Before piped water reached homes, people were dependent on rivers, wells, lakes and stepwells for water, be it for drinking, washing, bathing or irrigation. Since rains are seasonal, the necessity to harness groundwater and collect rainwater has led to the creation of tanks, wells, and step wells, showcasing the architectural knowledge of local communities throughout history.
Historical accounts have instances of kings abandoning their palaces due to water scarcity, with Fatehpur Sikri and Tughlaqabad serving as notable examples. Many rulers strategically chose capital locations along riverbanks, such as Delhi, which has been the capital seven times and is traversed by the Yamuna.
At one point, Delhi boasted over 100 step wells. However, only around 30 remain today as others were lost over time.
Some of the stepwells have been uncovered, preserved, and restored while others are dying a silent death due to neglect.
Baolis are found across India but are a predominant architectural feature in the arid north-western region which includes Gujarat and Rajasthan. As the name implies, stepwells have a series of steps leading down to the water storage area, facilitating access during dry seasons when water levels drop.
The kings and royal families commissioned numerous tanks and baolis to collect rainwater during the monsoon. This method of rainwater harvesting and water conservation provided a year-round water supply for the locals. Mostly, separate baolis were constructed for drinking and bathing, often located near mosques and temples. People would wash, and bathe before prayers, perform rituals, and even celebrate some ceremonies at the baolis. They also offered shelter for travelers and caravans.
Baolis have three architectural elements: the well for water collection, a series of steps leading to groundwater through multiple stories, and intermediate pavilions.
Delhi's oldest existing baoli is the Anangtal in Mehrauli and dates back to the 10th century. Though it does not have the typical architectural elements of baolis, it was one of the first stepwells to have survived to date. On June 27, 2022, the Delhi government ordered the restoration of Anangtal Baoli.
Here are five stepwells or baolis of Delhi that provided water to the capital in the bygone centuries:
1. Gandhak ki Baoli
It is one of the largest stepwells in Delhi, bearing witness to significant historical transformations since the 13th century. Nestled near the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, this baoli forms part of Delhi's extensive network of similar water structures, most of which have been lost.
It is one of the deepest stepwells in the city, teetering on the brink of fading into obscurity. Gandhak is sulphur and the baoli is named after the sulfuric smell pervading its surroundings.
It is a five-storied structure said to have been commissioned by Iltutmish, the founder of the Slave Dynasty, around 1211-1236 AD.
The baoli was constructed to ensure a steady water supply to residents throughout the year. Located just 100 meters away from Adham Khan's tomb and beside the Jahaz Mahal, the baoli made of brimstone served its purpose for many centuries. However, it has now been abandoned and is occasionally used by locals as a swimming pool when water levels rise.
Despite being under the protection and maintenance of the Archaeological Survey of India, Gandhak Ki Baoli remains in a state of neglect.
2. Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli
This stepwell was constructed during the lifetime of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in 1321-22. In July 2008, a section of the Baoli collapsed, prompting scientific analysis and restoration efforts. For the first time in history, the Baoli was desilted to its original depth of 80 feet below ground level. Extensive repairs, including the removal of a 20th-century epoxy layer, were undertaken.
It is the sole surviving baoli in Delhi with underground springs that keep pumping water into the stepwell.
The eastern side of the baoli has a vaulted corridor leading to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. For over seven centuries, this stepped well has quenched the thirst of millions and continues to do so even today.
3. Rajon ki Baoli
Also known as Rajon ki Bain, it is a stepwell within the Mehrauli Archaeological Park in Delhi. Constructed in 1506 CE by Daulat Khan, an administrator of the Lodi dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, the site includes the stepwell and also a mosque and a tomb.
The name Rajon Ki Baoli originated from the term ‘Raj mistris’, which means masons in Hindi. The baoli got this name in the early 20th century due to the permanent settlement of masons in the area.
Approaching from the North, one can see steps leading down to the water-filled stepwell. The monument has a courtyard surrounded by a verandah with beautiful pillars and arches crafted in the typical North Indian style of that era. It is near Adam Khan's Tomb and Gandhak Ki Baoli.
4. AnangTal Baoli
The oldest stepwell in Delhi and reportedly the oldest in the North and North-West India, it dates back to the 10th century AD. It was built in 1060 AD by Rajput king Anangpal II, the great-grandfather of the king Prithviraj Chauhan. The women of the royal family hosted an annual charity event at the baoli.
Situated around 100 meters west (backside) of the Yogmaya Mandir in Mehrauli, Anangtal Baoli is a single-stage stepwell. Originally, it was an extensive stepwell and employed rainwater harvesting techniques for storage.
Now located in a forest, the baoli became a local waste dump yard, with sewage flowing into it. Despite its supposed maintenance by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Delhi High Court mandated the Yogmaya Mandir Welfare and Management Society to take over due to the DDA's neglect. In June, 2022, the Delhi administration directed officials to redevelop Anangtal Baoli to restore Delhi's heritage.
5. Tughlaqabad Baoli
During the rule of the Tughlak dynasty, Gyas-ud-din-Tughlak commissioned the construction of 13 Baolis, of which only two remain today, both situated within the Tughalakabad Fort. Named East and West Baoli, both showcase the 14th-century architectural style. The East Baoli, also known as Old Baoli, is accessible via a 30-step platform.
Constructed from rocks, this Baoli presents an imposing sight for visitors contemplating a descent into the stepwell. The West Baoli is no longer accessible due to its deteriorating condition.
Spanning an area of 6.5 km, the Fort is mostly shrouded in dense vegetation. The Fort and its adjacent complex currently languish in a state of disrepair, awaiting renovation to recapture a fragment of its former grandeur.
(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on environment, sustainability, education & women empowerment)