Delhi’s Steep Stepwells

Delhi is such a city of layers. You have to keep peeling to reach back to the rich city that it once was. Or remnants of it in any case. I had this task many years ago, as a correspondent on the heritage beat with The Times of India in Delhi, of exploring those remnants. It was 2003 and I was in the best training ground possible for an amateur journalist – because when you are in a place where the editor hurls phones in his rage and expects you to read all possible newspapers every morning to know what you have missed, wet as you might be behind the ears, you will pick up the pace. There was never a moment to think. The drill was routine. Go out every day, meet contacts, network, gather stories, return to the office and get down to subbing copies before making pages.

Yet the beat was right up my alley. I have always had a fascination for old, peeling buildings with many stories to tell. And far from the madding crowds as Hardy put it, I was a happy creature hunting out unobtrusive monuments in the city’s various corners. They were my own little adventures in this rushed, modern world that allowed me moments of quiet and a window into the glorious past.

In the old days, kingdoms in India could be undone by the lack of water. Kings left behind their resplendent palaces and moved to areas that held the promise of the all-important element of life called water. In response, stepwells known as baolis locally, were constructed to address those urgent needs. As reservoirs, they stored ground water when it rained.

The stepwell has, as you can gather from its name, steps which go down into a well. It is usually surrounded by galleries and chambers with colonnaded verandahs, some of which provided shelters to travellers. The social aspect apart, stepwells provided drinking water, and others simply water to bathe in.

The largest baoli of the few remaining stepwells in Delhi is an 800-year-old structure. Gandhak Ki Baoli is named after the smell of sulphur in its waters. I reached Hauz-i-Shamsi in Mehrauli, known for the hauz or water reservoir that was built there in the 13th century by Sultan Iltutmish of the Mamluk Dynasty, who was considered to be the founder of the sultanate of Delhi. Through the maze of narrow, congested alleys of Mehrauli, which might have once been one of the seven cities that made up Delhi but smacks of dereliction in its present state, I made my way to the baoli.

The landmark I had to get to was Adham Khan’s tomb. I have to tell you a small tale behind this tomb because well why surpass the chance of stories where they can be had. Adham Khan was the son of Maham Anga, Emperor Akbar’s foster mother. He had murdered one of the emperor’s foster brothers. How could such an act go unpunished? So, Adham Khan was tossed off Agra Fort’s ramparts and a tomb was built for him by Akbar. Hundred yards off this tomb is the site of the baoli which I was seeking.

At the entrance to the baoli, I was greeted by the sight of a strange fakir (mendicant). His name was Pocket Baba. A headful of hair stuck out in an untidy bush above his head. A pair of glasses that were incredibly round, black and as thick as bullets sat upon his dark pudgy face – the glasses reminded me of Barfi, a character from the master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s fantastical tale for children, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Only Barfi had diamond-shaped glasses and Pocket Baba’s glasses were not. The bullet-like lenses could clearly be detached and pushed to be raised above the frames.

Barfi, from Satyajit Ray’s fantasy tale.

I had a conversation with Pocket Baba in Hindi. First of all, I was curious about his name. He promptly asked me mine, and said: “Why are you called Arundhati?” Next, I asked him about his glasses. His repartee went thus: “Why are you wearing what you have on?” Such niceties concluded, I asked him about the story behind the baoli. Showing me his teeth that had been stained black, he rasped out that a week before Muharram (the Islamic New Year that is), the waters in the baoli used to turn red. Those waters, according to him, had healing powers. People with skin disorders bathed in their old clothes and left them behind in the well. And just like that they used to be cured of diseases like eczema.

