Away from the rambling chawls, the loud festivities, messy albeit delicious street-food, and the sweeping Chowpatty that Girgaon is usually identified with, a group of heritage explorers are keenly observing what looks like a weathered stone slab. “It is the ass-curse stone or gaddhegal,” explains host Bharat Gothoskar, or BharGo as he prefers to be called. “Gadha means donkey, and gal, either cussing or inflicting a curse. These slabs were like contracts of a land grant in the 10th-century Shilahara dynasty, and a violation of the contract by anyone would inflict a curse,” he continues, “the one in which a donkey shall fornicate with the violator’s mother.”
Expressions of shock erupt in the audience and eyes widen with amazement. On closer inspection, the slab’s engraving reveals the figures of a woman and an animal – a donkey – having sexual intercourse. This is just one of the countless interesting spots in the City that a regular participant of Bharat’s walks visits. “People hardly know that there is tremendous history waiting to be revealed in places other than Fort. The facts that there is a nearly 1200-year-old stupa in Dadar, or that there are about 100 temples surrounding Banganga tank, are almost unheard of,” he informs. While laying out plain factsheets about these places would certainly be easy, Bharat instead takes to storytelling.
Bharat, now 43, was the head of marketing at a prestigious company when he started conducting informal heritage walks sometime in 2005 . They soon drew the interest of more and more people which is when he officially started Khaki Tours in 2015. “I always had a liking for history. Besides, I think the art of storytelling was inherited by me from my mother. My father was a journalist who had written for almost every newspaper publication back then. Together, they had nurtured in me an analytical mind along with an ability to see the bigger picture,” he says explaining the roots of his passion.
Initially though, following his calling required Bharat to juggle it with work, and the walks were free of charge too. As more people began to join the walks – participation would cross a hundred per walk – it became difficult to manage the large groups and maintain people’s interest at the same time. That is when Bharat’s marketing instincts kicked in and he began working “to get the product right. A token amount charged for the walks ensured smaller, manageable groups. What we saw through this model, though, was a whole set of people who were interested to pay for experiencing heritage. Participation remained at peak irrespective of scorching summers or heavy rains. The response was splendid, and the revenue that was subsequently collected was donated to an NGO for funding the education of 50 girls,” he says.
Passions, more often than not, take a back seat as life’s realities settle in. We convince ourselves that it is far too late to take up something that we always wanted to pursue; making a living out of it would be impossible. Talking to Bharat, though, I realised that it is never too late – all you need is some conviction, and a plan. Bharat eventually decided to take a sabbatical from work and started creating a platform for heritage enthusiasts who were willing to weave through the untravelled nooks of the City. For him, this also meant giving up the comforts of a stable job. “It wasn’t easy. I could feel the void of not having a steady monthly income. Also, I was yet to figure out how to make this venture self-sustainable,” he tells me.
Khaki Walks piqued the interest of numerous professionals such as architects and social entrepreneurs who soon began co-hosting the tours with him. “I believe that I am a heritage evangelist. I like to kindle a love for heritage in people’s hearts,” Bharat says. Khaki Tours now host 27 different walks that include areas like Gamdevi, Bhuleshwar, and Banganga, places that are almost never on our list of the must-visit recommendations in Mumbai. That being said, not all walks were preconceived. An architect once requested Bharat to conduct a walk for a client who was interested to invest in infrastructure development in the central Parel area. After the walk, Bharat was convinced that Parel houses several treasures, such as a bridge that was manufactured in Scotland and installed in Mumbai, or the story about the City’s first tram. Queensway Parel then became one of the initial walks under the Khaki Tours banner.
“A heritage walk is not a lecture, it is a performance, and Khaki Walks are anything but plain hurling of facts while hopping from one place to another. When you are telling about a thing from the past to people from the present, you need to make the narrative relevant. That’s when the penny drops, and participants often realise that events today are similar to those from the bygone days. For example, the railways struggled to obtain land for laying the tracks back then, and so are the Metro authorities today,” Bharat explains.
To spread awareness about these obscure places and their conservation needs Team Khaki often invites government officials to join the walks. “One such official attended the Queensway Parel walk and also apprised his subordinates about Parel’s centuries-old treasures. These subordinates chanced upon a 200-year-old ‘Vth Milestone’ amid a demolition drive against illegal encroachments and soon realised that it is a relic from the past. The stone was subsequently unearthed and inaugurated after a formal installation on Parel’s Dr S. S. Rao Road,” said Bharat. These milestones from British Raj measured the distance of an area from St Thomas’s Cathedral located in Fort as the origin. Apparently, there are 15 such milestones between Fort’s Horniman Circle and Sion, but eight seems to have submerged under newly constructed roads, or have gone missing.
While people who desire to soak in the essence of Mumbai’s history can join the Khaki walks, #UrbanSafari, a khaki-coloured jeep is the latest addition to the business. Modified as an open jeep, the Khaki Tours’ logo – a version of the Invasion Star imprinted on American jeeps from World War II – renders it with a soldierly charm. “Military equipment and their colours have always appealed to me,” he comments about the name and logo of Khaki Tours. “The jeep lets participants experience heritage without tiring them out. But the walks have their own, unique charm,” Bharat says. Till date, they’ve conducted corporate walks, kids’ walks, women’s’ walk, and food walks. “A participant once told me that she had been living in Mumbai for the past 30 years, completely clueless about these age-old treasures,” Bharat concludes.
Moving ahead, Bharat plans to start a Khaki Foundation as the Company’s non-profit cell working toward conservation. It shall archive valuable data, pictures, and stories about Mumbai’s centuries-old heritage sites, while Khaki Walks and the jeep rides will continue to take us down pathways so slender, where even time has barely managed to creep in.
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