Arched pavilions. Latticed walls. 3,500 stone steps. And a plunging abyss. All overlayed with a hypnotising geometry.
I was looking at a photograph of the cavernous Chand Baori in Rajasthan, one of the deepest stepwells in the world. Once used as a water-harvesting tank for the Pratihara dynasty in the 9th century, it today stands as a relic of past glory.
As I scrolled through more stepwell photos, my mind wandered to the baoli in our very own Dwarka neighbourhood. An early 16th-century structure that the India National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) took under its wing in 2011, the baoli was discovered in a stretch of barren land between Gangotri Apartments and a school in Sector 12.
What appeared to locals as a nondescript pit for dumping garbage for years turned out to be a slice of rich Lodi history. As excavation began in 2011, its arches, patterns and steps became visible, laying open a new chapter in Dwarka’s architectural heritage. The baoli now stands three storeys high, with about 55 steps.
The Dwarka stepwell before revival
The stepwell after revival. It has started receiving visitors on weekends
Though stepwells, also known as baoris or baolis, were unique to western India, especially Rajasthan and Gujarat, a few can be seen scattered across Delhi. Such as Agrasen Ki Baoli near Connaught Place, Gandhak Ki Baoli and Rajon Ki Baoli in Mehrauli, the baolis of the Old Fort and the Red Fort, and the Firoz Shah Kotla Baoli, which, it is said, is still used to water the gardens within the complex.
The idea behind a stepwell is to dig into the earth and create a reservoir to collect rainwater in the torrential monsoon season. The many-level pavilions and chambers then give people access to the stored water in the coming months.
Ajay Kumar, project director of Intach’s Delhi chapter, said, “The whole of the baoli, which includes a well, is now visible. Though the well does not have any water yet, we are hoping we will be able to fill it next monsoon.”
Kumar added that the area around the baoli has been cleaned and there are plans to develop it as a historical spot. “The baoli has already started getting visitors on weekends,” he said.
The stepwell has been fenced in with walls and an iron grill. There’s also a tablet with information on the monument. According to Delhi’s department of archaeology, a walkway will be constructed to connect the baoli to the main road (Master Plan Road No 202). Officials also said they were in talks with the DDA to beautify the area surrounding the baoli to make the site a fitting tribute to the Lodi dynasty.
Dwarka’s RWAs, schools and other social organisations have welcomed this initiative of reviving a long-forgotten historical structure. The Gangotri Apartments RWA is also actively spreading word of the baoli. “We are proud to have such a regal slice of historical architecture right at our door,” said Umesh Kala, general secretary of the RWA. “It is our duty as residents to make people aware of the baoli — it’s the only such structure in Dwarka.”
SS Mann, vice-president of Sukh Dukh Ke Saathi, a social group, said, “It is a matter of pride and glory that we have a baoli in the sub-city. We have Intach and the department of archaeology to thank for its revival.”
DP Vajpeyee, president of Dwarka Lok Kalyan Manch, agreed. “It’s such a wonderful glimpse of medieval-era India,” he said. “Intach has done a great job of restoration, and we hope the DDA also pitches in to make the area a historical and cultural draw.”
Professor Dr Sunil Kumar of Delhi University said, “Baolis in Delhi and its surrounding areas came up in the medieval period. Delhi did not solely depend on the Yamuna alone for water, it had its own water-management system in the form of these stepwells. Though there is not much material on Delhi baolis, the book of Zafar Husain (1920) does make mention of these stepwells.”
“It seems that at the beginning of the 20th century, Delhi had a number of baolis, but these were filled in and relegated to a remote chapter in history due to growing urbanisation and lack of awareness. It’s amazing that we have discovered this Lodi-era baoli in Dwarka now — it couldn’t have come at a better time. In today’s fast-paced life, we need such reminders to reinforce the importance of heritage in our lives.”