of the group. Swapna Liddle, scholar and author (Chandi Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi) funnels her fee to INTACH (Delhi Chapter), of which she is the convenor. She conducts these tours to promote Indian heritage and INTACH. She says, “I think everybody has a right to be taken on a tour if interested. Who am I to discriminate and say I’ll only take serious scholars.”

While the expert-led tour in India is still peopled by Westerners, Indians are starting to queue up too. Shankar Ganesh, director of The Road Less Travelled, a six-month-old travel company, says Indians are keen to take travelling lessons from pundits.Ganesh’s clients, for example, have n the high road with astronomers and taken the high road with astronomers and Indian mythologists.

Travellers too are expected to do their homework. Some travel companies furnish them with reading lists before the trip. Oth ers encourage them to exchange emails with the experts beforehand, and signal areas of special interest. Usually, the travel ler’s every question is addressed on the field. Save the odd one that demands to know why India doesn’t look after its monuments better.

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