Dive into history with Delhi’s baolis

Published on Jul 16, 2022 11:03 AM IST

Monsoon is crucial to parched baolis, for they wait to resurrect themselves with rainwater; though not in all its glory

In early 1900s, the British documented over 30 stepwells in Delhi. Many of these still exist, some are even functional. It is said that at the Baoli of Feroz Shah Kotla, every Thursday, scores of devotees would throng the baoli and pray to the djinns. (Photo: Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)
In early 1900s, the British documented over 30 stepwells in Delhi. Many of these still exist, some are even functional. It is said that at the Baoli of Feroz Shah Kotla, every Thursday, scores of devotees would throng the baoli and pray to the djinns. (Photo: Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)
By, New Delhi

Monsoon is crucial to parched baolis, for they wait to resurrect themselves with rainwater; though not in all its glory. Yet, these stepwells continue to remain vital, be it to harvest rainwater, for congregations or selfies with friends. Here’s a glimpse of a few of the baolis across the Capital, and their rich history.

Old Fort baoli is one of the three in Delhi that are aligned with falling sunrays. (Photo: Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)
Old Fort baoli is one of the three in Delhi that are aligned with falling sunrays. (Photo: Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)

Purana Qila Baoli, Mathura Road

Historian Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, who’s written a book on baolis, says: “When the British decided to clear settlements around the Qila, they called in a team to clear the garbage dump. The garbage collectors kept clearing the garbage, but the dump seemed endless. Soon, they realised they are digging into the deep stepwells of the Old Fort. It was then revived and put to reuse. Also, Old Fort baoli is one of the three in Delhi that are aligned with falling sunrays! Due to this, they had to build a roof over the tank to protect water from evaporating.

Adding his views about the relevance of these water reservoirs, Rooprai says, ”The British have mentioned stepwells as unhygienic. They found people bathing and washing in the same water that they drink. What they failed to notice was that there is a deeper physics involved, in which the drinking water of well never mixes with the tank water where washing or bathing happens. In early 1900s, they documented over 30 stepwells in Delhi. Many of these still exist, some are even functional. The British gave them a nickname of ‘Diving Wells’, as they would amuse themselves with watching people dive into the water from a high point. In many cases, they would pay local boys to go on some nearby high rise building and jump into the water. In the archival records, we have several pictures where British visitors pose with these boys, before they take a dive.”

Jagdish Parat, a college student who is interning with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), says: “I’m working to see kya changes kar sakte hain to make this baoli more tourist friendly. Also, underground source se jo paani aata tha, woh band ho chuka hai. Usko bhi saaf karwana hai.”

Baoli of Feroz Shah Kotla, Vikram Nagar

Sujata Soni Bali, a cultural enthusiast, says, “In most baolis, the well and harvest area are separate. This baoli is a combination of both... It is said that every Thursday, scores of devotees would throng the baoli and pray to the djinns.” Writer and historian Rana Safvi informs, “Unlike other baolis, this one is circular. It has rooms on the two tiers around the main well that has now been enclosed in a steel grill. This place became famous as the pariyon ka kuan (well of fairies). In the pre-Covid times, I’ve seen many women come here to light diyas and incense sticks, offer flowers and sweets to the fairies.”

Ghost tours are popular specially at Agrasen ki Baoli which has blackened water (Photo: Manish Rajput/HT)
Ghost tours are popular specially at Agrasen ki Baoli which has blackened water (Photo: Manish Rajput/HT)

Agrasen Ki Baoli, Hailey Road

“People come here for a moment of peace,” says Abu Sufiyan, cultural revivalist and founder, Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein, adding, “Kuch log wahan baith ke gaane gaate hain. Pani ki vibes itni positive hoti hain ki aksar log apne aap ko explore karne yahan aate hai. Unfortunately, not all baolis in the city are open right now, so mujhe jab bhi peace chahiye hota hai, main Agrasen Ki Baoli jaake baith jata hoon.”

Aman Sadh, who conducts tours at Agrasen ki Baoli, says: “This is the oldest stepwell, built in 14th century. Inside Agrasen Ki Baoli, they have a 60m long stepwell from where people used to get water. Now, it’s just rainwater [that collects here]. There are 108 steps here. It was also called one of the most haunted places in Delhi, because the water at that time was black, which used to attract people and many died there. Today, one can only spot bats!”

“The chambers and passageways kept cool from water and mainly people gathered to socially network. Ghost tours are popular specially at Agrasen ki Baoli which has blackened water. And other baolis are sulphur rich, and some have healing properties,” says Sachin Bansal, from India City Walks.

History buffs share that workers worked all day on the fort and at night, on the Nizamuddin baoli. (Photo:Manish Rajput/HT)
History buffs share that workers worked all day on the fort and at night, on the Nizamuddin baoli. (Photo:Manish Rajput/HT)

Nizamuddin Baoli

“Nizamuddin Dargah was built at the same time when Sultan Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq was constructing the massive fort of Tughlaqabad. Workers worked all day on the fort and at night, on the baoli,” informs Shah Umair, a heritage buff, talking about the baoli situated inside the dargah. He adds, “Tughlaq banned the supply of oil to Nizamuddin so that lamps couldn’t be lit at the construction site of the baoli. This infuriated Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and he used his mystical powers to turn the water of the well into oil! He also cursed Tughlaqabad, saying, ‘Ya rahe ujjar ya base gujjar’. History has it that the sultan could never return to Delhi and he died on the way.”

Rajon ki Baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park has been shut since the lockdown. (Photo: Manish Rajput/HT)
Rajon ki Baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park has been shut since the lockdown. (Photo: Manish Rajput/HT)

Rajon ki Baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Did you know that Rajon ki Baoli was commissioned by Daulat Khan Lodhi, who was the then governor of Lahore? This was during the reign of Ibrahim Lodhi. Due to disaffection with Ibrahim, Daulat invited Babur to invade the Lodhi Empire. It’s mentioned in history that this baoli was commissioned in 1506 by Daulat, who 17 years later, invited Babur to invade India!

An interesting fact about Red Fort Baoli, is that there are stairs on either side to go down. (Photo: Shantani Bhattacharya/HT)
An interesting fact about Red Fort Baoli, is that there are stairs on either side to go down. (Photo: Shantani Bhattacharya/HT)

Red Fort Baoli, Chandni Chowk

“Lal Qila baoli sabse anoothi hai,” gushes Asif Khan Dehlvi from Delhi Karavan, sharing, “There was a time when quite a few snakes could be spotted here. An interesting fact is that there are stairs on either side to go down. Historians are divided on the time period when it was constructed. Par yeh us waqt maujood thi jab Lal Qila maujood nahin tha... This baoli has also been used as a prison. Jab Hindustan mein angrezon ka daur tha, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose ke saathiyon mein se Gurbaksh Singh, Shah Nawaz Khan aur Prem Kumar Sehgal ko iss baoli mein qaid karke rakha gaya tha. Unhone (Britishers) kuch changes kiye, jaise kayi chhoti arches ko eenton se bhar diya, salakhen wagerah lagwa di, aur toilet lagwaya.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Naina Arora writes on City, Art and Culture of Gurugram, for the daily Entertainment & Lifestyle supplement, HT City

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