Here in Delhi, the heat is oppressive. I’m in a special place. Down the stone stairs. Shade. The wet sari clinging to her skin, Zeenat Begum is washing herself in cool water. The pool is covered with the yellow leaves of kikar. “It’s my hamam,” says the elderly woman. Picking up her blouse from the steps, she says, “I’m a beggar and I bathe like a queen.”
Zeenat Begum’s hamam is Gandhak ki Baoli, Delhi’s oldest surviving stepwell. Because of its sulphur-rich water, said to have healing properties for skin ailments, this baoli was used as a spa. Built by Sultan Altutmush in the 13th century, it is a beautiful otherworldly abyss close to the Qutub Minar in south Delhi.
A water monument of sculptured columns and lattice walls, a baoli is a secret world linking light to shade, earth to water. A flight of stone stairs, punctuated with landings with pavilions and chambers, leads to the bottom. In the monsoon, water comes up to the upper steps. In the dry season, it recedes to the lower levels.
Novelist Anita Desai somewhere described baolis as “a profound world of myth, philosophy, belief, beauty, and understanding”.
Connected with well and groundwater aquifers, baolis were built to collect rainwater during the monsoons and allow people to access the receding water through the year. K K Muhammad, superintending archaeologist of the Delhi circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), describes baolis as air conditioners, “their chambers and passageways kept cool by the water”. “Baolis were also social networking sites,” says Jutta Jain-Neubauer, author of The Stepwells of Gujarat, the first book ever written on baolis, “where people gathered to escape hot afternoons.”
Unique to India, about 3,000 baolis were built between the seventh and mid-19th centuries, most in the arid regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. “Baolis attained unsurpassed monumentality and elaborateness in Gujarat alone,” says Jain-Neubauer, who lives in Vasant Kunj (south Delhi) and who is getting ready to prepare a second edition of her 1981 classic.
The baolis of Delhi stand nowhere to those of Gujarat. Dedicated to Hindu gods, stepwells in Gujarat were lavishly carved. Delhi’s baolis date from a much later period and are less artistic.
The most neglected of the city’s monuments, baolis tell of a time when men followed their quest for water through means more gentle and humble. Then, men dug earth to reach water and now, we steer the course of rivers to force water to reach us Compared to dams that destroy nature and communities, baolis were ecologically friendly.”
At the turn of the last century, Delhi had more than 100 baolis. Today, many of them have caved in or dried up owing to the declining water table. The number has shrunk to about 15, according to the ASI.
The few baolis that remain accessible must be visited in summer. Cold, damp and quiet, these stepwells are an oasis of solitude, rare in this crowded, noisy, smoggy metropolis.
Delhi-wallahs gathered in baolis to flee from summer heat, academic-activist Sohail Hashmi, a walking encyclopaedia on the city, told me. There they lounged, slept, played chauser and pacheesi with friends or smoked hookahs.
Today, the few who visit baolis go there either to meet their lovers, or to get away from the world.
Amid the business towers and residential apartments of central Delhi, the 14th century Agrasen ki Baoli has its own fan club on Facebook. Flanked by niches, chambers and passageways, the 104 stone steps, descending into the well’s dry depths, have three landings.
Although the baoli is dry, the air is cool even at the peak of summer.
Until 2002, it had water. In the baoli’s lower reaches, the sunlight fades. The gurgling sound of hundreds of resident pigeons echoes off the stone walls. Hidden in the various nooks and bays of the baoli, the birds frequently fly out with a great flapping of wings.
Since a baoli is built below ground level, its architectural aesthetics can only be appreciated once you enter it. At Agrasen ki Baoli, the experience is more intense because the steps of the baoli and the high-rises of Connaught Place present a dramatic contrast: the 14th century joining the 21st century in one straight line.
The high-rises, Muhammad says, are the reason why baolis cannot be restored to their original self. “Multi-floor buildings claim more water and so the level of Delhi’s water table has plunged. We cannot refill baolis with water.”
The baoli in the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Basti is the only stepwell in Delhi to have an active underground spring that ensures a continuous supply of fresh water. For centuries, pilgrims stopped at the baoli to sip its blessed water. For years, the boys living in Nizamuddin Basti dived into the baoli – especially when it was flooded with monsoon rain – from the roofs, windows and ledges of the surrounding houses and from the top of the baoli wall from the other side.
Over the decades, the water of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s baoli became toxic with decomposed muck. In 2009, a renovation project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and ASI managed to reach the well’s foundation.
Today, the water looks clean. A new generation of neighbourhood boys climbs on the roofs, jump into the water, swim and go back to the roofs to jump again.
It is late summer afternoon. The sun’s glare is white. The Rajon ki Baoli in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park is empty. The well is dry. In her book Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, Lucy Peck calls it “the prettiest baoli in Delhi”.
With 66 steps, the baoli’s top floor has a row of arched niches, which are cool inside. There is no noise save that of aeroplanes preparing to land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bring a novel, a flask of chilled water and it becomes a perfect place to while away a summer afternoon.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos