‘Historical records say that there was a time when Delhi was known as the city of 100 baolis or stepwells. Vikramjit Singh Rooprai takes a look at a few of these’
Remember the small cave-like place Aamir Khan’s character stayed in the movie PK? Or the steps that Salman Khan climbed while carrying stones on his back in the movie Sultan? The former is the Agrasen (or Ugrasen) ki Baoli, while the latter is Rajon ki Baoli. Some mysterious, some full of stories and others becoming poignant backdrops for Bollywood movies – baolis of the capital are one of a kind. Built hundreds (some even thousands) of years ago, these stepwells reflect exemplary engineering skills and fastidious masonry, and once served as reliable sources of water. According to popular belief, baolis, in the past, would often be used as a community site where people would gather to escape the heat of the city’s summer. If historical records are to be believed, the city once boasted over 100 baolis of which only a handful remain. We take a look at a few of New Delhi’s most stunning and unique stepwells.
Rajon ki Baoli
Tucked deep inside the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, the oblong-shaped Rajon ki Baoli was built during the reign of Sikandar Lodi. It is said that this ornate four-storey stepwell derived its name from the masons, locally called raje or raaj mistry, who lived there. According to Syed Ahmad Khan, a 19th-century philosopher, this baoli was commissioned by Daulat Khan. What sets this baoli apart is the intricate and beautiful decoration on its outer wall. There are stunning stucco work behind the well towards the south but since the access is from the north, not many know about it. Alcoves in the walls to place small lamps suggest it must have been used as a place for social gatherings, even after sundown.
Gandhak ki Baoli
One of the capital’s oldest stepwells, Gandhak ki Baoli is so named because of the sulphur content in its water. This five-storeyed structure was commissioned by sultan Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish for Khwaja Qutb-ub-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki, a renowned Sufi saint. It is said that while digging, when the masons reached the aquifer they realised that they had pierced a rock which was rich in sulphate. This when mixed with water in the right quantity is beneficial to cure a host of skin ailments but renders the water unsuitable for drinking. This baoli boasts over 100 steps that lead down to the water but any visitor who has been to the site will vouch that young boys find it more exciting to jump into the water from the upper levels of the well. Since this stepwell was one of the first to be constructed, not much attention was paid to either ornamentation or provisions for rooms, like other baolis in the city.
Red Fort Baoli
Said to be built almost 300 years before the construction of the Red Fort, whose foundation was laid in 1639, this baoli is one of the well-kept ones in the city. Despite being a prominent structure at such an important location, this stepwell finds very little mention in the documents of both the British and the Mughal. This baoli has two flights of stairs – from the west and north – connecting the water basin mirrored at 90 degrees, forming an L shape. Every building Feroz Shah Tughlaq commissioned was unique as each had a design never seen or used before. Water from this stepwell today irrigates the lawns of the Red Fort.
Ugrasen ki Baoli
Tucked away in Hailey Road lies the Ugrasen ki Baoli. Divided into three levels connected by 108 steps, this is a 14th-century stepwell. Archaeological Survey of India archaeologist YD Sharma believed that the design elements of the baoli relate it to the Tughlaq era while others are of the opinion that specific parts appear to be from the Lodi period.
Feroz Shah Kotla Baoli
Also commissioned by Feroz Shah Tughlaq, this circular baoli, the only one-of-its-kind in the city, is located inside the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla (erstwhile Ferozabad). This stepwell is situated right before the pyramidical structure on which stands the imposing Ashokan pillar. With a surface diametre measuring 33 m and a tank diametre of around 9 m, this baoli is the largest in the capital in terms of area. Records suggest that it has terracotta pipes that check the overflow of water and also connect it to the nearby River Yamuna. The west side of the baoli is open for visitors, although it is said that originally the structure had entrances from both the east and the west. Visitors can take the flight of steps leading down to the lower level that contained the water tank.
Located in Old Delhi, Khari Baoli is today home to Asia’s largest spice market. Said to have been built during the reign of Islam Shah (mid-16th century), the son of Sher Shah Suri, this baoli was so named because of the saline content in the water (called khara pani in Hindi). Over time, the water dried up and the stepwell was covered permanently. Eventually, a spice market came up in its place.