Delhi's step-wells - stepping back in time

By Nipesh Narayanan

My exploration of baolis (stepwells) started when I visited the art installation by Asim Waqif at Agrasen ki Baoli. The installation was enticing with its message to conserve water and the joy of water that it projected, but more exciting was the fact that there was a baoli right at the heart of the city, just walking distance from CP, and I never knew about it even after exploring the city for two-odd years!

Further visits reasserted that there are very few who know about it. Almost always, I was the only one there, sitting alone in the sun reading a book. I started to consider it my own personal time-travel machine. Time travel it was indeed, till one afternoon memories of Asim's installation flashed back at me — the reflections of water that he created, the sounds of joy that he captured… And I started wondering why there was no water in it. Or, are there other baolis in the city that hold water? Restricted developmental thinking, for which I was trained as an urban designer, got me to the obvious conclusion that there should be at least one in all the walled cities of Delhi.
I was right.

A baoli at the Hindu Rao Hospital in Delhi
The ruin city of Tughlaqabad was next, just to realize that the baoli there is an uninteresting square-shaped well. This feeling came on because I had started seeing the baoli as a getaway zone from the chaos of the city, and one right inside the city. Given that Tughlaqabad Fort is itself a labyrinth of empty, deserted, uninhabited space, the charm of a getaway baoli was absent. I had not explored this part of the city much, so I got myself a book on Tughlaqabad.

A three-storeyed stepwell in Mehrauli, Rajon ki Baoli is believed to have been built by Daulat Khan during the …
As I started to imagine the city's glorious past, with a king and elephants, the chapter on Nizamuddin's curse popped up. When Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlaq ordered all the masons in Delhi to work on his fort, every other construction in the area was stopped. At that time Hazrat Nizamuddin was building his baoli and he cursed the fort city to be doomed. The curse of Nizamuddin felt like a heavenly plot to me, since I was in search of baolis and there I was sitting in one and reading about the cause for its ruin. Which, ironically, was the construction of another baoli. It felt like one of those cliché bollywood dialogues - 'when one aspires the whole universe conspires'.

A baoli or stepwell at Nizamuddin in Delhi
Nizamuddin ki Baoli, too, is no getaway baoli, but it has water from natural springs. It was magical to sit on its steps and watch people pass through the jails of the dargah around it till evening. And then to attend the qawwali at the dargah. Suddenly, the Sufi mysticism that was overwhelmingly popular in Delhi plays with one's mind. It's intoxicating, but the bubble bursts as soon as one emerges from the dargah into the dirty truths of the city and the drug dealings right outside its precincts.

I tried to regain the feeling by going back home and repeatedly playing Sufi music, which didn't work. So I moved to the Old Fort, believed to where the Pandavas of the Mahabharata established Indraprastha. Sadly, despite this mystical origin-story, the baoli there was locked in a typical ASI-type iron grille. I sat outside and cribbed about the officials who must think that heritage is just a visual item in a showcase. Furiously, I stomped away to Red Fort.

The baoli at Red Fort, Old Delhi is older than the fort and is usually kept locked by officials for fear that people …
The baoli at the Red Fort was also locked but with a bigger boundary, so I could hardly see the baoli itself. I thought of fighting with the gate-keeper. As I approached he gave me the most peaceful smile. As with most of his counterparts, he wanted someone to talk to so I asked him to let me in and he replied that the officials feared that someone might fall and drown in its deep waters. Not intending to give up, I protested was quieted as he started to talk about the army that was stationed here, the drunken sipahis who can still be heard bickering at night, and his conversation got interesting.

"Did you know this baoli was built before the Red Fort?" he asked. I didn't agree but had no proof to argue with him. He went on to glorify the pre-Mughal kings and how great India was, and soon he revealed his weak point. I got him to talk more and soon he opened the gate and we entered the baoli.

A baoli or stepwell in Tughlaqabad, Delhi. Historians believe that there may be as many as five stepwells here …
Red Fort has one of the most beautiful baolis I have ever seen. The water was fresh and clean and there were fish inside it. I wanted to sit there for some time so I assured the gatekeeper that I wouldn't get into the water and that I wanted to spend a few minutes alone here. He agreed reluctantly and there I was at the magnificent Red Fort baoli, a lone witness to the countless events in history that it had witnessed. British rulers used it as a prison, but how I would have loved to be in such a jail.

Months later I realized that the old gatekeeper was right when he said that the baoli is older than the fort — the 14th century baoli resides inside a 17th century fort. While the baoli in Red Fort was used as a jail, the one in Feroz Shah Kotla was used by noblemen as a summer resting place, like the Rajaon ki Baoli at Mehrauli.

Of all the baolis I visited in Delhi — from the magnificent Red Fort Baoli to Qutab Sahib ki Baoli, or the baoli at Hindu Rao Hospital, or the one in R K Puram, Gandhak ki Baoli at Mehrauli is the only one that is still in use by nearby residents.

Still in use by residents of nearby areas, Gandhak ki Baoli in Delhi's Mehrauli precinct echoes with the laughter …
Kids play in it, and the baoli resounds with their shouting. Water splashes on your feet when a child dives in. You can sit there for hours without realizing the flight of time, just listening to the sounds of water and happiness.

Historians believe that there are more than five baolis in Tughlaqabad and there is one that has recently been discovered in Dwaraka subcity. My quest for these time machines continues.

Nipesh Narayanan is an urban designer by profession, and a wanderer and wannabe sailor by passion. For him, travel is an essential need of life.

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