Stepping into the step-wells of Delhi...
BAOLIS OR step-wells were once thought to be part of fairyland, for though constructed by human hands they were said to be the haunt of fairies and dwarfs in out-of-the way places. The belief did not prevail only in India, but throughout the Orient and in Europe too. In the distant days of King Arthur, the wizard Merlin used to meet fairies in a step-well, one of whom became his beloved but eventually imprisoned him in a rock out of jealousy.
In Delhi and its neighbouring areas, Sheik Chillis or mentally weak persons, who often got caught in comic situations, became rich after meeting fairies in a baoli and lived happily ever after -- if nursery tales are to be behind!
The discovery of a Tughlak era baoli in the Red Fort has been the subject of much debate. How come a 14th Century step-well exists in a fort built by Shah Jahan in the 17th Century? Baffling for some but it must be remembered that the Red Fort was built on the ruins of an old Afghan fort. The area, though unpopulated in pre-Moghul days, was nevertheless not devoid of fortifications. There must have been an earlier fortification at the site erected by the Tughlaks, who built many baolis in Delhi.
Feroz Shah particularly is credited with constructing many step-wells for the supply of water for drinking needs and also for the several gardens he laid. Before him too the Tughlaks built baolis, one near Tughlakabad. The Nizammuddin baoli also dates back to that time, so also the one near Saket. In fact, Lal Kuan, in the heart of the Walled City, too has a pre-Moghul baoli.
The Lodi baolis are found near the Purana Qila, R.K. Puram, Kotla Mubarakpur and Sultanpur. The Circular Baoli in Kotla Ferzeshah dates back to Tughlak times. The Red Fort baoli beyond the Hayat Baksh garden, is mentioned by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, writing in the early years of the 20th Century. He says it's of unusual design, being octagonal, double-storeyed, with a shaft of seven-metre diameter used as a lentil. It's adjacent to a tank of six square metres, whose walls have been built upon and used as a temple. "Water flows from the step-well to the tank, as is usual with baolis.''
So actually the Red Fort baoli has been rediscovered now that the Army has handed over to the ASI part of the fort in its possession. This baoli, with two flights of stairs, which is unusual in such structures, was used as a prison for members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army by the British. The British were only following the example set in late Moghul times -- 18th and early 19th Centuries -- when rebellious princes were imprisoned there -- and some even murdered -- strangulation or the assassin's knife.
Even Dara Shikoh was imprisoned in the remote part of the Red Fort before his assassination on the order of his brother, Aurangzeb. After renovation visitors to the fort will be able to see this unique baoli, 200 years older. Now some mention of her famous baolis; though the Red Fort baoli will henceforth continue to be in the limelight.
The Nizamuddin baoli, still in use, was built in the reign of the founder of the Tughlak dynasty, Ghiyasuddin Tughlak and led to a tiff between the saint and the sultan. It measures 123 ft by 53 ft internally and is enclosed by a wall on the South-East and West. Buildings have been erected on these walls and ''from the top of the building on the west side, men and boys dive into the water for bakshish'' observed Maulvi Zafar Hasan, though he didn't mention that the baoli is infamous for claiming at least one life every year.
In the old city, close to Manwari Begum-ka-Burj, a baoli was built during the reign of Feroz Tughlak. The tablet attached to it was so badly obliterated that Maulvi Zafar Hasan could not make any sense out of it but even so recommended the preservation of the baoli. Another baoli of the time of Feroz Tughlak, a massive structure of rubble masonry was built some 50 years from Pir Ghalib near the Flagstaff Tower on the Ridge. It originally was encircled by a series of chambers after the manner of the baolis of Feroz Shah, but these chambers have now practically disappeared.
``Lately, (in 1914) a tunnel was discovered leading from the north wall of the baoli, and the discovery fostered the belief that the tunnel might be the subterranean passage which Abul Fazal says was made by Feroz Shah from Firozabad (his Capital), in Jahan Numa (his shikargah) ... but close examination disclosed that it was too low and narrow to answer the description of the subterranean passage.... The tunnel, which has now been closed, extends for a distance of 638 to the north'' says the Maulvi.
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 the men dive in it for the amusement of visitors.''
The baoli near the mahal of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Mehrauli, is built in imitation of the well at Gandakh-ki-Baoli and Rajon- ki-Bain. It measures 130' by 36' and contains about 74 steps. It 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 filed up with mud and only eight steps visible.
The Rajon-ki-Bain, near Adam Khan's tomb, was so named because it was used by mason for some time. It belongs to the Lodhi period. The baoli on the Qutb-Badarpur Road is almost defunct. Near the village of Khizrabad used to be a Baoli-Surai built of rubble and plaster. There was a baoli near Mubarak Shah's tomb too. In Palam is the baoli of Haranand.
A number of baolis exist on the other side of the Yamuna too but they are in a pitiable state. Khari Baoli, beyond Chandni Chowk, and Agarsen's baoli on Hailey Road are famous landmarks, but the baoli near Sikandar Jodhi's tomb has almost disappeared.
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