Tours in India: How Intrepid's female tour guides are helping to change India's tourism industry

"If anyone says anything bad to you or touches you, you let me know straight away. Don't talk to them, you just tell me."

The speaker is our guide, Sana Jinah. Our tour bus has just pulled up at Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque in Old Delhi, and she's briefing us before we set off on a walking tour through the crowded streets.

Sana has her hands full. She waves off a couple of would-be guides as we head up the stairs and into the courtyard of the mosque where we're blissfully alone for half an hour before the crowds arrive. Then it's into the contorted lanes of the old city, weaving around goats and cycle rickshaws, Sana nudging us out of the way of rumbling handcarts, stopping off for mouth-searing samosas fresh from their oily bath and sticky orange jalebis at a street stall. Along Chandni Chowk my breath catches in my throat and Sana mentions that Khari Baoli, Asia's largest spice bazaar, is just beside us. Along with the sugar and spice there are smells that are not so nice, but that's Old Delhi.

It's mid-morning and she shepherds us through the prayer hall and kitchens of Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sikh Temple, where thousands are fed daily, all for free. With our own appetites sharpened, we lunch at Karim's, a legendary Muslim restaurant in the heart of Old Delhi. Finally, she conscripts half a dozen cycle rickshaw drivers, bosses them into line and we pile aboard for a bumpy ride through the crumbling, tottering, anarchic coils of the city until we return to the steps at the Friday Mosque where she pays our drivers. They grumble slightly. it seems, but there's no real dissent. Sana is not a woman you mess with.

I'm curious. "What would you do to them, if anyone hassles us?" I ask.

"Never you mind. Just let me know and I'll deal with it."

I've been here a dozen times but this visit is different, and what makes it different is Sana. Although women guides are not that unusual taking tour groups on day trips around Delhi and other Indian cities, Sana guides her groups all over India and Nepal on trips that can last weeks, and that makes her a stand-out.

"As an Indian woman, you know it's not like for Western women," she says. "We are coming from a culture where girls are not allowed to travel much on their own. Indian society has strict ideas about how a woman should behave and what her duties and obligations are and they all revolve around the family.

"This happened to me in my second season as a guide. An Indian couple asked me my age and I told them and they said are you married, and I told them no, not yet I still have time. And they said 'Don't you think you should get married soon? Take care of your family? Don't you think it's a big burden on your family that you are not married yet? We would suggest you get married soon and have kids and be happy.' I just laughed and said, 'Well, my Mum hasn't said that yet but if she does I'll have to think about it.' "

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Sana comes from Bombay, from a family that values education. Her father, who died when she was a child, was a doctor, her sisters are all professional women. Sana trained as a zoologist.

"But you know girls rarely do any kind of job after getting married, or even getting educated. They finish their college then they will get married and be a housewife."

Sana works as a guide for Intrepid Travel, the Melbourne-based adventure travel operator that is also the world's largest. Intrepid has been recruiting women tour leaders in India for several years. It has 11 women leaders conducting its Indian tours, out of a total 67 tour leaders.

"The target is a 50-50 ratio of male to female leaders," says Pravin Tamang, general manager of Intrepid's operations in India. It was Pravin who set the ball rolling, targeting female applicants with recruitment ads in student cafes and on social media, slyly adding the words "female candidates preferred".

"We had to be proactive, India needed that push, and why not," he asks. "India is the world's largest democracy and democracy is about about empowerment, it's about freedom of speech and movement, and that doesn't apply just to males."

It has not been easy.

"For us Indians, the set-up for females is really a nine-to-five job," Pravin says. "I've had to talk to their families and say, 'We want to hire your daughter and she's going to disappear for several months. During high season she'll be coming back home just for two days.' That was a tough one."

Finding suitable female guides was not the problem. "Women are already passionate about travel, it's about breaking the outlook of their family and relatives because in India relatives play a massive role in how a family member is developed and nurtured."

That evening we're met by Komal, a feisty 22-year-old, and taken to her home in the middle-class suburb of Rohini for a cooking lesson. Kanta, her grandmother, welcomes us with a hug and a tilaka, a smudge of vermilion paste on our foreheads.

The house is surprisingly modest. There's a tiny kitchen, a mini lounge room with couches, and two bedrooms. Her 16-year-old brother hides under a blanket in one of the bedrooms as we enter. "He's very shy," says Komal, who is anything but. "He should come out and say hello."

The evening starts with phapda, fried chickpea crunchies like potato chips. "We eat them when we watch cricket," Komal says.

We squeeze into the kitchen to inspect the contents of the spice box, essential for any Indian kitchen, then we take turns making pakoras before Babita, Komal's mother, shoos us out and takes over.

The pakoras come out plate after plate with a spicy mint sauce followed by laddu, golden balls of chickpea flour with coconut and cardamom and enough sugar to send you straight to the dialysis ward. Finally, we have one of the best masala chais ever, before the evening ends with a protracted examination of photos of a recent wedding, the pinnacle of Indian family life.

Next day we take the early morning train to Agra. First stop is Agra Fort, the massive sandstone citadel that was once the main residence of the Mughal emperors. High on its ramparts is the suite of rooms where Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son, captive in a gilded cage with a harem and only a tantalising view of the masterpiece where his beloved Mumtaz Mahal lay buried.

