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One step at a time

Abhimanyu Kumar | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Salvaging the ruins: Visitors at Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there are 16 baolis in the Capital, most of them in a very poor state. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Salvaging the ruins: Visitors at Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there are 16 baolis in the Capital, most of them in a very poor state. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  The Hindu

Salvaging the ruins: Visitors at Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there are 16 baolis in the Capital, most of them in a very poor state. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Salvaging the ruins: Visitors at Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi. According to the Archaeological Survey of India, there are 16 baolis in the Capital, most of them in a very poor state. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  The HIndu

Restoring Delhi’s baolis (stepwells) is an uphill task. But slow and steady efforts are now in place, thankfully

The annual Urs at the dargah of Sufi saint Bakhtiyar Kaki, in Mehrauli, has just ended. Biryani is being served to the poor — some are waiting patiently for their turn in a queue, while those who have received their share mill about in the spacious courtyard. The December sunshine is bright and warm.

Fauzan Ahmed, a short, wiry man, who acts as the caretaker of the dargah, is taking in the sun while chatting up a local acquaintance. He seems content as festivities reach their culmination around him, with the final feast for the poor.





However, his “life’s mission”, as he terms it, remains unfinished and continues to cause him anguish, though his kind, bearded face does not betray it. For quite a few years now, he has been lobbying with various government agencies to get the dargah’s subterranean baoli restored. But, after an initial bit of success a few years ago, his efforts have been repeatedly stymied. Despite interventions from the Shahjehanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) and the Waqf Board in 2011, the baoli remains a garbage dump. “The private company they hired had managed to clear the debris and this helped the water level rise. However, the work could not continue, given the political uncertainty with back-to-back elections in the years that followed,” he rues. The baoli is now littered with empty water bottles, worn-out shoes, used thermocol plates, and a solitary sofa set, among other things. The SRDC and Waqf Board are currently not in a position to restore the baoli, BL ink has learnt.

This baoli is the only underground step-well in Delhi and may well be called an architectural marvel, what with an abandoned sama khana right next to it. A sama khana is where musical gatherings, especially qawwalis, were held by Sufi saints, with participation from the nobility in medieval times. But the pitiable condition of the baoli is not unique to it. Mehrauli has two more baolis: Gandhak ki Baoli and Rajon ki Baoli. The latter was restored a while back and attracts local and foreign visitors. The former, despite its algae-filled water littered with waste, continues to be used by residents, who bathe in it in the belief that it has medicinal powers, which is said to cure skin diseases.

Though it is generally believed that Delhi had as many as 100 baolis at some point, R S Fonia, spokesperson of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and its resident expert on stepwells, said the actual number was much higher. “Baolis were crucial to the social and economic life in Delhi in the pre-modern period. They acted as a meeting place for residents and helped irrigate the fields,” he says, explaining their large numbers. Fonia claims that many more baolis are likely to surface if the ASI were to dig for them. “Even the Red Fort has at least one more baoli than the one we know about,” he reveals. The ASI takes care of the nearly 16 baolis that are known to exist today in the Capital, as most of them are in a state of dilapidation.

According to Fonia, there are several factors which hinder the restoration and upkeep of these baolis. First, the urban setting, with its ubiquitous concrete surfaces, makes it difficult for rainwater to seep into the baolis to recharge them. Secondly, even if all the baolis were to become functional again, they may not be enough to meet the water needs of the current populace. Last, but not the least, the local communities living near the baolis are not sensitised to their history or potential use, which makes their upkeep a challenging task.

The baoli in Nizamuddin is an exception, thanks to the efforts put in by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which restored it in partnership with ASI and other government agencies. Built by the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia himself, it collapsed in 2008, after which the Trust was roped in to restore it. The work, says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the organisation, involved “rebuilding collapsed portions, repairing adjoining sewerage lines, providing alternative accommodation to the 18 families that were residing atop the baoli, engaging with housing improvement and removing about 40 ft of accumulated rubbish. It is still a work-in-progress as some structures like the Lal Chaubura remain encroached. Pilgrims — of whom 4,000-6,000 pass by the baoli each day, throwing rubbish — remain the biggest threat and we are engaged in increasing awareness to limit this.”

The Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has been conducting heritage walks to the baoli in Nizamuddin and the two functional baolis in Mehrauli, says Kanika Dawar, project coordinator with the organisation. They will be organising a cycle tour to Agrasen ki Baoli in Connaught Place soon, she said. “We work with local communities also, in order to sensitise them about the importance of baolis,” says Dawar.

Though the baolis may not be able to fulfil the water needs of the entire city, their restoration and upkeep will go a long way towards this end.

According to Ahmed and Nanda, rainwater harvesting, followed by storage of water in the baolis, is the way to go. Ahmed has been in touch with a Delhi University team of students working on restoring Delhi’s baolis, under professor Nirmal Kumar.

Ultimately, Ahmed says, “water (conservation) cannot be only a matter of heritage. Its very nature demands that it should be in flow and use.”

Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

Published on December 30, 2016
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