Monday, January 13, 2014

Baolis of Delhi - Step Wells of Delhi


Delhi, with its modern malls and fast forward attitude now is steeped in History. So much is history that the Dilliwallahs take it for granted. Together with its host of Gummads, forts, tombs, makbaras are a chain of step wells which once fed Delhi’s growing population. The wells were so beautifully designed that they formed a network for carrying water from the Aravalli Hills to the plains of the Delhi. It was a catchment for tapping the running off of water from the Hills to the River Yamuna. Given the intensity of the heat in the plains of the Delhi, the wells formed the ideal cooling point. There are several Baolis as these step wells are called in Delhi.  Baolis have been a part of Delhi’s landscape since the 10th century or perhaps earlier. Delhi today has about 30 baolis, the oldest spanning a good 1000 years. Nothing is known about the origins of the various baolis, the ancientness deciphered on the basis of the structure standing around it now. It was built and re-built by successive rulers. It is possible that the origins may have even been several centuries earlier and the structure like we see today may have come up 500 years ago. The first or the oldest Baoli in Delhi is located in the Mehrauli area and attributed to the Tomar dynasty and is said to be built in the 10th century AD.

The baolis are grand structure built with a lot of thought and sound architecture. The baoli can be described as having two parts – a vertical shaft through which the water can be drawn akin to the concept of the well and the surrounding areas which is a composition of passageways, chambers and of course steps to go down.  The history of each of the baoli is unique and stands out. Today an effort has been made to specially revive them and the effort has been successful in a few of them. It is possible to see water in a couple of baolis. Khari Baoli meant the water in the well was khari or saltish. Panchkuian came to be named after the five wells. Ferozshah Kotla, yes the famous cricket stadium also has a well which has been revived. The unique concept of using water for heating and cooling using such systems is yet to be understood fully in all its glory.

The understanding of the working of the baolis is a revelation on water conservation and the focus on free availability of water. It brings to light the manner in which the resting places, watering bodies were available freely for a traveler to rest and quench his thirst. These water wells were community bodies for people to come together. More importantly it was a way of conserving water in the terrible terrible of heat of Delhi’s summer. The baolis provided shelter and relief against the scorching sun. Several of them were made with resting chambers on the side, where man and his tired beast – cattle or horse could rest before starting off on a journey again. It speaks volumes about the understanding of the principle of water conservation, water harvesting, harnessing and channelizing of precious rain water. These concepts, which we seem to be rediscovering now was the done thing then. Today, several of these wells cannot be re-charged or used as it was once done due to construction activities around the area. The rampant digging, building of high rise and basement has simply cut off all channels of water harvesting. Even as late as the 70s, several of the baolis were brimming with water as photos available with the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) show. Several of them have been successfully restored by the ASI. Work on several others is still in progress, documentation of several of them has been done, while that of many still remains. My quest will be to document some of these baolis here. I am not sure, how many I can successfully visit as most are out of the way places where safety is a concern and quite depressing unlike the markets and other such livelier places. But History needs to survive, so here goes my adventure on it.

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