Baolis of Delhi- A Forgotten Romance

Sometime in the early 13th Century, Iltustmish- the second ruler of the Slave dynasty- visited Sufi saint Qutub Sahib at Mehrauli. Iltutmish was an ardent follower of Qutub Sahib, so much so that the famous Qutub Minar that he completed was named in the honour of the sufi. The story goes that It was a hot summer afternoon and Iltutmish found that the saint had not taken bath since many days. Upon inquiry he found that there was no good water source nearby. Appalled and embarassed, he ordered the construction of a baoli next door.

That baoli is now known as Gandhak ki baoli, christened so because of the presence of Gandhak (Sulphur) in the water. The baoli not only allowed Qutub Sahib to take regular baths, it also led to a surge in his following. With curative properties of the water, and cool breeze afforded in the accompanying chambers, the baoli was a hit amongst followers and travellers alike. It’s still in use 800 years later!

Gandhak ki Baoli

It gets scorching in summers in North India. It doesn’t rain all that much either in this part of the country. Historically, people in this part of the world have relied on ground water, rivers, canals and to a large extent on rain water harvesting from the limited rains they get each year.

One of the distinctive features of semi-arid regions of India, has been step-wells, an essential water harvesting tool. There are known as baolis in north India. They are also known as Vav in Gujarat. The entire semi-arid landscape of north and north-western parts of India are replete with Baolis- large and small, plain and elaborate. A few Baolis in Rajasthan and Gujarat deserve special mention for the intricate architecture and adornment they possess. They are like inverted temples. Gorgeous would be an understatement for baolis like Adalaj on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

While the ones in Delhi do not rank that high in terms of architectural adornments, in part because Delhi is not that arid, and has had multiple other sources of water, leading to more focus on forts and mausoleums than the humble baolis. However, there are quite a few interesting ones surviving to the day, some patronised by Royalty, others for commoners. Depending on the community it belonged to, a particular Baoli would be small and simple, or large and elaborate.

 

Rajon Ki Baoli

In general a typical baoli structure also has shaded halls or rooms built at multiple levels as you descend down a flight of stairs. I believe these are the most interesting part of the whole structure. Architectural value aside, these are the places where communities thrived, friendships bloomed and the fairer sex could relax without being overburdened with multiple responsibilities that they had to deliver upon through the day.

Allow me to explain. Rather let’s have a look first.

Each Baoli was owned and used exclusively by a certain community, unless these were public ones at or near Sarais. The most famous one in Delhi is the Agrasen ki Baoli. It was owned by the merchant Agrawal community. Then there’s Rajon ki baoli- Rajon meaning Masons- those who indulged in construction. Gandhak ki Baoli, a stone’s throw away from Rajon ki Baoli, is more for the common man in a residential neighbourhood. So is the Nizamuddin Baoli, commissioned by the revered Hazrat Nizamuddin. The one at Dwarka was presumably for travellers out of or in to Delhi from the west. The ones inside Ferozeshah Kotla and the Red Fort had royal patronage and usage. It’s interesting to note that the only two still in use baolis are those commissioned or patronised by two of the most revered Sufi Saints of Delhi.

Agrasen Ki Baoli
Feroze Shah Kotla Baoli as seen from the outside. Unfortunately the entrance is closed now.

Let’s come back to the structure of these baolis, more specifically the galleries on either side of the flight of stairs. these communal halls or galleries were not for taking bath in private. In fact Baolis were seldom used for taking baths, at least not on the premises. These were used for potable water storage, and most importantly as club houses of their times. Each sub section of the society it belonged to, viz., elders, male members and women had separate timings for visitation. Young, working category men would use it during the morning hours before heading to work, while women would be occupants of the Matinee show, i.e., late afternoons. This is when all the household work would have been over, and they would fill the baolis to relax, gossip and get entertained. Elders at last would occupy the evening hours, chatting away and discussing village/community matters.

Still a breeding ground for community building- Agrasen ki Baoli
12-pillored canopy at the Rjon ki Baoli premises

The water at the base would keep the place cool in the harsh Indian summers and the gentle breeze would induce relaxation, gossip and feelings of a close-knit community.

Afterall, a community that sticks together, stays together.. Ok, I made that up..

While Agrasen ki Baoli continues to be in good shape, and in fact Rajon ki Baoli is also sufficiently protected, other baolis in Delhi aren’t that fortunate.

In today’s energy guzzling world, these communal places come as a whiff of fresh air. Only if we could learn and apply modern methods to ancient thoughts- Conserve, Preserve, Share!

 

How to Reach:

Agrasen Ki Baoli: It’s in a small lane off Haliey Road near Connaught Place. Hailey Road branches off to the right from Kasturba Gandhi Marg on the way to Connaught Place. 

Nearest Metro Stations are Rajiv Chowk on Yellow and Blue Lines, Janpath on Violet Line and Brakhamba Road on Blue Line.

Rajon Ki Baoli: It’s inside the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. While adjacent to the Qutub Minar, the park doesn’t have an entrance near the Qutub. The main entrance to the park is from MG Road a km before Qutub Minar if coming from Gurgaon side. Enter the park and walk for a km while gazing at other monuments strewn all around to reach Rajon ki Baoli. There are markers on the way. 

Nearest Metro Station is Qutub Minar station on Yellow line. However, the park entrance is a good 1 km walk from the station.

Gandhak ki Baoli: Just a couple hundred meters ahead of Rajon ki Baoli. However this is outside the perimeter of the Mehrauli Archaeological park and inside a residential locality.

Nizamuddin Baoli: Right outside the Nizamuddin Dargah in Nizamuddin. Nearest metro station is Lajpat Nagar on violet line. Khan market station on yellow line can also be used. However, auto rickshaw may be required to reach the place from the metro stations.

Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/4qlT4zGIZEU 

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