Where water sits still

In Delhi Heritage: Top 10 Baolis, young heritage enthusiast and photographer Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, journeys through the capital's many stepwells to trace their essence in a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of many a great. Excerpts:

Red Fort Baoli

It is rather amusing to learn that people in those days built a baoli for the public, hardly hundred metres away from the Yamuna. There is a possibility that the medieval people found some minerals in Yamuna that were/are unsafe for daily consumption, or simply the brackish nature of Yamuna prevented them from using the water regularly. May be, that was why they relied more on the water of the wells and baolis, where it got filtered by sand.

When the British army converted this fort into its permanent cantonment, they covered this baoli with iron girders, leaving only the first level accessible. Pipes were pushed into the well and water was pumped out using motors. Later, on 6 July 1945, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, Shah Nawaz Khan, and Prem Kumar Sahgal, the three brave commanders of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army, were brought to the Red Fort. This baoli served as a jail for them. Arches were sealed with brick walls. Small guarded doors and windows were built, confining these special prisoners. A makeshift toilet was also made inside these dark cells. Later, the trio was tried in the Salimgarh Fort, situated behind Red Fort. These covered arches and windows with bars still exist there.

After 1947, the Indian Army continued to occupy the Red Fort and the baoli was forgotten. Vegetation grew over it, and it was nothing more than a garbage dumping ground. In 2002, the army handed over this fort to the ASI, who was preparing it to be the next World Heritage Site. The ASI started desilting and removing the encroachments, which took

several months. The original plan of the ASI was to convert this baoli into a memorial for the army, but given the sensitive structure and threat of snakes all around, the idea was never executed. Instead, a nice museum was put up in Salimgarh, a stone's throw away from this baoli. The iron girders that were removed are kept in one corner of the baoli. Few more buildings built by the army right on the edge of the baoli were removed during the restoration in 2018–19.

In 2012, the water pockets around the well were much higher than the level of water in it. One could hence hear spouts of water falling in from a height into the baoli. The scenario changed in 2016 when, during the construction of Delhi Metro's Heritage Line, the workers accidentally punctured the underground water channel. This resulted in draining of the underground waterway, and it dried up the baoli. The mistake was detected and rectified, and water returned to the baoli in less than a year.

Another interesting element in this baoli is that the octagonal shaft of the well has a small walled structure on top of it. This structure used to hold the Persian Wheel with which people used to pull water out of this baoli. Towards the southern and eastern sides, the wall has tiny arcaded rooms. On the southern side, we have a small temple functioning, while on the eastern side, there is a grave. There is absolutely no documentation of their origin or even existence. It appears to be from the times of the Indian Army and is currently maintained by the local staff.

Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Baoli

As the story goes, the construction of a baoli in Ghyaspura (now Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Basti or Nizam-ud-Din West) was underway, when Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlaq's ambitious project Tughlaqabad began. Tughlaq forced all the available labour to work only for Tughlaqabad, and the work at the baoli was stalled. Khwaja Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, fourth in the Chishti order of Sufism in India, requested masons to work at the baoli during late hours after their shift in Tughlaqabad. He was a beloved of everyone, so the masons agreed to do the job. One day, a supervisor found one of the masons sleeping during his day shift. Upon inquiry, the covert double shift plan was revealed. Tughlaq got so angry that he prohibited the sale of burning oil in the region. Without oil, earthen lamps could not be lit, and without light, no one could work at night. It is said that Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Auliya cursed the fort of Tughlaqabad and suggested his disciple Hazrat Nasiruddin to attempt lighting the lamps with the baoli's water. People say that Hazrat Nasiruddin, who later became Nizam-ud-Din's successor, illuminated the village by lighting lamps filled with mere water. He was thus given the title of Roshan Chiragh-e-Dehli (the light of Delhi). The water of this baoli is considered miraculous thenceforth. One variation of this story is found in the record of Zafar Hasan, where he mentions that when Ghiyas-ud-Din prohibited the sale of oil in the region, Nizam-ud-Din complained to Sayyid Muhammad Behar, who was building a mud wall. The latter, angered at the emperor's persecution of the saint, demolished his mud wall and exclaimed,

'I have destroyed his empire!' Other writers attribute this incident to Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din and say that the saint cursed the city of Tughlaqabad with the words, 'Ya rahe ujjad, ya base gujjar', implying that the city will either remain in ruins or be populated by herders.

This is a story that the people of Delhi will narrate to you with pride. However, such stories are often regarded as hearsay and discarded by credible historians. But they remain an important part of the oral traditions of a community and say a lot about the era. Such stories sometimes also fall prey to Chinese whispers. Going by the recorded information, many historians and archaeologists noted that this baoli was built in ad 1321–22, during the lifetime of Khwaja Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Khwaja Nizam-ud-Din started removing the mud with his own hands, thus marking the beginning. In 1379, one Muhammad Maruf, son of the minister Wahiduddin Qureshi, built mud houses in the nearby streets of this baoli and inscribed the name of Feroz Shah Tughlaq on a stone slab. Sir Syed Ahmad mentions seeing this slab (mid-nineteenth century). He also says that there are several graves and dwellings around the baoli. The wall around the baoli (and the shrine) was built by Nawab Ahmad Baksh Khan of Ferozepur. To the south of the baoli, there is an arcaded chamber adorned with pierced, red-sandstone jalis. Originally, these arches were not sealed with jalis and were just covered with small stone parapets to prevent one from falling into the baoli. While experts like Maulvi Zafar Hasan find this structure of no interest, I think that this chamber is one of the most important aesthetic elements of the baoli. The baoli today is recognized due to this chamber and its five windows. Other important structures comprising the baoli wall are the tombs of Fatima Bibi and Zuhra Aga in the north-west corner, Chini ka Burj to the west, Bai Kodaldai's Tomb to the west, and a building called Lal Chaubara to the north-west. Some of these buildings are dilapidated beyond recognition, and a few even lost. On the eastern side is the passage to enter the dargah. The baoli is accessed through a small gate from the north.

(Excerpted with permission from Delhi Heritage: Top 10 Baolis; by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai; published by Niyogi Books. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'The Baolis of Delhi'.)

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