The Forgotten Baolis of Delhi

Aditi Gupta
5 min readAug 23, 2021

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Delhi has such a huge effect on me that each aspect of my personality screams, “I am from Delhi”. I am a purebred Delhiite and my love for Dilli dearest is immeasurable. From the vibrant markets and legendary street food to its historic roots, with all its flaws, Delhi is my favourite city in the world.

It is said that one cannot walk a few miles in Delhi without colliding with history. Delhi has never failed to fascinate me with its history. Be it in the form of Pandava’s Indraprastha, walled city of Shahjahanabad or Lutyen’s Delhi of the British, it has been a witness to political turmoil and a victim to invasion, for centuries. Admittedly, these events have shaped the city’s character. Consequently, the landscape of Delhi is dotted with historical monuments from ancient, medieval and modern periods.

While some of these popular monuments are loved by Delhiites and other tourists, there are some hidden gems in the bylanes of Delhi that are yet to be explored. This piece is dedicated to those unexplored parts of Delhi that promise their fair share of history. In my quest of finding these lesser known Delhi structures, I have explored Rosharana Begum’s Tomb, Mirza Ghalib’s Haveli, Mutiny Memorial, Razia Sultan’s Tomb, etc. One such kind of structures, in particular, that was the most intriguing to me was our baolis.

Baoli (also known as bawri or vav), are human-made stepwells that provided a year round source of water for the community. Baolis are concentrated in the more arid regions of India like Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat. These water conservation systems consisted of two main parts: an underground circular well that extended deep to access the water table, using a bucket and pulley system, and a rectangular tank in the front that was accessed through a flight of stairs, used for rainwater harvesting. Some baolis had chambers which were these cool shaded sanctuaries inside that provided a resting place for pilgrims, passing caravans, and other travellers. Baolis differ in style as some are L-shaped while others are rectangular or circular. Overall, these baolis had cultural, social and religious significance in their prime.

The following are but some of the more impressive baolis scattered throughout Delhi, waiting to be admired for its human ingenuity:

Agrasen Ki Baoli

Nestled in the heart of Central Delhi lies Agrasen Ki Baoli, a stepwell with splendid architecture. It is built in rectangular shape using rubble masonry. It is constructed on three different levels which are accessed through its single flight staircase. There are symmetrical arched niches on both sides, that provided a shaded place for recreation, and passages to the room inside the baoli. Today, Agrasen Ki Baoli is more popular as a haunted place than as an ancient stepwell.

Agrasen Ki Baoli

Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli

Situated in the Hazrat Nizamuddin Complex is a surviving baoli sustained by an active underground spring. It was constructed under the supervision of the famous sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. The water is believed to be possess curative power and thus considered holy. The baoli is constructed with typical architectural features from the 14th century like arches and lattice windows. Thankfully, this baoli is undergoing conservation and hopefully it will soon be restored to its original glory.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli

Rajon Ki Baoli

This baoli from the Lodi period is a large rectangular baoli built by Daulat Khan in 1506. The word “rajon” means masons and the stepwell is believed to have been used exclusively by the masons. The architectural style is distinctive of the Lodi period with arches on the side, intricate plasterwork design and an arcade on top. This three-storeyed structure has a superior architecture than most of the other Delhi baolis.

Rajon Ki Baoli

Gandhak Ki Baoli

It was supposedly built in the 13th century under the rule of Iltutmish. It is one of the deepest stepwells in Delhi with a total of five storeys. The materials used for its construction was sandstone. Each floor is lined with ornate pillared passages. The baoli was named “gandhak” (which means sulphur) because the water contained sulphur and was believed to have medicinal properties.

Gandhak Ki Baoli

Firoz Shah Kotla Baoli

This baoli was constructed in the 14th century by Firoz Shah Tughlaq. It is the only circular baoli in Delhi. Unlike the other baolis, the well is not separated from the tank here. Some say it was once covered with a roof on top. The three-storeyed stepwell has arched recesses on its outer wall. Today, the water in the baoli is pumped to irrigate the garden of the Firoz Shah Kotla.

Firoz Shah Kotla Baoli

Red Fort Baoli

Unlike the usual single staircase, this baoli has staircases on two sides that are built perpendicularly. At the end of the both staircases, there is a tank which is connected to the well on its side. Inside this L-shaped stepwell, there are chambers built on the intersection. It is said that these were used as prison cells by the British to capture officers of the Indian army.

Red Fort Baoli

With time, baolis became redundant. The use of modern plumbing technology ensured their decline. Besides, during the colonial period, they were either filled or destroyed because they were considered unsanitary by the British. If revived, this expertise from the bygone era can provide a solution to water scarcity in Delhi.

This last year, I have observed friends and family indulging in new recreational activities, picking up old hobbies, learning new skills and following all the crazy quarantine trends. Just as the pandemic induced lockdown was an opportunity for all of us to explore our identities and interests, the post lockdown Delhi can be a similar chance for digging deep into our city’s heritage. These breathtaking structures will make you proud of our rich history.

In the words of the most famous admirer of Delhi, “Ek roz apni rooh se poochha ki dilli kya hai, toh yun jawab mai keh gaye, yeh duniya maano jism hai aur dilli uski jaan”. Ghalib immortalized Delhi with his words, which can be translated as “I asked my soul one day: What is Delhi? The answer that came was: If the world is the body, then Delhi is its soul.”

On your next trip to my city, make sure to experience at least one of these age old engineering marvels that are dotting Delhi’s landscape. I promise you that it is worth your time.

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