Stepping into the Stepwells...

Introduction to Baolis

Water has always played an important role in the day-to-day life of  every man. The need to tap ground water, store rain water, and to make it accessible to the human population has led to the construction of several tanks, wells and baolis, which also became an epitome of the art and architecture of the local people.

We hear stories of kings leaving behind their palaces due to lack of water; Fatehpur Sikri and Tughlaqabad are good examples. Most kings established their capitals on the banks of rivers. Delhi has the Yamuna flowing through it, and has been capital seven times. At one time Delhi had about 100 or more baolis, of which only thirty have survived. Many were lost over the years, while some were discovered, preserved and restored.

A baoli is a reservoir in which water can be stored. It is also a source of ground water. Numerous tanks and baolis were commissioned by the ruling clans in which water was collected mainly during the rainy season and was then used throughout the year by the people in the neighbourhood.

Separate baolis were constructed for drinking and bathing purposes. Baolis were often constructed close to mosques and temples. People washed and bathed before prayers. Some Hindu ceremonies were performed at the baolis by women, who prayed and made their offerings here.

As the name suggests, the step-well has a series of steps which lead down to the ground level where the water is stored. The steps also enabled accessibility to water during summers when the water level went down.  In India, baolis are mainly found in the arid north-western region due to the scarcity of water there.

Some baolis were designed only for the purpose of water storage, others to provide shelter to travellers and caravans. These baolis were designed with rooms on the higher floors, with a dalan (colonnaded veranda) supported on columns. Such step-wells were also used as shaded spaces for social interaction where discussions could be held.

The architectural form of a baoli mainly consists of three elements: the well in which the water is collected, the flight of steps to reach the ground water through several stories, and intermediate pavilions. Baolis have a history that goes back several millennia. The Great Bath at Mohenjodaro, which was built more than 4,000 years ago,may be considered a form of baoli as it also consisted of a tank fed by a well and accessed by steps.

The oldest existing primitive form of baoli in Delhi - Anangtal in Mehrauli - was built in the tenth century by the Tomar king Anang Pal II. More appropriately called a tank, it was built when the city Lal Kot was founded. Some important extant baolis in Delhi include Gandhak ki Baoli,Rajon ki Baoli, Agrasen ki Baoli, the baoli at Purana Qila, and the baoli at Firoz Shah Kotla.

Map of Delhi showing the location of its baolis

Through the passage of time, baolis not only became the main source of drinking water but also a cool sanctuary for prayers, meditation, bathing, and other such multiple forms of relaxation and recreation. This system of water collection was further modified with the advent of Islam in terms of its architecture and decorative elements. The nineteenth century saw a fast decline in the use of step-wells as the British felt these to be unhygienic sources of water and started using pipelines.

Gandhak ki Baoli 

(1210-1236)

This is one of the oldest baolis in Delhi, lying about 100m south of Adham Khan’s Tomb (Emperor Akbar’s wet nurse Maham Anagah’s son) in the Mehrauli village. It was built by Iltutmish for Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. The baoli is known as Gandhak ki Baoli because of its water which smells like gandhak, meaning sulphur. This baoli once supplied water to the area and was considered sacred. It is a five-tiered structure which includes a circular well on its southern side. The water in the well was reserved only for the purpose of cooking and drinking. The area is surrounded by a lush green forest. The entrance arch of the baoli has a staircase enclosed within the walls as staircases were considered to be an unaesthetic component in a building.

Top: Iltutmish era columns

Baoli at Hazarat Nizamuddin's Dargah (1321-1322)

The baoli or stepwell of Nizamuddin Auliya, can be approached either through the shrine complex or from the north. Once also known as Chashma Dilkusha (‘heart uplifting spring’), the baoli is surrounded by walls on three sides, with steps built down to the level of the water on the north side.

The baoli was constructed under the supervision of Nizamuddin himself, and its water therefore is believed to be sacred and to have curative powers. There is an interesting story behind the construction of the well. The building of the baoli had become the major bone of contention between Nizamuddin and the then ruler of Delhi, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq. The emperor was at that time building his citadel at Tughlaqabad, and he summarily forbade all labourers in Delhi from working during the day at any site other than Tughlaqabad.

The labourers, however, held Nizamuddin in such esteem that they got around Ghiyasuddin’s ban by working on the baoli’s construction at night – which immediately made Ghiyasuddin ban the sale of oil which was used in lamps. The story goes that the baoli was finally completed by labourers working by moonlight. Another story has it that the workers used the water of the baoli instead of oil, and effectively enough. Whichever tale you believe, it’s enchanting enough to merit a visit.

