Walking back in time, trying to find some of the old stepwells in Delhi was what Sudarshana Srinivasan decided to do one fine day.

I set out on a heritage walk in search of the lost waters of Delhi (the Baolis or step-wells). Organised by Breakaway (an initiative that organises off-beat and customised tours), the walk was curated by Himanshu Verma, founder of a New Delhi-based arts organisation Red Earth. It was a fine autumn afternoon when three employees of a store, a hotel owner, a social worker and I, a student of History, walked down lanes that took us from the 21st century into the 14th century.

Retracing routes

We gathered at the centre of the city (Barakhamba Road, Connaught Place). I was no stranger to this area as my friends and I often visited a popular burger joint. But I was astonished to see an almost-invisible lane off the posh Hailey Road. We walked into a different era and the Agrasen ki Baoli.

A rusty old gate, a crumbling stone boundary wall cordoned off a step-well that had lain there for centuries. We were informed that the 105-step Baoli used to be the epicentre of cultural life in Delhi. The city relied on the groundwater from these Baolis. The Agrasen ki Baoli, named after Raja Agrasen of the Mahabharata, is believed to have been built during the 10th century BC. But historians feel the Baoli was built in the 14th century AD by the Agarwal community. The well was surrounded by cool corridors where the locals lounged on hot summer afternoons. The Baoli is now dry but it is easy to imagine it being full of water. Of course, back then, sitting on the top stairs of the Baoli, they would not have the view we were enjoying: the skyscrapers of Connaught Place in the backdrop.

More to come

Three more Baolis awaited us. So from the 14th century we headed into the Delhi Sultanate era and the crowded and noisy Nizamuddin basti. We passed the butchers and flower vendors to join the stream of visitors to the dargah. The Baoli lay a short distance behind the tomb. We could hear shrieks of laughter and the splash of water. This is the only Baoli in Delhi that still has water.

The construction of this step-well began at the same time as Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq began building his massive Tughlaqabad fort. The emperor wanted all the masons in the land to work on his fort alone. They could not undertake any other project. However, Nizamuddin was keen on having the Baoli built at the same time. So the masons worked on the fort during the day and on the Baoli by night. In a fit of pique, the emperor cut off the supply of oil to Ghiyaspur (present day Nizamuddin) so that there would be no light to work on the Baoli at night. The story goes that Nizamuddin lit the lamps with water and cursed the emperor, saying that his fort would remain deserted on completion.

We re-negotiated the noisy basti, passed by the elegant bungalows of Lutyens' Delhi (feeling like we were going back and forth in time) and headed to Mehrauli where the Gandhak ki Baoli and the Rajon ki Baoli waited for us.

The Gandhak ki Baoli was built by Iltutmish for Bakhtiar Kaki (a Sufi mystic responsible for establishing the Sufi order in Delhi). The Gandhak ki Baoli got its name from the smelly sulphur springs that fed the well. All that remains today are some carved pillars and the sulphur spring has given way to stagnant water.

We had to walk through the Mehrauli archaeological park to get to the Rajon ki Baoli. The park is strewn with remnants of tombs and old pavilions. I learnt that there was so much more to Mehrauli than the Qutub Minar.

Remaining relics

The Rajon ki Baoli was simply grand. Of all the Baolis, it was the most ornamental. Built by Sikander Lodhi in the 16th century, ‘Rajon' refers not to the kings but to the masons. Unfortunately, in the name of restoration, the carved walls and columns are being plastered over. All the detailing is being smothered by paint and plaster. We sat there for a while sadly contemplating the remains of an era that may soon vanish altogether.

Agrasen ki Baoli: Located off Hailey Road. Nearest metro station is Barakhamba Road.

Nizamuddin Baoli: Located next to the Nizamuddin police station. Nearest metro stations are Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium or Jangpura.

Gandhak ki Baoli: Located in Mehrauli. Nearest metro station is Qutub Minar.

Rajon ki Baoli: Located in the Mehrauli archaeological park. Nearest metro station is Qutub Minar.

No entry fee required for any of the Baolis.

Sudarshana is a History Honours student in Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi

Keywords: heritage sites