Baolis: Water conservation through intermingled traditions and faiths
Baolis or step-wells are monuments with rich past. They in fact resonate with an era of fused architectural traditions and faiths
Traversing through the labyrinths of antiquity of yesteryear, a sublime whiff of nostalgia of Indo Islamic architecture can be seen with prominence in Mughal monuments. The timeless treasures of ruins recount numerous tales many still untold. The arrival of the Mughals in India left an indelible impact on the indigenous manifestation of life, culture and tradition of that era which loudly speaks for its varied majestic expressions. The architecture, a perfect blend of many rulers’ artistic excellence marks the history that rarely repeats itself.
Flipping through the pages of history one sometimes, comes across a part of fairyland where the likes of Sheik Chillis became rich after meeting fairies and lived happily ever after.
Baolis or step-wells are such monuments with rich past; in fact they reflect an era seeped and submerged deep down in history of India. Water played a significant role in architectural heritage of India. Baolis gained prominence during the Sultanate period and during the Mughal’s reign. The baolis, however, were constructed with a view to providing bathing space to the people of Delhi.
Babur in 1526, fused the traditional native Indian art with the architectural aesthetics of his land. The trend was carried by his son Humayun for almost 15 years from 1530 – 1555 and later was followed by his son Akbar who remained in power from 1556-1605. Akbar introduced the fusion of Hindu and Persian techniques and was immensely fond of Mughal style paintings.
Jahangir (Salim) (1605-1627) played a significant role in its maintenance of the monuments and baolis his forefathers had built and erected many new buildings (monuments) with miniature paintings. After Jahangir's death in 1627 Shahjahan took the charge and gave an impetus and lofty heights to his inherited architecture.
Among other architectural pieces like minarets, mosques, forts and mausoleums, Baolis, step-wells, have their own majestic significance. They are believed to be a water reservoir with both natural water and the underground one. That water was used for multiple purposes like quenching thirst and bathing. More importantly water of some baolis were believed to have magical powers thus was used for a healing touch. More than ten baolis in Delhi have distinct majesty, splendor and stories attached to them. Baolis at Hazarat Nizamuddin Dargah, Mehrauli, Tughlaqabad , Feroz Shah Kotla, Vikaspuri, Bara Hindu Rao and Mahraja Agarsen at Hailey Road are the prominent ones.
Baoli at Hazrat Nizamuddin Shrine
The 13 century Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya also known as Mehboob-e-llahi has an 800 year old baoli. The backpackers visit the step-well and find it more amusing at the sight of locals diving into this 100 plus feet deep baoli to chill out on a summer afternoon. This baoli was constructed in 1321 AD, by Nizamuddin Auliya, during the reign of Ghiyasuddin Tuglaq. The baoli is situated very close to the Yamuna bed, so till date, it remains filled with water. This step-well has only one level as the water always stays high due to its proximity to the river Yamuna.
This majestic baoli with springs underneath is believed to have magical powers. The followers of the Hazrat cure themselves by taking a dip into it. This ASI protected monument is fed by underground streams. Aga Khan Trust which takes care of it, cleaned it for the first time after hundreds of years in 2009. This is considered sacred by the followers of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. It is said that the Baoli was under construction at the same time when the ruler Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq was engaged in building Tuglaqabad fort and the latter had prohibited workers from working anywhere else. The devoted laborers worked at baoli at night. When the emperor forbade the sale of oil so that they could not work during the nights they used the water of baoli for oil and this really worked. "We at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture are undertaking an urban conservation project in the Humayun’s Tomb – Sunder Nursery zone. Within this area, we have undertaken conservation of 50+ monuments including the Nizamuddin baoli; we are not involved in any other initiative in Delhi. In 2008, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli collapsed; a long term project was undertaken to reconstruct the collapsed portions of the baoli,. During this time 40 feet of accumulated rubbish was removed from the Baoli. The Baoli has about 50 feet of standing water at present," the CEO of Agha Khan Trust Ratish Nanda explains.
It is in south Delhi's Mehrauli and its architecture based on Indo-Saracenic, is a subtle blend of Hindu, Muslim and gothic architecture. This baoli was built in 1506, and is also called the Rajon ki Baoli as it was primarily built for the workers who were involved in construction in the surrounding area, during the Lodhi reign. There are several step wells built with rubble stone in and around Mehrauli.
Gandhak ki Baoli
It is named for the smell of sulphur (gandhak) in its water; it is believed to have been built in the reign of Iltutmish 1211-36, the Sultan of Delhi. It has five tiers with a circular well at its southern end, is also known as the diving well. More often than not, divers jump into it from the upper tiers for the amusement of the visitors. Further 400 meter south is another four-tiered step well known as Rajaon-ki- Bain, built during the reign of Sikander Lodhi (1489-1517). Gandak Ki Baoli Just a few kilometers away from the Sookhi Baoli, is one of the oldest baolis in Delhi. It was built in 1210 by Iltutmish. It has the presence of sulphur in the water which gives this baoli a distinct fragrance.
The most likely explanation of drying up of this baoli is that perhaps the underground river system—the aquifers, must have changed its course—leading this baoli to dry up.
Also, there’s an underground water pump right outside this baoli, which further deteriorates the water level at present.
Agrasen Ki Baoli
It is situated at Connaught Place’s Hailey Road, the actual date of construction of this baoli is not yet known. It architectural looks recount that it was built during the Tughlaq period. It is one of the most regal seeming baolis with a huge courtyard. This almost 600 year old baoli has four flight of steps with one hundred steps leading down to the well. It has five arches; there is also a small mosque built by Humayun which is not publicly open to offering namaaz. The structure has an old lush neem tree, which is more than 100 year old. There is also a hidden well behind the baoli, which is covered with an iron grill. Agarsen Ki Baoli’s water level is receding with coming up of many high rise buildings.
This baoli was built in 1354 AD by Ferozshah Tughlaq. It is one of the most well maintained baolis in Delhi. It has just one level and is circular in shape. The baoli is built inside a huge enclosed garden, which might have served as a sub-city in Delhi during Tuglaq’s reign. This water body served as a platform where people could sit, bathe and chat in a cool place.