Inner face of the baoli showing Tughlaq era arches
A tomb on the wall of the baoli

Firoz Shah Kotla Baoli (1354)

In front of the Pyramid of Cells, and separated from it by a stretch of neat lawn, is the round stepwell or baoli of Firoz Shah Kotla. The outer wall of the baoli has arched recesses, and the baoli itself is three storeys deep, with a staircase descending down to the water level at the western end. The water from the baoli is nowadays pumped up to irrigate the gardens of Firoz Shah Kotla.

The baoli is off limits to the public, because of past accidents where visitors fell in. A high fence encircles the entire well, and permission is required from the ASI office at the main gate of the citadel to obtain a closer look.

Hindu Rao Baoli

(early 14th century)

Left: The Baoli front face

Top: Built in the reign of Firoz Shah Tughlaq, this Baoli too has a circular portion

Top-right & bottom: Tughlaq era arches still intact

A little further down from the Pir Ghaib, is a ruined baoli that must have been part of Firoz Shah’s hunting lodge. Although completely dry most of the year, the baoli fills up during the monsoon. The access to the Baoli is now blocked, but from above it appears to be a fairly deep structure, the exact extent of which is difficult to determine. The walls of the baoli are made of random rubble masonry, mostly covered with vegetation now. At the very bottom of the well, there are known to be some obvious Tughlaq features such as a wall and double pillars which must have been part of the chambers surrounding the well. Above this level, there is evidence of a tunnel, approximately 193m long that leads from the north end. The purpose of this tunnel, which was 2.15m high with ventilation shafts and doorways, is unknown.

Agrasen ki Baoli

(14th century pre-Lodi)

Among the buildings that already existed in the area when Lutyens’ New Delhi was laid out, one of the most prominent was the fifteenth century baoli of Agrasen (alternately known as Ugrasen). As its name suggests, the baoli is believed, according to legend, to have been built by an ancient king Raja Agrasen. There is no historical evidence in support of this legend, but the baoli was repaired and rebuilt during the fourteenth century by the Agrawal community, which is supposedly descended from Agrasen. Wealthy Agrawal merchants donated in both cash and kind (the latter in the form of building material) for the renovation of the baoli, which stands near present day Connaught Place, within easy walking distance of Jantar Mantar.

Steps leading up and out of the baoli
Tughlaq era arches at Agrasen ki baoli
Arcade super-imposed on the walls of the baoli
Empty hall separating the main well shaft from the baoli

Rajon ki Baoli

(1506)

Located within the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, about 400 m away from the Gandhak ki Baoli, this is a three-storeyed step-well built during the Lodi period. The name of Rajon ki Baoli is derived from its functionality as the baoli (step-well) was used by masons (raj) for some time. The water in the baoli was meant for cooking and drinking purposes.

Built as a four-level rectangular tank with steps at one end and a circular well at the other, the baoli also has long covered corridors or 'dalans' along the sides of the tank with arches beautifully decorated with incised limestone plaster. Another decorative feature is carved brackets that support the overhang or 'chhajja' below the parapet. There are rooms behind this arcade, which would no doubt have given shade and shelter to visitors to the step-well.

Colonnaded arcade on the top tier of the baoli
Steps leading down the baoli

Baoli at Purana Qila 

(1540's)

The baoli at Purana Qila lies between the Qila-e- Kohna Masjid and Sher Mandal. It is an interesting example of medieval water management. Stepwells like this one were typically fed by rainwater, sometimes supplemented by water from underground springs. A series of steps – in this case, eighty nine – separated by landings (this baoli has eight of them) lead down to the stepwell, allowing people to descend to the baoli to fetch water. Typically (as you’ll see in this baoli), the water was covered over with a roof to reduce evaporation and to keep the baoli clean.

The baoli is made mainly out of Delhi quartzite stone. It is closed to visitors, so one cannot go down to the water, but the fence surrounding the baoli is low enough to allow a glimpse of most of it. The water is now stagnant and dirty, but the well beyond – on the north-eastern end of the baoli – is still in use.

Left: A steep flight of eighty-nine steps with eight landings reaches down the baoli

Right: The fence encosed baoli is closed to public

Credits: Story

All material for this exhibit has been taken from INTACH Delhi Chapter's publications.
CONVENOR — A G Krishna Menon
CO-CONVENOR — Swapna Liddle
PROJECT CONSULTANT — Annabel Lopez
PROJECT TEAM — Abhiram Sharma, Arpita Ghatak, Niharika Singh, Tanya Singh, Aditya Mehta, Deb Banerji, Pulkit Taneja

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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