Delhi’s step-wells – stepping back in time

As published on Yahoo India (


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My explorations for baolis (step wells) started when I visited the art installation by Asim Waqif at Agrasen ki baoli. The installation was enticing with its message to conserve water and the joy of water that it projected, but what was more exciting was the fact that there is a baoli right at the heart of the city, just walking distance from CP and I never knew about it, even after exploring the city for two odd years! Further visits reasserted that there are very few who know about it, as almost always I was the only one there, sitting alone in the sun reading a book; I started to consider it my own personal time travel machine. Time travel it was indeed till one afternoon memories of Asim’s installation flashed back at me, the reflections of water that he created, the sounds of joy that he captured and I started thinking on why there is no water in it, or are there other baolis in the city with water? Restricted developmental thinking for which I was trained to as an urban designer got me to the obvious conclusion that there should be at least one in all the walled cities of Delhi, and I was right.

The ruin city of Tughlaqabad was the next spot, just to realize that the baoli there is a highly uninteresting square shaped well. This feeling came on me due to the fact that I had started seeing baoli as a getaway zone from the chaos of the city, that too right inside the city; and the fact that Tughlaqabad fort in itself is a labyrinth of empty deserted pool of un-inhabitated space, so the charm of a getaway baoli was absent. This part of the city was pretty unexplored by me so I got a book on Tughlaqabad. As I started to imagine the city at its glorious days with a king and his elephants, the chapter on Nizamuddin’s curse popped up. Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq ordered all the masons in Delhi to work for his fort, and every other construction in the area was stopped; at that time Hazrat Nizamuddin was building his Baoli and he cursed the fort city to be doomed. The curse of Nizamuddin felt like a heavenly plot to me, since I was in search of baolis and there I was sitting in a baoli and reading that the cause for its ruin was the construction of another baoli. It felt like one of those cliché bollywood dialogues – ‘when one aspires the whole universe conspires’.

Nizamuddin ki baoli too is not like a getaway baoli, but it still has water, from the natural springs. Sitting at the baoli steps and watching people pass through the jails of the dargah around it, till evening and then attending the kawali session at the dargah was magical, suddenly the Sufi mysticism that was overwhelmingly popular in Delhi comes to play with your mind and it’s intoxicating; though the intoxication of Sufi bubble bursts as soon as one comes out of the dargah and realizes the dirty truths of the city and the drug dealings right outside the precinct. I tried to regain the feeling by going back home and repeatedly playing Sufi music, which didn’t work; so I decided to move on to the Old Fort. The Old fort is believed to be the place where the pandavas established Inderprastha, but sadly, despite this mystical origin-story, the baoli there was locked in a typical ASI type iron grill. I sat outside the baoli and cribbed about the rudimentary ASI officials who think that heritage is just a visual item in a showcase, and furiously went to Red Fort.

Red Fort baoli was also locked, but this time with a bigger boundary, so I could hardly even see the baoli itself. I lost my mind and thought of fighting with the gate keeper, as I approached him he gave me the most peaceful smile I have seen for a long time. The gate keeper, as most of his counterparts, wanted someone to talk to so I asked him to let me in and he replied that the officials fear that someone may fall inside the deep waters, so he has orders to keep it closed. I was not intending to give up, but before I could protest he started talking, about the army that was there, about the drunken sipahis at night who are still there and slowly his conversation got interesting. He said “did you know that this baoli was built before the Red Fort?” I didn’t agree but had no proof to argue either. So he went on to glorify the pre Mughal kings and how great India was and soon he revealed his weak point. Got him to talking more and as it flowed he opened the gate and we entered the baoli. The Baoli at Red Fort was one of the most beautiful baolis I have ever been to, even till today. The water was fresh and clean and there were fish inside it. I wanted to sit there for some time so I told the gate keeper ‘baba main paani me nahi jaunga, pur kuch der akele bethna chahta hoon yah pe’…’par beta meri naukiri khatre me pad jayegi’….’koi nahi aap bahar se band kar lo’…and there I was at the magnificent baoli of Red Fort all alone and enjoying the countless events in history that this baoli witnessed. It was used as a jail during British rule, but I would love such a jail. Months later I realized that the old gatekeeper was right when he said that the baoli is older than the fort, it’s a 14th century baoli inside a 17th century fort. Baoli in Red Fort was used as a jail, but the baoli in Feroz Shah Kotla was used by the noble men as a summer resting place, similar to the Rajaon ki baoli at Mehrauli.

Of all the baolis I visited in Delhi from the magnificent one at Red Fort to Qutab Sahib ki Baoli or the baoli at Hindu Rao hospital or the one at R K Puram, Gandhak ki baoli at Mehrauli is the only one that is still in use by nearby residents. Kids play in it, the sounds of them shouting and splash of water hitting your feet when someone dives into the water is hard to put in words. One can sit there for hours without realizing the flight of time, just listening to the sounds of water and happy kids.

Historians believe that there are more than five baolis in Tughlaqabad and there is one that has recently been discovered in Dwaraka Sub city, so my quest for these time machines continues.

Baoli at R K Puram

For all those who would like to visit these baolis the catalog exists at click on any link and you will get pics and a google map for location….. happy exploring 🙂


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