Gatekeepers of the spectacular

Navina Jafa, who refers to herself as a ‘study leader’, is based in Delhi

Whenever I find myself in Delhi I head straight to Chandni Chowk. The great stew of business and religion bubbling within such Old Delhi streets feels so much more lively than the glossy sheen of emerging neighbourhoods inhabited by the city’s new rich. I used to always stay nearby, at the gloriously colonial Oberoi Maidens, visiting the Jama Masjid as the pigeons homed around devotees arriving at this mosque for evening prayer.

It became something of a habit – one finessed by years of different guides (some professional, others friends) who have taken me into the guts of the old capital. Karim’s – a sweating cauldron serving hundreds of meals a day, first introduced to me by the author and tour operator Jonny Bealby – always seemed to me worth the journey in itself.

But it wasn’t until meeting Delhi-based Navina Jafa that I saw the prophet’s hair. With a word to a caretaker, a marble shrine was quietly unlocked for my eyes only. In the man’s hands emerged a glass phial containing a two-inch, red-tinged strand. There it was: the hair that has filled my imagination ever since reading Salman Rushdie’s short story, “The Prophet’s Hair”. Yet for years I’d come and stood in the Jama Masjid’s courtyard and never known what was sequestered within the hidden vaults. Even had I garnered the information for myself, it is no ordinary contact that can win access to the sacred relic.

Such is the power of the “smart guide” – a phenomenon Jafa so accurately represents, even if the definition itself makes her recoil. “I am a specialised heritage presenter, much like a curator of an exhibit,” she says: “Please don’t call me a guide.” For a moment, I wonder if this is one of those annoying academic tics, like the use of an obscure acronym nobody else knows. But the truth is she belongs to a growing circle of subject specialists who have somehow slipped into tourism. A fellow of the Royal Society for Arts in India and a former Fulbright Scholar at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC, Jafa is also a trained classical dancer, an author and deft entertainer who can weave together the heavy and the light in what she calls “living exhibits”: “A static piece of heritage is not what human civilisation is about. There has to be that dynamism, movement. The livingness matters to what I do.”

In the two hours we have together she cuts straight to the core with the prophet’s hair. Yet this turns out to be just an impromptu flourish because we happen to pass by Old Delhi’s greatest mosque. It is when we weave our way through the narrow streets that I understand the explanatory edge she brings to Old Delhi’s familiar hustle.

Jafa’s reputation, I now understand, isn’t just about her client list (Henry Kissinger and the late Benazir Bhutto among them). “In order to gain a better understanding she asks for biographies of every client,” says Remote Lands co-founder and chief executive Catherine Heald, who first put me in touch with Jafa: “It’s the difference between a good experience and a spectacular one: insider access to places and people you would never otherwise get, with everything focused on what interests you because she’s taken the time to do the research from every angle. You saw the prophet’s hair? She has taken me to the Jama Masjid when it’s been closed to the public and I’ve been the only non-Muslim there.”

To define this level of service, the nomenclature is changing. I call them “smart guides”, Heald calls them “über guides”, while Jafa refers to herself as a “study leader”, among other terms. Context Travel, which bills itself as the scholarly tour company, refers to them as “docents” – a network of English-speaking scholars and professionals, including art historians, writers, architects and gastronomes, who provide “walking seminars” in 13 world cities.

It’s not only a question of access but the live interpretation of a culture that turns an off-the-shelf experience into something truly high end. Just as in Africa, where so-called super-guides are name-dropped like branded handbags – the Ralph Bousfields and Richard Knockers of this world – so, too, in other regions, as the bar for luxury travel focuses on even finer things. Without Cazenove and Loyd, for instance, I would never have come across Nguyen Huy Hoang in Hanoi – a highly educated food specialist who not only takes clients on gourmet tours of the Old Quarter’s food markets but opens up his home and his mother’s recipe books to help one understand the Vietnamese cuisine.

Nor would I have been taken into Rio’s great samba clubs, where I found myself jiving among the sweating crowd, if the same company hadn’t put me with Fabio Sombra, an artist and musician who still works with the company seven years on.

Without Abercrombie & Kent, I wouldn’t have met Burmese guide Kyaw Kyaw Zin, who makes sense of his country’s complex webs. A true intellectual and formidable linguist, he was one of few among his classmates not to leave Burma in the great brain drain that took place when the country first shut down to the outside world. I for one am grateful such people feel the obligation to share their culture with outsiders, and with the reverence their living heritage deserves.

Navina Jafa comes as part of Remote Lands’ comprehensive India services, with prices quoted on a case-by-case basis. The same is true of other guides mentioned in this article.

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