Baolis or step-wells were constructed throughout India during medieval times for the purposes of pleasure as well as daily use. They were used as a retreat from the sweltering heat during summers & as a communal gathering point all year around. The baolis were an escape from the city’s heat & noise, & were a magical place for the inhabitants for whom the baoli functioned both as a religious space & a congregation point. There is at least one baoli in each of the medieval settlement of Delhi, many boast more than one. There is one even located in the busy marketplace we refer to as Connaught Place!!
It is therefore no wonder that the Mughal emperor Shahjahan, during the course of construction of his magnificent Red Fort, renovated & elaborately redesigned the Tughlaq-era baoli that pre-existed at the site of the fort complex. The Tughlaqs ruled over Delhi from AD 1320-1414, more than 200 years before Shahjahan ascended the throne. Before the construction of the Red Fort, another fortress called Salimgarh existed at that particular site (Shahjahan integrated Salimgarh with Red Fort & used it for housing his troops & prisoners), & some historians concede that the baoli might have also been used by the inhabitants of Salimgarh. Shahjahan, being a skilled architect-builder, worked on the baoli & turned it into a unique specimen of architecture serving both form & function.
The baoli is locked for public entry (perhaps because of the danger of falling down the deep reservoir is magnified when the number of visitors is increased, also because the place is said to be heavily infested with snakes, though we did not spot any) – I had the opportunity of exploring the elegant step-well when the photography club DHPC obtained permission to conduct a photo walk to the baoli.
Unlike other baolis that have steps going down to the water-level, this large baoli has two perpendicular staircases descending down. At the intersection is a circular pit built within an octagonal pit which is further built within a large square tank. The circular pit holds the water.
The steps go deep & are on each side lined by small chambers. The British, who became the white rulers of India after replacing the Mughals, occupied the fort & felt that they had no need for these chambers & filled up many of the arched-entrances with bricks, grilles & padlocks & converted the chambers into jail rooms. Officers P.K. Sehgal, Shah Nawaz Khan & G.S. Dhillon - the heroes of the Indian National Army (INA) that Subhash Chandra Bose instituted for freedom struggle were incarcerated here in 1945-46 during the course of their trial. The British even constructed a toilet for the prisoners within the baoli itself, it was dismantled along with other unflattering additions after the Archaeological Survey (A.S.I) took over the control of the baoli in the year 2002.
Unlike the exteriors, the interiors of the chambers are plastered & have started crumbling – at many places they show signs of damp-induced decay. From these chambers one can move into the passageways that lead to another side of the baoli & view the water reservoir – deep, dark & dank – I was scared out of my wits looking down the reservoir, afraid that the stone ledge underneath my feet will give way (I don’t know how to swim!!).
The baoli, built of Delhi quartzite stone, is relatively well-maintained, though it was being used as a dump yard till the year 2005 since the fort was under Indian Army occupation then. Although the garbage & the vegetation that hid the baoli from view are now gone, one can still spot cobwebs lining the grilles & the arches – however nobody visits the place anymore & this one concession can be made to the fort complex’s caretakers.
Interestingly, this is the only baoli in Delhi where you can hear the sound of water trickling down – the water emerging from the ground is lifted up & allowed to fall back into the reservoir & also flow into the tank. Such was the ingenuity of the Indian architects at a time when taps & pumps were not even thought of!!
Emerging out, I walked over the ledges that exist high above the periphery of the tank. A scary but inspiring experience – the view down sent a shiver down my spine (I guess I am now afraid of heights too!!), but made me reflect upon the beauty of the structures that hide in plain view even in the most visited spots in Delhi.
|I walk alone..|
A 2002 Times of India report noted that the baoli would be converted into a tourist-cum-cultural spot, honoring the heroes of the INA & the freedom struggle (refer Times of India Article dated Oct 13, 2002) – it has been more than 10 years since that report was published, but the baoli still remains out of bounds for visitors. I sure hope the authorities can open the structure for the visitors to enjoy, of course after adding precautionary measures such as grilles next to the reservoir. Why keep the city’s heritage from its own people??
Location: Red Fort Complex
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Station
Open: The complex is open on all days except Monday, however special permission is required to enter the Baoli.
Timings: 10 am - 4 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)
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