Very soon, there will be one more attraction in the historic Nizamuddin Basti, apart from its dargah and the famed Thursday qawwali sessions. The ancient baoli, or step-well, built by sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin more than 700 years ago, has finally been spruced up after what seems a lifetime of its treatment both as a sacred place and as a dumping yard. “At 4 pm on March 15, Sunday, we removed the last of the malwa and reached the well’s wooden floor,” says Ratish Nanda, the project director of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an international philanthropic organisation that has fixed up heritage places as diverse as Delhi’s Humayun's Tomb and Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park.
While Delhi has such baolis scattered in neighbourhoods as far apart as KG Marg and Mehrauli, the one in Nizamuddin Basti is the only one to still have an active underground spring. Thanks to the sufi connection, its water is considered blessed. Even though some of the beggars living around the dargah dropped their excreta-filled polybags into its water, pilgrims still flocked for a sip. Now after seven months of hard work in which tons of stone debris, decomposed filth, plastic and toxic water was removed manually by 70 labourers, besides relaying the sewer lines, the baoli’s sacred water has become safe, too.
“It’s the first time in 700 years that the kuan has been cleaned,” says Farid Ahmad Nizami, a peerzada in the dargah. Attempts had earlier been made to restore the baoli, but no one could reach to the foundation. Most would stop where the stairs end and the well starts.
Nanda, who earlier restored Mughal emperor Babur’s tomb in Kabul, had his team take over the baoli in partnership with ASI in August last year, after the eastern part of the stone wall collapsed due to a leaking toilet in the adjoining house. Things then looked so dismal that a visiting structural engineer from UK said, “Too risky, close the baoli.” But the step-well is dear to millions of Nizamuddin’s followers and holds a special place in Delhi’s architectural landscape, too. Its walls are made of huge blocks of Delhi quartzite, the city’s only local stone, which is also seen in the Tughlaqabad fort. In fact, during the restoration, each of the 550 stones was X-rayed from five points to spot any voids behind the wall, all for structural stability’s sake.
“Now I can have my share of the blessed water,” says Sadia Dehlvi, author of a new book on sufism. Indeed, once the work is finished, the baoli may again become what it was intended for: a meeting point for Hazrat Nizamuddin’s followers, a sort of Banaras ka ganga ghat — sufi style!