Agrasen ki Baoli is an ancient step well that is being restored and is located in the heart of New Delhi at Connaught Place Image Credit: Gagandeep Kaur

Imagine a cool, quiet oasis built in Mughal splendour in almost every locality in the city to beat the oppressive heat and you would have effectively thought of the extensive “baolis” (traditional step well) network in the Northern and Western part of India.

Experts believe that Delhi used to boast of an extensive “baoli” network with more than 100 “baolis” till a few decades ago. Unfortunately, this number is now down to just 15, according to the Archaeological Survey of India. Even these “baolis” are today a picture of neglect with dilapidated walls and dirty water in the wells.

“Baolis” usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined passageways and chambers, which were often carved with elaborate detail.

Most of the “baolis” are characterised by a flight of stairs till one reaches a pool of water. These water monuments generally boast of sculptured columns and lattice walls linking earth to water. Connected with well and groundwater aquifer, “baolis” were built to collect rainwater during monsoons and allow people access to the receding water during the dry months.

“‘Baolis’ worked because you had nine months of dry spell. During that time the catchment area was large, ‘baolis’ would fill up and water would keep receding, and you kept going down to the water level. Aquifer and sunlight would keep it clean,” explains Ratish Nanda, Conservation Architect, Aga Khan Trust For Culture. The organisation spearheaded the revival of Nizamuddin Baoli, which is the only operational ‘baoli’ in Delhi today.

Probably the most ornamental of all “baolis” in Delhi is Rajaon Ki Baoli (King’s step well) in Mehrauli Archaeological Park in the southern part of the city. Unlike Agrasen Ki Baoli or even Gandhak ki Baoli, Rajaon ki Baoli boasts of a grand structure visible from far.

“Baolis” along with other water bodies such as lakes and rivers, took care of the water needs of citizens. Over a period of time most of these “baolis” fell victim to urbanisation.

“It is important to remember that ‘baolis’ were part of a big [water] system. There was Yamuna on one side and Aravali mountains on the other side. In between there were 18-19 rivers and rivulets, ponds, lakes and ‘baolis’,” explains Anupam Mishra of Gandhi Peace Foundation, who has been working on the revival of a number of water bodies in the state of Rajasthan.

It is for this reason that a number of places in the city (Talkatora stadium, Khari Baoli etc) are named after some of the water bodies. The recent blockbuster, “PK”, piqued the interest of many citizens in “baolis” who were hitherto unaware of their existence.

“Hardly anybody used to come earlier but after the release of the movie PK we are getting a lot of visitors,” says the guard at one of the “baolis”, who wished to remain anonymous.

Surprisingly enough, the “baolis” do not make it to the list of places of tourist interest promoted by Delhi Tourism. Though they are mentioned on the website under water bodies, usually they are not really part of the popular tourist itinerary. The positive aspect of this is that it is possible to enjoy an afternoon of solitude with your books and a flask of water.

Though conceptualised to provide water during the lean season, “baolis” also emerged as centres of social interaction. The charm of “baolis” lay in them being social centres where people would gather to escape the heat and socialise.

Every “baoli” has an interesting story behind it. For instance, Anangtal Baoli in Mehrauli dates back to the 10th century, built by Rajput King Anang Pal II of the Tomar Dynasty. It is believed that the queens would hold an annual charity event next to the “baoli”.

On the other hand, Gandhak ki Baoli is probably the oldest “baoli” in the city today. It derives its name from its healing (but smelly) sulphur spring. It was built by Sultan Iltutmish in the 16th century, but today it lies in ruins.

The Revival

Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) started working towards reviving some of these “baolis” to their original splendour. The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi has also formed a committee for the revival of “baolis” in the city. The Committee is currently in the process of identifying “baolis”, which would be revived.

As part of this initiative, extensive work is going on at Agrasen ki Baoli, which is literally located in the centre of the city at Connaught Place. Surrounded by skyscrapers, the protected monument is today frequented by college students and stray tourists. Similarly, revival work is also going on at Gandhak Ki Baoli, built by Iltutmish for Sufi saint Bakhtiyar Kaki, and 16th century step well Rajon Ki Baoli. The authorities will also restore “baolis” at Bara Hindu Rao Hospital, Purana Qila and Kotla Firoz Shah. De-silting work is going on at most of these locations, which would be followed by masonry work.

A case in point is Nizammudin Baoli, which was revived by Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). This particular “baoli” has religious significance and attracts nearly 4,000 visitors every day. It was for this reason that it was easier to convince local residents about the significance of reviving this “baoli”.

“What we have tried to do with Nizamuddin baoli is that today it is part of the community. The thing about this ‘baoli’ is that it has got religious significance. This is a special case altogether. Many people say that it is a miracle that it has water,” says Nanda.

The “baoli” was restored after its collapse in 2008. Probably the most challenging aspect was that around 18 families where staying at the ‘baoli’ and they had to be provided alternate housing by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Besides, nearly 10 metres of accumulated debris was removed by putting in 8,000 man hours of labour.

Most of the experts today believe that restoration and revival of “baolis” will not serve the original purpose for which they were built — to meet the water needs of the city. Delhi is today a metropolis, which attracts half a million new immigrants every year. Even a few hundred “baolis” will not help in meeting the water needs of the city.

However, this is not to say that revival is not important. “Restoring ‘baolis’ will be a significant step because it will be a very visible step. There will never be enough “baolis” in Delhi. But they can be used for rainwater harvesting. For instance, all the rainwater from the nearby buildings can go to Agrasen Ki Baoli. These water bodies can be the symbolism around which water conservation in Delhi starts,” says Nanda.

“It is hardly disputable that ‘baolis’ cannot be used to meet the water needs. However, revival of ‘baolis’ is important for recreational and aesthetic purposes. ‘Baolis’ can play an important role in ground water conservation. They can also emerge as important tourist destinations,” says Mishra.

These majestic structures have borne the test of time and today are representative of a culture when water was considered sacred and extremely important. The clock has turned full circle again with the city reeling under water shortage. We have reached a point again where conservation of water resources is extremely critical to the survival of the city. Revival of “baolis” will be the first significant step in conserving water in all aspects.

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.