“It’s not common in India to take a two-month sabbatical from a steady, well-paying job as a software engineer and work on a travel startup idea which crystallised over a group discussion at Whartons’ incubation programme. But I did,” begins Arjun Bhat as he takes us through the eight-year journey of Travspire, a company he started with two other first time entrepreneurs that he met at Wharton - Ami Naik and Satya Tammareddy.
Winning a grant for their startup concept at the Ivy League business school inspired the three-member team to return to Bangalore and kickstart their idea of customising local tourism and taking it beyond the cookie-cutter package tour offerings that most travellers were forced to pick from. While two co-founders moved on to other countries and careers, Bhat stayed with the company and grew it from a small tourism-centric business to encompass the learning and spread of art, history, culture with people across ages and walks of life.
Reinventing the Wheel
“I love to travel. In India and overseas. I know how important it is to go beyond the surface and experience the culture, history and lifestyle of the locals even if you have just a few hours to do it in. How richly rewarding it can be, yet how difficult and inaccessible it can also be,” he says. That’s what inspired him to create travel experiences that gave people a glimpse of history beyond generic travel books and dodgy guides. Strangely enough, the Karnataka market was not very easy to crack as far as offbeat travel experiences went. Kerala was better geared to tourism and Bhat launched his first curated tour through a bunch of small-time tour operators located in the backwaters of Fort Kochi famous for their Houseboat tours.
“We went knocking on the doors of the well-established tour companies at first. They literally shooed us away. They thought we were trying to reinvent the wheel. That we didn’t have any experience and that we were trying to redo something that they were doing ‘successfully’ for thirty years or more. After being turned away by over 50 companies, in desperation, we approached the small-time guys operating in and around the houseboat docks. They were thrilled with our ideas and more than happy to work with us. I still have a working relationship with them.”
Bhat began by turning the standard houseboat tours into an engaging mix of activities that included cycling, rowing, exploring little fishing villages, visits to prawn peeling units, mussel farms, stopping at toddy shops for some local brew and fresh fish and ending with a sumptuous meal served on a banana leaf with all the trimmings.
“We prefer to pick people up either from their houseboats or hotel just after sunrise and take them down that beautiful network of canals or little cycling paths crisscrossing the rice fields. It’s magical at that time of day, watching the children go to school, temples opening up for prayer, fisher-folk going about their business, a whole range of colourful action you would otherwise miss if you were restricted to a standard houseboat cruise no matter how luxurious.”
From an encouraging start in Kerala to Bangalore, Mysore and Hampi (every history aficionado’s dream town) the company soon grew and expanded their scope to include not just foreign and domestic tourists but yoga students, gourmands looking to titillate their palates with local delicacies, art and culture seekers and groups of university undergraduates who began to understand and experience local history and the arts away from dusty books and dry lectures.
Catch ‘Em Young
Sharing his love for history inspired Bhat to get into the trenches, literally with students of all ages. “We create mock digs and archaeological sites. We bury facsimiles of artefacts from a particular era, say the Vijayanagar Empire and we encourage the kids to dig them up, reference and catalogue them. We hold scavenger hunts and recreate moments of history through storytelling and visual aids like ancient board games. Chess, Snakes and Ladders and different strategic war games were invented in India and can be competitive, fun and very informative,” he explains. Using shells, tamarind seeds or specially lacquered coins and figures custom-made by the toymakers of Channapatna Bhat holds board game sessions for kids helping to lure them away from electronic toys and gadgets. “I encourage them to discover how their grandparents lived. Went to school, cooked, ate, entertained themselves. They are often amazed at what they discover.”
Down the Artisan Trail
Bhats’ research into history drew him naturally to the performing artists that bring to life ancient folklore and mythological stories from different parts of the state. Like the Dollu Kunita, an art form still practised by the Kuruba community who were shepherd warriors from ancient times. He also discovered the vibrant dance drama of the Veshegaars, also a nomadic shepherd community that enacts episodes from the Ramayana and other mythological texts. “They had moved into other professions to earn a living, working in restaurants or doing yard work etc. I brought them together for live performances and they have since been reviving their art. Communities like Svasa with its distinct art and heritage connect and infrastructure would be perfect for artists like these to find a platform and an audience,” he enthuses.
Sharing Secrets of The ‘Pete’
One of Travspire’s most popular walking tours covers the densely populated “Pete” area. Pete (pronounced pa-tay) means market in Kannada and encompasses the Krishna Rajendra Market, Tippu Sultan's Fort, Summer Palace and the areas surrounding it. A tad intimidating if you are a newbie, but full of local colour, sights and sounds and hidden delights for the adventurous explorer.
We persuade him to share some of the Petes’ well-kept secrets:- The ancient craft of weaving still thrives in the bylanes of Chamrajpet and you can find whole colonies of weavers turning out beautiful handwoven fabric that you can customise to your taste.
- After dark, the area adjacent to Avenue Road turns into a food street where you get the best North Indian Chaat in the city, no surprise really since most of the businesses there are owned and run by generations of North Indian settlers.
- Skip the more famous dosa places like MTR and head to Laxmi Nataraj Refreshments near the famous Raja market for the best Podi Masala Dosa in town. It is served up crisp and soft all at once and made from pure fragrant ghee, liberally doused with their secret Podi spice mix. You won’t regret it, I promise.
With travel and tourism now coming to a grinding halt, Bhat has been forced to lay off his permanent staff till the threat of the virus passes, and the travel industry returns to its former buoyancy. Now virtual tours have taken the place of jostling crowds and heady smells. And he has plans to make the history curriculum in schools across the city come truly alive.