A few years ago, I happened to come across a baoli (stepwell) within the complex of Bada Hindu Rao hospital, in the Northern part of Delhi. While looking at the baoli, Bhram Rakshas, a poem in Hindi written by Muktibodh flashed through my mind.
शहर के उस ओर खंडहर की तरफ़
परित्यक्त सूनी बावड़ी
ठण्डे अंधेरे में
बसी गहराइयाँ जल की...
सीढ़ियाँ डूबी अनेकों
उस पुराने घिरे पानी में...
समझ में आ न सकता हो
कि जैसे बात का आधार
लेकिन बात गहरी हो।
In the poem, Muktibodh describes a baoli. The baoli in front of me at that moment felt a lot like the one described in Brahm Rakshas. It was deep, desolate, mysterious, crumbling and overgrown with vegetation. It had an ominous and forbidding feel to it. It felt as if baoli had possessed me and was now fuelling my imagination. It looked imminently possible that a mysterious figure like Brahmrakshas could be dwelling in there, somewhere, mumbling angry mysterious mantras. That was the start of my journey into rediscovering Delhi, the city of Baolis.
Delhi and its neighbourhood is strewn with monuments echoing our past. Some are crumbling and hemmed in by growing urban neighbourhood with hardly anyone noticing them. Some look impressive and draw an appreciating crowd. In the midst of all this, a particular type of vestige of that past era still lingers around, often out of sight and unnoticed. They are the baolis of Delhi.
Once upon a time, these Baolis held much more than water
Throughout the history, Delhi has witnessed several transitions of power and civilizations and the baolis across Delhi are consequential of that. Baolis are our traditional means of preserving rainwater and making groundwater available to the people. Wherever a settlement came up, a new city was founded or a fort built, baolis too were constructed. Interestingly, they come in various shapes and sizes, depending on their geographical location, depth of underground water table, and the basic purpose they served. These baolis are an architectural marvel and testament to the advanced building skills of the people of the past. They also mirror different architectural traditions and styles. The architectural form of a baoli mainly consists of three elements: the well in which the water is collected, the flight of steps to reach the groundwater through several storeys, and intermediate pavilions.
Most importantly, these baolis served a bigger purpose than just being a source of water. In older times, they were social meeting places too. They were often community places, where travellers stopped, rested and slept, residents spent their days during hot summer afternoons and kids frolicked in its water tanks. Over the years, many of these baolis were filled up and buried under new constructions and unplanned growth in the city. But still, some remain. With Delhi’s water table having receded into almost unreachable depths and the flow of surface run-off rainwater having stopped due to construction, these baolis have dried up.
Baolis you can visit
Gandhak ki Baoli and Rajon ki Baoli (both in Mehrauli), Agrasen ki Baoli (near KG Marg, Connaught Place), Hindurao hospital baoli, Firozshah Kotla baoli, and the baoli at Purana Qila are some of the well-known baolis in Delhi.
Then there are some little-known ones too, such as the recently discovered Baoli at Dwarka, baoli at sector 5 R.K Puram and the massive baoli at Tughlaqabad fort.
Baolis in Mehrauli
Mehrauli, which is the oldest continuing settlement in Delhi has two prominent Baolis, namely, Gandhak ki Baoli and Rajaon ki Baoli. Gandhak ki Baoli was built during the reign of Iltutmish in the 13 century to serve the much revered sufi saint of the Chisti order, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. It got its name from the fact that the water of the baoli smelt of sulphur. It is a rectangular baoli and comparatively small. It is in a poor state today and often strewn with garbage though it got some water after some desilting work was carried out by ASI in 2004. Not many people visit it nowadays, besides some local ruffians and children. A couple of 100 m away from this baoli is the impressive-looking Rajaon ki Baoli. This baoli was constructed later (1506 CE, Lodhi Dynasty), and is in a much better state. This rectangular baoli is an impressive five-storied structure.
The Baoli of Nizamuddin Dargah is one of the most famous baolis of Delhi, though not because of its architectural quality. It is a simple rectangular structure, which still has some water. What makes this 800-year-old baoli famous is the legend associated with it. It is fed by an active underground spring. As the story goes, the reigning sultan of Delhi Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq did not want the baoli to be built as he was not happy with the fact that Nizamuddin Auliya had refused to visit his court or show his allegiance towards him. Also, he had employed all the construction workers at Tughlaqabad fort during the daytime, leaving none for the construction of baoli. So, the Auliya decided to keep the construction of baoli on during the nighttime. Hearing this, the emperor also banned the sale of oil needed to light lamps. It was then Nizamuddin Auliya instructed his disciple to light lamps using water. The disciple who did it later become the famous Chisti saint Chirag Dehlvi.
Today, the Nizamuddin Baoli remains heavily encroached by private construction so much so that most visitors to the Dargah complex fail to notice it as it is surrounded by construction from all sides. It still has some water which increases during monsoon. Local kids can be seen swimming, diving, and frolicking in its water during the daytime.
Feroz Shah Kotla Baoli
Located in the middle of Ferozshah Kotla, is another impressive piece of architecture. It is a circular (something of a rarity in Delhi) three-storey deep baoli with impressive arches. It remains under lock currently following an incident where someone had committed suicide by jumping into it.
Hindu Rao ki Baoli
The baoli has a most enigmatic presence. Overgrown with vegetation, with dark interiors, the baoli carries an unmistakable forbidding and mysterious quality. It is a deep pit with walls made of rubble masonry which are crumbling all around. This is the baoli that most reminded me of the famous Hindi poem by Muktibodh called Brahm Rakshas. It has been locked out but still one can take a peek into it from the boundary wall.
Historically speaking the baoli is considered to be part of the Delhi sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s hunting lodge. It is not completely dry and has some greenish water at the bottom. Above this level, there is evidence of a tunnel, approximately 193m long that leads from the north end. The purpose for which this tunnel was made is unknown and left to speculation. The baoli tends to fill up during the monsoon.
Agrasen ki baoli
This is one of the most popular and biggest baolis of Delhi. It has also gone through a lot of restoration through the centuries and is reasonably well preserved. Another reason for its popularity is its central location between the highrise buildings of Delhi’s commercial centre, Connaught Place. Famous photographer Raghu Rai took an iconic picture in black and white of the baoli in 1971 where it is almost brimming with water. The picture was taken as a local boy is on the verge of taking a pungle into its water from the edge of the baoli.
Recently, a 16th-century Lodi era Baoli was discovered in Sector 12, Dwarka. The baoli was lying buried under rubble and engulfed by wild vegetation and trees. It came up while some digging work was being carried out near a DDA residential pocket. The discovery led to a lot of excitement among the heritage lovers. It is a typical Lodi architecture where rubble masonry has been used. As of now, two levels of arches are clearly visible along with steps leading to the now dry heart of the baoli.