This new book is a handy guidebook to Delhi stepwells

A new book on Delhi’s stepwells, by heritage-enthusiast Vikramjit Singh Rooprai will be launched on Friday. A look into what went into its making

August 21, 2019 05:07 pm | Updated 05:07 pm IST

At the Rajon ki Baoli

At the Rajon ki Baoli

Vikramjit Singh Rooprai wants to “chuck the formal subject of history and bring in a little bit of the subject in everything” that students are taught in school – even science and mathematics. The 36-year-old Delhiite who started a company called Heritageshaala in 2017 does this just in his talks to schools and colleges.

He is a software engineer-turned marketing consultant, and is now a full-time heritage educator, quitting his job in 2016. Seven years before he made the switch, he’d started reading up on Delhi’s monuments and its culture, even starting a Facebook page called The Heritage Photography Club, encouraging people to visit various sites and submit photos on the page.

On Friday, Rooprai, who’s been spearheading these and many other heritage initiatives like walks around the city, will be launching his first book, called Baolis , published by Niyogi. This is only the first volume in a series called Delhi Heritage Top 10, which aims to be a “comprehensive guide to Delhi’s heritage icons and architectural gems.”

This is the first of its kind in that it exclusively focuses on the stepwells of Delhi. It is a guidebook of sorts, with Rooprai listing the capital’s 32 known baolis, expanding into longer notes on each of his top 10, including details of their location and accessibility.

Ahead of the launch, he talks about how he got into and taught himself about his city’s heritage, and the research that went into this book.

Edited excerpts.

In [historian] Sohail Hashmi’s foreward to your book, he ends with the thought that restoration of Delhi’s stepwells might help in replenishing its water-table. You however, are more sceptical about this. Why?

What I feel is that while it is possible to recharge the water table, I just think it isn’t easy. The amount of political will required for this...and then you have to deal with the builder mafia, etc. Also people who’ve been able to buy even a small piece of land to build their houses after decades of hard work — and now you’re asking them to modify their structures or land use? Major structural changes on 30, 40, 50-year-old homes are not easy — or cheap. This requires a bigger movement, something as big as the 1857 revolt, where the entire country was shook.

You had to learn Urdu to continue your research. When did you start, how long did it take you?

I started learning Urdu in 2013. I went online, a friend tried to teach me too, but that wasn’t too efficient because I was not regular. Then, I joined the Zabaan School for Languages in Kalkaji for a four-class crash-course. That really helped. After that, I purchased a lot of books in Urdu and started reading them. In total it took me about 4-6 months to read a sentence in a flow. It’s been 3-4 years now, but I can do it slowly.

You mention that you had dipped into archival material in Japanese too.

Yes. There is one book [ Delhi, architectural remains of the Delhi Sultanate period ], and it’s probably the biggest treasure on Delhi’s built-heritage, done by Tatsurō Yamamoto, Matsuo Ara, Tokifusa Tsukinowa, and Taichi Oshima, who were students at the University of Tokyo in the 1950s [published in 1970]. It was recently digitized, and you can use Google Translate to read it. There are beautiful pictures — the authors had apparently left copies with various individuals and libraries around here, but only a few remain. One with [historian] Prof. Narayani Gupta and a couple copies at the Central Archaeological Library.

In your book, you mention the first time that you went to Rajon ki Baoli [in Mehrauli Archaeological Park], along with the exact date of visit too. Can you recall the visit?

There was a point when I thought, ‘I’ve travelled to a lot of places through India, but knew nothing about Delhi’. Which is when I demarcated Delhi into north, south, east, west, and decided to use my weekends to explore these sections in detail.

When I reached Satpula, I was mesmerised. From there, I went to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and came to the Rajon ki Baoli. At that time, the Jamali Kamali mosque was open too — what we saw inside... jaise pairon ke neeche se zameen kisak gayi. It’s just so beautiful.

The common refrain when I asked around for more details about these places is ‘the government doesn’t do anything for them.’ So I figured I’d do something — which is when I started promoting the place. For one entire year, I would return to Mehrauli Archaeological Park every other weekend. I tried to document almost every piece of stone I saw. Even today, I end up finding something new there each time I visit.

You’ve used photos from ASI archives. How easy or hard as a lay person who’s interested in Delhi heritage, to access this trove?

It’s very easy. All you need to do is go to their library, which is open and free for the public, and tell them you want to see these drawings, or books. I just wrote to them, and spent about three months at their photo archives. But this is limited to only monuments under the ASI — which is 174 monuments.

Not all the baolis come under ASI protected structures. So the conjectural site plans you see in the book [other than the Ferozeshah Kotla Baoli] have been done by my former colleague at Heritageshaala, Nupur Bhatnagar, who is an architect.

Similarly, there are quite a few baolis listed in the book that require ASI permission to visit. Is it easy to get this permission?

They’re very responsive. You just have to write to the head of the Delhi circle, or the Director General of ASI. Depending on what you want to do there, they can grant or deny you permission. If your motive is merely tourism, it might be hard to get because some of the structures are fragile or risky to be opened up to the stream of general public. But they allow researchers, and charge commercial visitors. The fee is waived if the purpose of the commercial activity is education, in the case of my visits for this book.

Many parts of your book, while being traditionally informative in tone, talk conjecturally too. Was this ever an editorial problem with your publishers?

My editors didn’t interfere with the subject matter at all. But Sohail [Hashmi] sir and I went through many iterations to check for factual discrepancies. I gave him my manuscript in the last week of November in 2018. We got to the final draft only in mid-March. There was a lot of cross-questioning and debating the information in the book.

We encountered so many errors – not due to me, but there were historical and archiving errors that have changed the course of narratives. For example, the baoli that’s recently in the news, the one in Humayun’s Tomb that’s to be revamped — Maulvi Zafar Hasan spells its name as “Mihr Banu” in his English listing. Sohail sir pointed out that this doesn’t make sense, and that it’s probably “Meher Bano”. But when I looked this up further, it turned out it’s named actually after Meherban Agha [a eunuch who built a fruit and vegetable market nearby during the reign of Emperor Jahangir]. There are so many such things that have been distorted with time.

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