Stepping Back in Time – Step wells of Delhi

Concealed behind expansive bungalows surrounded by lush green gardens and an occasional high-rise apartment complex, this archaeological treasure reveals itself only to the determined seeker. Agrasen ki baoli is an ancient stepwell right in the heart of the national capital, on Hailey Road, just a stone’s throw from Connaught Place and India Gate. Yet, unless one knows where it is, one is unlikely to stumble upon this architectural gem. It is one of the 30-odd surviving baolis that hark back to an era when Delhi was a sprawling jungle on the Yamuna floodplains, and is perhaps the best-preserved of them all.

Agrasen ki baoli is believed to have originated in the era of the Mahabharata, but the present structure was rebuilt in the 14th century. The plaque at the site refers to it as Ugrasen ki baoli, drawn from an old map dated 1868 from the National Archives where the British author had named it “Oojer Sain’s Bowlee”. It probably refers to Maharaja Agrasen, believed to have been a contemporary of Lord Krishna.

Although Delhi is located in the Yamuna river basin, the early rulers of this ancient land, both Hindu and Mughal, realised the salience of water as the elixir of life. In the 14th century, the Tughlaq kings built numerous canals to coax the waters of the Yamuna into Delhi and its environs. These were supplemented by baolis and kuans.

A baoli is a fairly large stepwell that provides a steady supply of water throughout the year. It is distinguished in size from a kuan, or well, which is smaller and takes care of the water requirements of a family. A kuan is usually located within a residential complex, often in the courtyard, whereas baolis were meant to serve a much larger community. They were secular structures that drew water from the ground in the dry season and harvested rain water during the monsoons to recharge. Baolis that stored water for drinking were separate from those that provided water for washing and other uses.

Baolis lent themselves admirably to artistic sensibilities of the period, as is obvious from the harmony and beauty in their design. They are circular, rectangular or octagonal and come in all sizes too. Their depth and design are eminently suited to prevent evaporation in the searing summer heat of the northern plains. The lowest level stores water and is surrounded by three or more higher levels containing pavilions or arches which are accessed by a series of steps. Some of them are surrounded by dalans, or colonnaded verandahs.

Baolis were often surrounded by shady trees and gardens. There is an air of serenity about the baolis in Delhi despite the dilapidated state they are in today because of centuries of neglect. Lovely arches skirt the baolis, their niches providing cool refuge in the summer, making them centres of social interaction. In the Mughal period, baolis came to be embellished with exquisite calligraphy as well.

While there is no official record of the history of these baolis, a few plaques that have survived do provide priceless information. The earliest surviving baoli in Delhi is near the Qutab Minar. Iltutmish (reign 1211-1236), considered the founder of the Delhi Sultanate, built many baolis, including the Gandhak ki baoli with its five tiers. Firoz Shah Tughlaq (reign 1351-1388) not only built baolis but developed impressive gardens around them. The oldest existing baoli in Delhi, the Anangtal baoli, is located in Mehrauli, which was also known as Yoginipura, and was built in the 10th century by the Rajput king Anang Pal II of the Tomara dynasty. Anangtal literally means reservoir provided by Anang Pal, who belonged to the House of Tomar. There are three surviving baolis in Mehrauli: Gandhak ki baoli, Rajon ki baoli and Anangtal baoli.

Most of them are dry today through years of neglect. While there is no hope of reviving them as sources of water, many of them are protected monuments and attract connoisseurs of good architecture.