Long back I tweeted about how I deleted a draft on Baolis, as I found better works on the same topic & I wasn’t satisfied with mine. Few folks scolded me and asked to publish it. This post is for them & because of them.
I am still not happy with what I have scribbled below, but I had to write it for reasons mentioned in the epilogue. Do check the links I have shared in the end.
Baolis, or step-wells are known by different names in different cultures. Once a lifeline for those who stayed around them, today they are just another monument for the visiting tourists.
Agrasen-ki-baoli, near Connaught Place, Delhi
Lifeline of our Civilization
Baoli’s are my favourite when it comes to heritage buildings or monuments. No other monument, has ever talked to me like a Baoli. It told me about culture, people and about the necessity of water for human settlements – why else would they create these beautiful structures around those wells. Today, they are just pits and some are centuries old garbage bins!
Love At First Sight
My first visit to a Baoli was in Delhi, around four years back. A heritage walk through Mehrauli Archaeological Park introduced me to the first Baoli in my life: Rajon-ki-Baoli (above). Like a first love, it still remains my favourite Baoli. If you visit me in Delhi, I will take you there, like it or not.
Types of Baolis
A Baoli, or a step-well is built around a well. For those who haven’t seen a well, its a few feet wide manmade hole, dug deep into the earth (some 50+ feet or more deep), till enough water is found. Or you may say, a miniature but deep pond. There are many shapes and sizes of a Baoli. Some circular, some rectangular, some are L-shaped and some are even helical! – Baoli’s also tells us the tale of an advanced skill force from the bygone era.
pic above: walk into the well @ L-shaped Amritavarshini Vaav, Ahmedabad
Some Baolis are created on one side of a well. Adjacent to the well, they build a pond. Steps were constructed, leading into the pond, till few feet below the level of water (pic below: you can see my 6 ft tall friend standing on the steps for the height calculation; at Rajon-ki-Baoli). They also constructed beautiful structures around this pond for people to relax and do their chores.
In my limited understanding: as the water level decreases, they dig the pond deeper and made more steps to reach the pond. Every time a new level is created, older levels became changing rooms or places to sit and relax (see-below). Some Baolis even had mosques attached to it!
pic above: @Zenrainman walking into the well of Rajon-ki-baoli through the connection between the well and pond.
He also told me how govt. dumped garbage into these monuments few decades back to prevent spreading of diseases through contaminated water
pic below: Rajon-ki-baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, New Delhi
Water is usually drawn from the well by a bucket and pulley system while people could also walk down the steps to the pond for other activities. (pic below: Baoli at Farrukh Nagar, near Delhi-NCR; notice the platform on left end which was used to mount the pulley to draw water)
pic below: Baoli at Paanchkuvan Darwaza, Ahmedabad;
notice the stones laid for the people to stand and draw water?
also the opening on the left from the steps
In case of circular Baolis, they have steps leading into a huge well instead of separate well and pond. A beautiful example of a circular Baoli is the one at Feroz Shah Kotla ( pic below). It still has water in it, even after its 700+ years of service.
There are also Octagonal shaped Baolis like the one in Farrukh Nagar just outside Gurgaon (Delhi-NCR), pic below.
This Baoli at Farrukh Nagar even has a tunnel (now sealed) to the near-by palace for the royal women to reach the Baoli! In fact, we had to use a tunnel to enter this Baoli, under a State Highway (pic below)!
Work of Art
In Ahmedabad, few months back, I chanced upon an L-shaped Baoli built behind one of Amdavad’s (old Ahmedabad) Paanchkuvan gate. I went to Ahmedabad in search of their famous step-wells with beautiful stone works at Adalaj, but the first one i encountered was a very simple L-shaped ‘Amritavarshini vaav’. From the construction, its clear that this step-well was for travellers and locals who passed through the gate and hence a very simple, and neat design, making the most out of the available space!
pic above & below: the beautifully carved, huge step-wells of Adalaj near Ahmedabad.
I am not an avid archaeology or heritage enthusiast like many of my friends, its just that some monuments talk to me.
As I walked down the steps of the first Baoli in my life (Rajon-ki-Baoli, Mehrauli),
the grandeur of its construction was the last thing in my mind.
Instead, I was travelling back in time, centuries back,
when this Baoli was filled with water.
I saw women drawing water from the well up above,
I saw them sitting together, engrossed in discussions
under the arches on either sides of the step-well.
I saw naked kids running up and down the steps,
while the priest offered his prayers with foot immersed in the water.
Then there are the washer men carrying the robes of nobles,
cows climbing down the steps to quench their thirst,
stray dogs sleeping by the shades…everyone i can think of in a village, was there.
Love of a Lifetime
That day, I hesitantly walked away from the Baoli to continue with the group. But ever since then, I visit Rajon-ki-Baoli once a month and drag few friends along with me every time I go. Obviously, very few appreciate it, rest of them just stare at me (I guess they are thinking of a psychiatrist for me).
But then I don’t care, for me it’s a realisation of how a civilization, which depended less on technology, lived a better life than us. It tells me how water and air is important to us, and they with their limited knowledge (centuries back) understood and adapted to this!
Baoli’s are a treasure of stories and information, while it reveals a lot about past, it also gives food for ones thoughts about our present & future.
Someday, i hope to rest by a baoli (pic above) and travel through time endlessly. Have you been to one? Share a picture if you have one.
After a conversation with few foreign travellers in Udaipur, I realized that I should try to spread word about Baoli (even though I have a limited knowledge and a limited reach) as much as I can, so that these beautiful structures will be visited and may get preserved for our future generation. This post is my understanding about Baolis’ and I would like to believe that it gave you some insight on these beautiful structures.
Here are some useful links for better knowledge and understanding on Baolis:
- India’s forgotten step-wells by Victoria Lautman
(information about many neglected Baoli’s across India – must read)
- City Monuments – Baolis, step wells of Delhi by Mayank Austen Soofi
- A beautiful photo-journal on Baoli’s by Simon de Trey
- The lost Baoli of Lodhi garden & other posts on Baolis by Vikramjit Rooprai
- Step-wells of Gujarat by Abhilash Shekhawat
And some books:
- Steps to Water: The Ancient Step-wells of India by Morna Livingston
- The Step-wells of Gujarat: in Art-Historical Perspective by Jutta Jain-Neubauer