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Reviving the baolis of Delhi

Delhi had a number of stepped-wells but sadly most of them have disappeared due to neglect says R.V. SMITH


The Delhi Government has set July 15 as the (unrealistic) deadline for the revival of stepped-wells or baolis and other old water bodies (numbering 319 in all). Besides, there are 265 dry water bodies that also await revival. There used to be several baolis in the Walled City, but Mehrauli had the largest number. Many of these have now disappeared because of neglect over the years. Agarsen's Baoli in the Hailey Road area, is justly famous; but Khari Baoli beyond the Chandni Chowk exists only in name and is more famous as the spice market. There was also a baoli on the Parade Ground west of the Hayat Baksh garden. It belonged to the late Afghan period. The garden was inside the Red Fort and the baolisupplied water to the gardens within the archaeological areas of the fort. A baoli was also attached to the garden in front of the Shish Gumbad, not far from the tomb of Sikander Lodi, but it was in a ruinous state even in the first decade of the 20th Century. However, the baoli of Nizamuddin is still in use. It is enclosed by walls on the south-east and west, the descending steps being on the south. On June 30, 1914 there were 40 steps above the water level. Buildings have been erected on the walls of the baoli at different times, and on its southern and eastern sides is a narrow arcaded passage leading to the tomb of Shaikh Nizamuddin. From the topmost of the buildings on the west side men and boys dive from bakshish in the water below, a drop of fully 60 feet," observes Maulvi Zafar Hasan whose treatise on monuments of Delhi mentions a large number of baolis.

About the Khari Baoli he says that it was attached to an unnamed Shivalaya built by the devoted and virtuous wife of the illustrious and talented Vijayaname, born in the Kapura clan of the Kshatriys." She spent the wealth left by her husband on acts of charity, building the Shivalaya in Gali Batasan Khurd. The name of the lady was either Kuryan or Kuryam and the baoli was obviously part of her munificence bequeathed to posterity. A Sanskrit inscription on a stone tablet over the mandir erected in AD 1850 gave a clue to the history of the place.

They still do so and the baoli (renovated recently) is infamous for claiming at least one life every year. The baoli was built by Hazrat Nizamuddin and became the cause of contention between Ghiyasuddin Tughlak and the saint. The Sultan wanted the masons working on the baoli to concentrate on his fortress of Tughlakbad. But the masons were so much devoted to the saint that they worked on the baoli secretly at night. The Sultan heard this and banned the sale of oil. Nizamuddin, by his miraculous powers, caused the water of the still incomplete baoli to burn like oil and the project was completed.

Miraculous powers

In the city close to Kanwari Begum-ka-Burj, a baoli was built during the reign of Firoze Shah. The tablet attached to it was so badly obliterated that the Maulvi could not make any sense out of it but even so recommended the preservation of the baoli. Another baoli of the time of Firoze Tughlak, a `massive structure of rubble masonry' was built some 50 yards from Pir Ghaib near the Flagstaff Tower on the Ridge. It originally was encircled by a series of chambers after the manner of the baolis of Firoze Shah, but these chambers have now practically disappeared.

In Mehrauli is Gandak-ki-Baoli, near the tomb of Adam Khan. It dates back to the reign of Iltutmish, though Adam Khan belonged to the time of Akbar. "The baoli is in five tiers, each tier narrowing as it descends towards the bottom. The baoli is called the diving well since men dive in it for the amusement of visitors." But that was long ago. Now there is no water in it. The baoli near the mahal of Bahadur Shah Zafar is built in imitation of the wells at Gandak-ki-Baoli and Rajon-ki-Bain. It contains about 74 steps and was built in three stages during the reign of Aurangzeb.

The Shamilat Deb Baoli is also mentioned by Maulvi Zafar Hasan in the old Sultanpur area of Mehrauli. Even during the early years of the 20th Century it was not in use, being filled up with mud and only eight steps visible.

The now defunct Rajon-Ki-Bain, near Adam Khan's tomb, was so named because it was used by masons for some time. It belongs to the Lodi period. The baoli on the Qutb-Badarpur Road has also dried up. Near the village of Khizrabad used to be a Baoli Sarai built on rubble and plaster. There was a baoli near Mubark Shah's tomb in South Extension Part I too, while in Palam is the baoli of Har Nand. A number of baolis exist on the other side of the Jamuna also but they are all in an equally pitiable state. Efforts must be made to revive them too.

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