A travel through Delhi would be incomplete without spending time admiring some of the Baolis that are located in the older parts of the city. For the uninitiated, Baolis are step-wells, where you have to walk down the steps to reach the water harvested at the base. Over a period of time, Baolis became elaborate, exquisitely decorated affairs – as much an architectural showpiece as a utility in a region which has traditionally struggled with its ground water. For those of you in love with Bollywood, you must be remembering the beautiful Chand Baoli in the village of Abhaneri, Rajasthan where the movie Paheli (starring SRK) was shot. Interestingly it is exactly that Baoli that triggered my love affair with Baolis across the country.
The first, and possibly the most easily accessible Baoli in Delhi is in the heart of the New City, at Connaught Place or CP as we lovingly call it. On the Hailey road right next to CP exists this amazing structure. If you live in Delhi, and happen to chance on it, you will wonder how something so wonderful and so attractive could be hidden so openly from the public eye. I believe that this is a must see amongst the Baolis of Delhi. Although no historical records exist on its origins, it is widely believed that Agrasen Ki Baoli was built by the legendary King Agrasen during the Mahabharata era and was rebuilt in the 14th century by the Agrawal community which traces its origin to Maharaja Agrasen.
The second in my list, is the redoubtable Rajon Ki Baoli in the Mehrauli Archaelogical Park, a few meters from the Jamali Kamali mosque. This structure was built supposedly by Daulat Khan during the reign of Sikander Lodhi in 1516. This Baoli was used mostly by masons in the area – hence the name. One of the unique things in this Step-Well of Delhi is that you can take the steps to the top of the step-well and peep into the deep well feeding water into the step well.
My third Baoli is the nearby Gandhak ki Baoli in the nearby Mehrauli Village. So named as it used to smell of sulphur (Gandhak), this Baoli was built during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish in the name of Khwaja Muhammad Qutb-Ud-Din Bakhtiar Kaki – a celebrated Sufi saint during that period who was responsible for spreading the order of ‘Chisti’ outside Delhi. A festival called ‘Phoolwalon Ki Sair’ or ‘Festival of the Flower sellers’ origninated in 1812 in which a bed of flowers is offered in the Dargah of the saint as well as the nearby Yogamaya temple to promote secularism and bridge the gap between the Hindu and Islam followers. The day I visited this Baoli, there was water in it and a few people were taking a bath in its waters – I was stunned – did not expect to see a 1000+ year Baoli still in use.
Another Baoli, that I like, which is unfortunately in a very bad state of repair is the one in the Hindu Rao hospital complex next to the Pir Ghaib. Though wide and grand in dimensions, the walls and steps of this Baoli are in very bad state though walking through it still evokes elements of its lost grandeur.This Baoli was built in the reign of Firuj Shah Tughlaq and the unique feature of this Baoli is a 200 meter long tunnel leading from its north end complete with ventilation shafts and doorways, though the exact purpose of this tunnel is not known.
The next 3 Baolis in my list are all inside fort complexes and were hence most probabaly built for use by the inhabitants of the fort, though the one inside Red Fort was built in the Lodhi period and predates the building of the fort itself which was built during Mughal times.
The first of these Baolis is the one in the Feroze Shah Kotla grounds – this Baoli unfortunately is in a bad state and is currently being renovated. The day I visited this Baoli, I spent some time watching the renovation and was not sure whether it was actually being renovated or destroyed… the skill and care of the people running the innovation work seemed questionable and the masons seemed to be attacking this structure with undue violence. Unlike the ones I mentioned before, this is a beautiful circular Baoli, and is supposed to have served the Royal family where they spent time cooling off and bathing during the summer season.
The Baoli in the Purana Qila (Old Fort) is a narrow step well; rather plain and unremarkable in appearance, neither ornamented, nor grand in structure – rather a simple functional structure probably serving to harvest rain water for the inhabitants in the fort.
In contrast, the ornate and rather grand Baoli in the Red Fort is around 200 years older than the Fort itself and dates back to pre-Mughal times, possibly around the Tughlaq era. The Baoli served as a prison for some time during the British period and was probably a part of the Afghan fort that pre-dated the Red fort.
There are numerous other step wells in Delhi, the estimated count goes to over 100 (with 30 major ones), including the 15 odd or so in Tughlaqabad, the Baolis in the Nizamuddin area, and the several Lodhi era structures which are sadly in a bad state of repair. They tell us countless tales from the past… the history of Delhi would be incomplete without these stories. Next time you set out to explore Delhi, plan some time and spend a few moments to admire these silent witnesses from the past.
All pictures except the last have been taken by the author