Then it's the inevitable Taj, parts of it now caked in a mud mask to cleanse years of pollution and restore the stonework to its bleached perfection.

Early the next morning, we revisit the Taj but instead of queuing at the front gate with the hordes, we head down the side wall to the river. It's a misty morning and three of us pile into a boat to be poled out into the river, the Taj in a soft-focus blur casting a mirror image across the waters of the lazy Yamuna. We're all alone.

Here too, Sana has a slightly different take from that of a male guide. At the Taj Mahal, among high-spirited crowds around the cafes, she warns the five women in our seven-strong group:  "There are cheeky boys here who will ask to take a selfie with you but don't let them. Because they get excited about looking at foreigners, and they want to show how cool they are. This happens all the time with the rickshaw drivers. They tell stories, you know, they say, 'Oh yes, she is my girlfriend, I went around with her you know I kissed her.' I can spot these cheeky boys but you might not. If they ask for a group photo then OK, but if they just want a selfie with you then bye-bye. The hardest thing about my job is dealing with the locals. Often we go to places where they haven't seen girls leading tours with foreigners and want to take advantage."

In India the gender boundaries are strong, and so are prejudices. Agra sits within Uttar Pradesh. Here, as in many other parts of the country, few women will get anything more than a basic education. Why bother? Their duty is to produce children – male preferably – cook, keep the house clean and obey their husbands. Why do you need an education for that?

What can happen to women in India when they assert their human rights and refuse to give in to men's demands is underlined vividly in Agra when we stop at Sheroes Hangout for lunch. It's an Indian menu with a few Western favourites. My lemon soda comes modishly in a jam jar with a metal lid in a gingham pattern.

There are no set prices at Sheroes Hangout. You pay what you think is fair, yet what really sets Sheroes apart is the staff who work there. This is one of several Sheroes restaurants set up for women who have suffered acid attacks.

Acid literally melts the face, blinds, causes terrible disfigurements, and the women at Sheroes have all suffered. Their stories are shocking. Ritu Sainu underwent 10 reconstructive surgeries after she was splashed with acid, and lost an eye, for refusing the romantic advances of her cousin. Laxmi Agarwal was attacked by a stalker when she was 16 after she dashed his hopes.

Acid attack is possibly the worst thing you can do to a woman. If they survive, these women would be hidden away, shamed outcasts, the pariah of the family. Sheroes is all about empowerment. It brings them out into full view, into a very public space. "We are not victims, we're survivors," they say.

Sheroes was established by Stop Acid Attacks, a non-profit organisation that has campaigned vigorously to halt the ready sale of powerful acid used as a cleaning agent, now removed from general sale. Yet acid attacks are on the rise in India. The official figure is more than 500 in 2015, yet activists believe the real number to be twice that.

For Sana, working for Intrepid has been a great career move, with some big obstacles to overcome. "Family issues is one of the major things," she says. "Initially, they were not happy because they didn't know why I wanted to do this job. And some of the elders don't understand what my job is, they say, 'Oh, she has become a VIP now because she goes and travels.' So that's a challenge to make my family understand what I do."

One of the highlights of her career was winning the Intrepid leader of the year award and travelling to Australia to receive it, the first member of her family to travel beyond the subcontinent. "That was the first time my mother told me how proud she was. She finally admitted that this was a real profession for a woman, and that I was good at it. We both had tears in our eyes when she said it."

Michael Gebicki travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

SANA JINAH'S FIVE FAVOURITE PLACES IN INDIA

UDAIPUR

Surrounded by the ridges of the Aravalli Hills, the former capital of the Mewar dynasty is one of the most romantic cities in India, lavishly endowed with royal palaces in white marble that cast shimmering reflections across the lakes at their feet.

KANHA TIGER RESERVE

In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, this vast expanse of grassland and forest is home to a significant population of Bengal tigers, along with sloth bears and Indian leopards.

HAMPI

In the midst of rock-strewn hills in the southern state of Karnataka, this temple complex dating from the 10th century AD is a fantasy world of giant chariots, ornate monumental towers covered with writhing figures, ornamental ponds and stepwells all cast in stone.

MUNNAR

High in the Western Ghats of Kerala, this cool and misty hill station is famous for its spice plantations and highland tea plantations that cornrow the hillsides.

KAAS PATHAR

Also known as the Plateau of Flowers, these meadows near Pune in Maharashtra State come brilliantly alive with a multicoloured carpet of wildflowers in the September-October post-monsoon season.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/india

Singapore Airlines has one-stop flights to New Delhi from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide with connections in Singapore. singaporeair.com

STAY

The Taj Palace Hotel is one of the finest of the city's five-star elite hotels. It's in the diplomatic enclave, and has Superior rooms starting from about $180 a night.

taj.tajhotels.com

At the other end of the price scale, rooms at the Grand Park Inn, about two kilometres from Connaught Place, start from about $40 a night.

The capital also offers homestay accommodation for those looking for a deeper immersion in Indian domestic life.

TOUR

Intrepid Travel's 22-day North India Revealed guided tour costs from $1245 a person, departing New Delhi. intrepidtravel.com/au/india/north-india-revealed-101380

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