Leaving behind the odd baba, I entered Gandhak ki Baoli. Before me lay a five-tiered structure with ornate columns, chambers and ledges and it dipped into a reservoir at the bottom. Only where water once used to reach high up a few tiers, at that point I saw a mossy layer somewhere deep down below. At the other end, was a well that can be reached by walking along the ledges of the stepwell. Descending a few crumbling steps – there are a total of 105 steps leading down – I was ambitious enough to stand on one of the ledges and try and fathom its depth but that bottom was so deep, dark and mysterious that it gave me the jitters. My only companions were pigeons who gurgled away as they hopped nimbly along the ledges. I hurriedly stepped back. It would be unfortunate to come to a messy end in a dirty, mossy stepwell.

Steps leading down to Gandhak ki Baoli.

The baoli was Iltutmish’s tribute to a Sufi saint who had impressed the slave king with his philosophy. In a book, The Delhi That No-one Knows, writer Ronald Vivian Smith writes of an incident when Iltutmish visited the saint and observed that he had not had a bath for days. The saint apparently had no place where he could take a bath and the king immediately ordered the construction of the stepwell for the saint. The supposed presence of sulphur and its healing properties made the stepwell a popular place with locals.

The baoli was in a fairly decrepit shape and I could see rubbles of stone lying around. At the time, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was carrying out conservation work which was clearly not in line with the preservation of the stepwell. Though the ASI’s superintending engineer (Delhi Circle) at the time, A K Sinha, had assured me that they were using traditional mortar for the restoration of the stepwell, conservation architect AGK Menon had tut-tutted the claims. He had attributed the broken-down state to ASI’s “beautification drive”. “Dry-stone masonry technique (in which no binding agent is used) was used on the structure,” he had pointed out. “The ASI plastered the walls instead. Water accumulated and pressure started building up on the walls.”

I wonder whether the stepwell has been restored the way it should have been.

There are so many of them. Delhi a long time ago had about a 100 of these stepwells yet a handful remain. Of them, there are baolis such as the one inside Red Fort that pre-dates the fort and served once as a prison for the incarceration of Indian National Army officers by the British during the 1940s; Rajon ki Baoli, a Lodhi period three-storeyed step-well which is located about 400 m away from Gandhak ki Baoli and that got its name from the masons (raj) who lived there for some time.

Near where I lived at the time, was another stepwell, the Nizamuddin baoli that dated back to the mid-1300s. It was referred to as Chashma Dilkusha which means ‘the spring that gladdens the heart’ and was said to have been constructed by the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin. So, its waters are believed to possess curative powers. The construction of the stepwell was a sore point for Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the ruler of Delhi at the time. The emperor was building his citadel at Tughlaqabad. He forbade labourers to work anywhere else than Tughlaqabad. The story goes that the labourers respected Nizamuddin enough to work around Ghiyasuddin’s ban. They worked on the baoli by night – to counteract which the emperor apparently banned the sale of oil for use in lamps. The baoli is said to have been completed by the labourers who worked by moonlight. Don’t you just love listening to such stories, however unlikely they might be or not?

There are a few more but there was one that lay right in the heart of a residential road in the city. When I reached Agrasen Ki Baoli on Hailey Road in Barakhamba, I was surprised that in the midst of the commotion of Lutyens’ Delhi, there was a piece of beauty. I love the kind of silence that exists within the thick walls of old monuments.

Agrasen ki Baoli.

A few couples were on dates inside the baoli, about 104 steps down which you would be in the well’s waters – all that was left then was silt. The baoli dated back to the 14th century Pre-Lodi era. Legend says that an ancient king, Raja Agrasen, had built the stepwell. It was restored during the fourteenth century by the wealthy Agrawal merchants who were supposed to be descendants of Agrasen.

If you do want to find out more and visit these baolis, you could always get in touch with The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

Most of the baolis that I ventured into lay in ruins but Menon had suggested that they could be effectively revived and used by harvesting groundwater. In this current concern for global climatic change and the emphasis on using natural resources, it makes complete sense when I recall that Menon had even given me an instance of a place called Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh where stepwells are used on an everyday basis. His exact words were: “Delhi is a sophisticated metropolis where the Dilli billis (cats of Delhi) might rebel, but people do survive on stepwell water.”