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Meet the Female Tour Guides Who Changed the Way I View India

Meet the Female Tour Guides Who Changed the Way I View India

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Shristi Shukla‘s first day as a tour guide did not go as planned.

She’d just set out with travelers in Jaipur, a historic city in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, when a stranger approached, launching into a misogynistic rant about “so-called feminism.”

“What kind of woman are you, being on the road with so many men?” he added, all in English so her European guests — a group of men — could follow along.

“Out of nowhere, he just came and started abusing me,” Shukla told me.

While female tour guides are becoming increasingly common at monuments and other traveler hot spots in major Indian cities, it’s infrequent to see a woman leading on-the-street Rajasthani excursions like Shukla began conducting in 2018.

“In Delhi, a lot of young women do this job. But Rajasthan is very orthodox in terms of the gender system — and it’s too much here,” Shukla told me. “It was very weird and uncomfortable for them to see a woman leading the tour.”

Shristi Shukla/Travel + Leisure

When I met Shukla and fellow history expert Neha Agarwal while visiting the ornate city last fall, I was blown away by their perseverance and poise amid the scrutiny. Their approaches to teaching Indian history and culture were just as remarkable. Each woman uses fresh narratives and insights that are uniquely their own, and I left Jaipur a wiser woman because of our time together.

Travel + Leisure named Rajasthan one of the best places to visit in 2024, with chic new properties adding to the allure of its lavish history as a trading hub and the land of Maharajas. Jaipur is one of the region’s big draws, called the Pink City because of its centuries-old terracotta buildings. Travelers can experience ancient wonders of art and architecture alongside bustling bazaars and a thriving artisan community. 

Neha Agrawal/Travel + Leisure

Shukla grew up in a forest-filled region of central East India, miles from Jaipur. “They still think that I’m unemployed,” she half-joked about her family back home. “I’ve always been rebellious in my house. I’m the first woman who has actually gone out on my own.”

Like her family, strangers don’t stand a chance of shaking her confidence. “Men always weirdly stare at you. I always stare back at them,” she said. And as for women? “They always come and counsel me,” she said. “‘You’re very sweet and beautiful; you should not do this work. Your skin will be burned doing this walking tour daily, and who will marry you?’”

After their father’s passing, Agrawal’s brother encouraged her to become a tour guide. She was the only woman in her guide training class. Sixteen years later, demographics among her colleagues are improving but still heavily skewed — Agrawal recounted being the only woman out of more than 700 men at a Jaipur guide convention in November and feeling distanced from her male colleagues.

The stigma has significant repercussions. Agrawal is an outstanding tour guide — I can’t imagine one with more thorough knowledge of Rajasthan’s history or a warmer spirit — but despite extensive qualifications, over 15 years of experience, and ever-increasing tourism to Jaipur, Agrawal has trouble booking work.

She checks in with the hotels daily, but they don’t send gigs her way unless guests request a female guide. “It’s a polite ‘no.’ But I keep on knocking,” she said. “This is the problem we are facing: We are not getting much work because people do not know the lady guide exists.”

Shukla has also been passed over for opportunities that ultimately go to men despite dozens of satisfied customer reviews on her Airbnb Experiences profile. “Recently, a man told me, ‘You need a man with you to control the crowd,’” she said. She recalled telling the man she had easily led groups of upwards of 15 people — but the whole tour still went to a single male guide.

Piero M. Bianchi/Getty Images

Luckily for anyone visiting the Pink City, Agrawal and Shukla persevere amid the challenges.

I spent my first day in Jaipur with Shukla. Equally gutsy and charming, she has a way of immediately putting you at ease. The storyteller glides through Jaipur’s bustling streets with a calm grace, and that confidence rubs off on you. 

“I was not comfortable sharing only the king’s story,” she told me of her mindset going into the travel industry. “No one is used to seeing history from a female perspective. In our history books and everywhere, we have always read stories about the kings.”

Where textbooks fail her, empathy does not: “If I would have been a woman in that era, how would I have felt? That’s how I started curating the stories and showing the city from a female perspective.”

“For example, Hawa Mahal, the wind palace,” Shukla continued, referencing the famous palace facade constructed for royal women to observe outside life without being seen. “It’s magnificent and a landmark of India. But the men proudly say it’s a ‘security wall’ for the women. I would not feel secure being trapped on the other side of a wall.”

Shukla’s work profoundly impacts her female visitors, and she believes they become confident after hearing her storytelling. “I see an excitement in their eyes,” she said. “And I think they see hope in India and how a woman can be [here].”

Like Shukla’s, Agrawal’s ideology emphasizes the impact and experiences of women. “Kings came, kings went, just because of women. They have been strong mothers and strong maidservants. Indian history is full of women who took strong steps, were brave, and had a say,” she told me.

When you’re with Agrawal, you find yourself standing up straighter, listening more closely, and asking as many questions about this elegant, wise woman as you are about the centuries-old monuments. She took me to Jaipur’s City Palace, where she had a story to tell about every vase, tapestry, and garment we encountered in the sprawling complex.

akegooseberry/Getty Images

Before moving to Jaipur, Agrawal was a guide in Agra, teaching visitors about one of the world’s greatest wonders through a female lens.

“Every single person is going to tell you that the Taj Mahal has been built by the emperor in memory of his wife, right? The history won’t change. But the way you are telling it and talking about that person in the 17th century is the most important thing,” she said. “I always tell them that the man loved the woman, no doubt, but the woman has more power to make him fall in love with her.”

While educating travelers about India’s history, Agrawal is also learning a lot. She’s forged friendships with people worldwide, and her work with women travelers has been especially gratifying.

“When I am with my lady guests, we are in a different zone,” she told me. “We talk about everything and anything: their personal lives, struggles, and how they achieved those levels. That is a beautiful day for me, always. I love to hear their stories because they inspire me a lot. I’m at one place, but I’m getting a bit of the whole world every single day.”

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