After a game of cards under the warm sun in front of the tehsil in Bawana village, Baljeeet Singh (76) a retired municipal school inspector prepares to leave.
As he limps back to his house in a nearby lane, he stops at the arched entrance of the tehsil, a British-era structure that is being restored by the State Archeology Department in collaboration with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.
“Ye theek kar rahe hain, pichhli baar cement bhar diya tha (They are renovating it using the technology. Earlier, they just filled cement),” he says.
“This used to be my school. I have studied here up to Class 6. Like several others in the village, my life has revolved around this place. I spent most of my childhood here studying under the tree or playing in the dry well,” he adds.
The single-storey structure, made of lakhori bricks, is being renovated under the state archaeology department’s plan to conserve 19 monuments in Delhi, including Talkatora Garden embankment, tombs in Mehrauli Archeological Park, gateways of Chirag Dilli, and structures in Mehram Nagar.
The area covers on 200 square yard complex.
“We are using materials which were used in that era for restoration. The mixture is a preparation of lime, surkhi (trass), jaggery, and bael fruit (wood apple) pulp. In that period, around 23 ingredients were used in construction including urad ki daal (pulse),” said a conservator.
The structure looks like a fortress from outside, and has one arched gateway. The doorway opens into a courtyard surrounded by corridors and has two rooms in the extreme corner on the left. Villagers were confined in these two rooms if they were not able to pay up zaildari tax. The compound, flanked by modern-day houses still has old peepal, banyan, and neem trees.
The complex housed one of the four zails (administrative units tasked with revenue collection) in Delhi. Revenue defaulters were also imprisoned here and so it came to be known as Bawana Jail.
It was constructed in the 1860s when the zaildari system (revenue collection plan) was introduced. The in-charge of the jail was called zaildar or numberdar. Three villages — Bawana, Alipur, and Kanjhawala were under its jurisdiction. Bawana tehsil was among the four administrative divisions with Mehrauli, Dilli, and Najafgarh.
Next to the rooms is a small staircase, which leads to the terrace. There are bastions on all four corners on the terrace, which were used as guard posts too.
“There used to be a small well inside the complex but it was filled long back. Later on, the water turned salty hence was not being used for drinking. I remember, children stumbled upon old coins when they would play on the premises,” says Master Dhani Ram (85), a retired headmaster, who studied at the school from 1942 to 1947.
Over the years
Around the 1930-40s, the building was converted into a school, which continued after the Partition. For a brief period, it served as a veterinary hospital. Later, it was converted into an orphanage, which was closed in 1981. When Sahib Singh Verma became the chief minister of Delhi, it served as patwari office (official who maintains land records) for some time.
Since then the structure was abandoned and dilapidating. A major portion of walls was missing from the outer and inner face. The parapet also collapsed.
In 2004, the Delhi government’s archaeology department carried out restoration of the historical site along with two dozen other monument across the city. The government also planned to convert it into a freedom fighter’s museum then. The proposal never materialised. Another failed attempt to conserve it was made in 2010 as it was to be showcased during the Commonwealth Games.
“After its renovation, the government should maintain it. This will help glorify the contribution of Bawana in the making of Delhi,” Ram says.
A senior official of the archaeology department, however, said the priority is to preserve the heritage.
A glimpse into the history
- Bawana was established in 1168. It is believed that Jats came to settle here from Taoru, now in Haryana. Before making Bawana their final abode, they spent considerable time at Mehrauli too.
- Bawana was a cluster of 52 villages (Narela-17, Karala -17, Palam-6, and Bawana-12) with vast agricultural lands sprawled in about 52,000 acres. The village derived its name from the word ‘Bawan’, which means 52 in Hindi.
- A plaque installed above the entrance of the tehsil reads: “From the zails of Bawana, Kanjhaola, and Alipur, 1,231 men went to the great war (first World War, 1914-1919). Of these, 81 gave up their lives.”