TIME TRAVEL: THE BAOLIS OF DELHI
As a student of History, I couldn’t have had a sweeter beginning to my autumn break. Himanshu Verma was leading a walk that would take me and my fellow walkers to the lost step wells (baolis) of Delhi. Himanshu is the founder of a New Delhi based arts organization called Red Earth that works with Indian contemporary visual art as well as diverse forms of cultural expression. Apart from being an artist, Himanshu is also a freelance researcher and writer. He is passionate about curating walks and curates some for breakaway to help keep the walkers’ love for heritage going! He is someone who has the ability to take you back in time and inter-mingle with the past. This, I happily realised on that perfect day when he took us on a walk back and forth in time. So here we were on Hailey road, waiting, and surrounded by bungalows and swanky cars. There was nothing remotely ancient about the area. Then Himanshu led us down the path, and was as if we had stepped into another time and dimension. We stood gaping at the Agrasen ki Baoli. Though people believe it was built by Agrasen of the Mahabharata, historians prefer to peg it at 14th century and attribute it to a welfare measure of the Agarwal community.
Even dry, the Baoli is awesome. One can with a little imagination picture how beautiful it must have been with the underground spring-fed water lapping at its 150 odd steps. Cool covered pavilions surround the well. It would have provided shade to people on blistering summer afternoons. From the Baoli one catches a glimpse of the sky scrapers of Connaught Place – a perfect juxtaposition of the old and the new.
The next stop was the noisy Nizamuddin basti. We covered our heads with vibrantly coloured scarves given to us at the dargah before entering. I had “Khwaja mere Khwaja” from Jodha-Akbar playing in my head! We first visited Aamir Khusrao’s tomb and then paid homage to Nizamuddin Auliya.
A walk through narrow galis, and laughter and splashing led us to the Nizamuddin Baoli. It was built in 1321, around the same time Tughlaqabad was being built. The story goes that Ghiasuddin Tughlaq refused to let work proceed on any other project while his massive fort was being built. When he found out that workers went about building the baoli at night, he was furious and played spoilt-sport by cutting off oil supply to the area, leaving it in darkness at night. But Khwaja-ji’s divinity came to the rescue when he lit lamps using plain water, providing light to work on the well. Recently, a passage was found connecting the Baoli to the dargah of Nizamuddin.
Our next destination was Mehrauli. The drive took us past parts of Lutyens Delhi. Then we went back some more in time. At Mehrauli, once again down a gali, Gandak ki Baoli awaited us. It was so well hidden that we almost missed it. Himanshu told us that Baoli got its name from the sulphur springs that fed it. The not-so-pleasant- smell of sulphur still lingered. A set of pillars with carvings added to the ambience.
A little further down the gali and a left-turn later, we found ourselves at the edge of what looked like a forest. It was the Mehrauli Heritage Park. Amidst the thick green shrubs and bushes, there were remnants of some ancient structures.
They stood half-hidden and almost forgotten. One of the structures was the Rajon ki Baoli. Built during the 16th century by Sikandar Lodhi, it was the most ornate of the four Baolis we had been to. This Baoli was built by the ruler for the masons (known as Raj). That’s right! Rajon ki Baoli doesn’t mean the Baoli of the kings! Once we tired of clicking photographs, we just sat there soaking in the beauty of the place.
As a student of History, I have always wanted to explore Delhi. I have of course, been to the better known monuments. But this walk was a class apart. We got a glimpse of Delhi’s ancient cities and we could connect with the past. It only made me fall in love even deeper with history. It was a walk like none other I had ever had. It was memorable and I am hoping there will be plenty more from where this came from.
Lady Shri Ram College
University of Delhi