Heritage Hustlers

The life of child tour-guides in Fatehpur Sikri

31 May, 2024

Eleven-year-old Adnan’s day starts with looking for tourists whom he can persuade to hire him as a tour guide at the historic Fatehpur Sikri—also known as the city of victory—in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. “Sometimes it gets difficult; tourists generally shoo us away thinking that we are frauds and we know nothing,” Adnan told me. Children like Adnan, from as young as five to their teens, swarm around tourists as they enter the fortified red sandstone complex of monuments, all competing to earn a living.

Adnan turned out to be an engaging storyteller. When I met him at the entrance of Fatehpur Sikri, he offered his guiding services for 50 rupees. Intrigued by the tiny tour guide, I agreed. He narrated the history of the site through stories while allowing me to appreciate the architecture. His tales were, to my surprise, accurate, a result of shadowing other guides and practising in front of friends.

Fatehpur Sikri, built in the late sixteenth century by the Mughal emperor Akbar, was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Despite this, the area remains impoverished, with locals relying on small tourism-related businesses. “Fatehpur Sikri is very poor, with limited work options,” Mohammad Qasim, a vendor inside the complex, told me. People either become tour guides or work in the carpet industry, which requires skills children do not possess. Consequently, parents who earn barely three to four hundred rupees a day encourage their children to become storytellers to supplement their family income. “Children from almost every family in the basti behind Fatehpur Sikri are involved in this work,” Qasim said.

“You’ll find around forty-five to fifty children working as tour guides every day,” Sahil Mohammad, a 19-year-old tour guide, who has been in the business for the last eight years, told me. “There isn’t a particular learning process; children mostly tag along with the experienced guides and learn everything that the elder guides speak. Sometimes, their parents make them learn history.”