Hidden in plain sight, Mehrauli baoli beneath dargah in disrepair
Hidden from the sight of daily visitors and devotees that throng the dargah of sufi saint Qutubuddin Bakhtayar Kaki in Mehrauli village is a baoli whose doors have remained shut to the public for the past 12 years. Lesser known than its counterparts in the Mehrauli area such as Gandhak ki baoli, Qutub Sahib Ki Baoli is rapidly running to ruin. The baoli was made by Iltutmish—the successor of Qutubuddin Aibak who founded the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century— for the saint and has been named after him.
Serpentine streets that lead to the dargah offer a view of the baoli, albeit partially. Concealed by newer construction, one has to stand on a raised platform or crane the neck over high boundary walls to catch a glimpse of the plastic-infested baoli. For most outsiders, the baoli ends there. Its entrance, however, lies through the dargah. Tucked in a corner of the dargah, it is nearly impossible to spot the entrance to the baoli that can only be accessed through a stairway that connects to the ‘wuzu khana’ (ablution area) of a mosque in the same premises.
Entry of visitors to the baoli was earlier restricted by the custodians of the dargah. Later, very few people used to go there, since the entry is concealed from the public view. The baoli’s inner chamber is in desperate need of repairs. While the older portion of the baoli dates back to the 12th century and is made of quartzite stones with lime mortar, the adjoining complex was made in 1846- 1900 by Hafiz Dawood, a prominent citizen who lived during the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar, according to dargah officials.
At certain places, the baoli demonstrates the continuity of architecture suggesting that it might have been repaired over the years since it was first constructed. While some arches demonstrate the original architecture, some of the arcs show use of a different kind of brick structure. The same can be witnessed in the alcoves, where some are open while the others are closed.
The beam of the baoli is engraved with the name of its maker and the year. “Since the year mentioned on the beam is 1898, we assume that the baoli’s complex must have been built in the 1890s. Since it might have taken a few years for the material to be prepared, and later the construction of the baoli complex to be completed,” said Fauzan Ahmad Siddiqui, manager at the dargah.
Spread over three floors, two of which are submerged under water, the baoli’s inner complex is a picture in grandeur despite the misfortune that has fallen over it. As one enters the baoli’s chamber, a set of stairs go down to another floor while a narrow pathway along the corner goes to the mezzanine floor where alcoves adorn the perimeter of the baoli structure. Broken ceilings and floor, and weakened pillars are just some of the structural issues.
Siddiqui said the baoli is in a “critical condition”.
“The complex adjoining the baoli is in a bad shape. For the past 3-4 years, the ceiling of the complex was getting chipped in bits and pieces but last year, a sizable portion caved in,” said Siddiqui, who has been managing the dargah’s affairs since 2008.
The vulnerability of the baoli complex also poses a threat to a section of the dargah, and its minaret, whose base rests on the floor of the baoli complex. “The foundation of the minaret is not strong. The minaret is huge but it is only supported by two pillars that rest on floor of baoli’s complex. Due to the minaret, the baoli’s terrace will always be vulnerable,” said Ahmed.
Ameenuddin Chisti, a Mehrauli resident, said the baoli was cleaned nearly eight years ago. Since then, no other intervention had taken place. He said that due to the precarious condition of the baoli’s ceiling, a section of the dargah that was used for offering namaz had been cordoned off. “The baoli’s ceiling that forms the terrace of the dargah needs to be repaired. A new terrace is needed. In the absence of any intervention, we have barred the entry of visitors into the area. Till some time ago, prayers used to be offered here. It is no longer safe unless repairs are undertaken,” said Chisti.
Ghulam Rasool, a 79-year-old resident, said the neighbourhood could benefit if the baoli was spruced up. He said that the baoli had suffered due to the indifference of authorities and locals alike. “Some houses adjoining the dargah dump trash here. Even outsiders dump their waste in the baoli. We have not been able to stop them. We will be happy if the baoli is cleaned and revived,” said Rasool.
Over the years, attempts have been made to give a fresh lease of life to the baoli. However, the efforts never came to a conclusion. In 2017, the Delhi Jal Board collected water samples from multiple places in Mehrauli. Initial findings of a Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) technical report indicated that the water sample drawn in all likelihood matched with DJB’s water supply. The report concluded that since there was no space for a boring network of tube well in the area, water could be drawn from the existing baoli’s in the area including Qutub ki Baoli.
The report, Siddiqui said, demonstrated that there was a good possibility of the baoli’s revival. “The report clearly says that if treated, the water here can be utilized for the area. If the baoli is restored, it will help everyone in the neighbourhood,” he said.
The revival of Qutub Ki Baoli is also listed among the ongoing projects of the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation, as per information available on the Delhi government website that was last updated in 2014. Current officer bearers at SRDC said that they had no idea about such plans. “Since 2018, we have only been working in Chandni Chowk,” said the senior official.
“During the first phase of the project, SRDC cleaned the baoli. Back then, there wasn’t so much water either. During the second phase, the baoli was to be conserved and the water revitalized but everything came to a halt with the change in government. The project was abandoned as the new state government was sworn in,” said Siddiqui.
He said while many promised to help in the revival of Mehrauli’s baolis, most promises fell apart. “Many student groups and visitors who used to come here promised that they would return and help in the maintenance and cleaning of the baoli but most of these efforts never materialised,” said Siddiqui.
Mehfooz Mohammad, section officer, Delhi Waqf Board, said a new dargah committee was recently formed in June this year and efforts for conservation of the baoli were on the anvil. He said the board was getting the baoli surveyed and will take necessary steps for its conservation “Since the formation of the new committee, we have started taking up matters related to the dargah. The conservation and revival of the baoli is also something that we have set our eyes on. We have reached out to heritage experts who recently surveyed the premises. They will be giving us an estimate about the efforts that need to be undertaken for the revival and conservation of the baoli,” said Mohammad.
Officials at Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) confirmed that the agency had been approached by the Waqf Board for conducting survey of the baoli premises with the goal of saving it and revitalizing it. “INTACH has been approached for carrying a survey with the aim of suggesting the future course of actions required for saving the structure of the baoli,” said Ajay Kumar, project director of the Delhi chapter of INTACH.
While there are a number of baolis in Delhi, only around a dozen or currently survive. Most of them continue to be non-functional and are either filled up to the brim or in a bad shape. While some baolis such as the Agrasen ki baoli or Rajon ki baoli are popular, there are many other baolis from different eras peppered across the city. Some of the other baolis located across the city are Gandhak Ki Baoli in Mehrauli Archeological Park, Firoz Shah Kotla Baoli, Baoli at Purana Qila, and Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli among others.
KT Ravindran, convener INTACH Delhi, said the revival of baolis requires a concerted effort in conservation. He said that it was important to look at both the baoli’s structure as well as the overall water quality as part of a comprehensive effort towards the improvement of Baktiyar Kaki’s monument precinct.
“The Baktiyar Kaki tomb should be conserved in an integrated manner and the baoli could be the first sight of action. Baktiyar Kaki was a very important saint, poet, and is crucial to the cultural landscape of Delhi. Baolis associated with such saints are highly-regarded by people and it’s important to ensure that the baoli is restored,” said Ravindran. Kaki was the disciple and spiritual successor of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer.