Delhi baolis: Stepping into past to manage water needs

Delhi baolis: Stepping into past to manage water needs

Hazrat Nizamuddin ki Baoli, New Delhi, Thursday, June 13, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Once important community spaces, stepwells from centuries ago needn't just be relics of the past for tourists and history buffs but can be used to conserve water in these arid times, even with dipping groundwater levels, say conservationists and historians.

The disconnect between the people and Delhi's 'baolis' caused by restricted access and lack of interest have resulted in many of the historical structures being reduced to museum pieces. And that has done more harm than good, they say.

Historian-author Narayani Gupta, for instance, believes authorities should introduce "conservative use" instead of disallowing access to people entirely.

She said all the baolis were maintained, used and cherished by communities in the past but their "interaction" is today limited to just tourists.

"A carefully used 'baoli' would make so much more sense, but the Archaeological Survey of India believes in emptying out all its buildings. Conservative use should be introduced for many structures," she told PTI.

A beginning has been made with the 'baoli' in Delhi's Nizamuddin area, which has continued to remain relevant through its 700 years of its existence.

Locals, who believe it is a source of 'sacred water', and conservationists have joined hands to ensure that the 'baoli' is maintained properly and regularly cleaned.

After a wall collapse in 2008, the Aga Khan Trust together with the CPWD and the MCD cleaned the well to its original depth of 80ft. The project revealed that there was a blocked passage and seven underground aquifers.

It was the first time in 700 years that it was being cleaned, said Ratish Nanda, a conservation architect with the Aga Khan Trust. The involvement and the interest of the community made the difficult job achievable and possible.

"Since the water is considered sacred, locals were involved at every stage. At the beginning of the project, there was a community prayer to start the project. Then the community contributed in both time and effort and took great pride in the conservation," Nanda told PTI.

According to Nanda, since a machine could not clear the sludge accumulated over the centuries, the locals lent a hand.

"We removed about 40ft of sludge with buckets, we made a human chain of buckets, it took a long time to clear the sludge and then finally the conservation of the baoli was started with the same stone which had collapsed," the architect recalled.

There are a total of 15 baolis in Delhi under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) -- most of which were used by local communities and inhabitants of the fort complexes and are now behind iron bars -- the ASI revealed in response to an RTI query by PTI.

Hussain, who has been taking care of the Nizamuddin baoli for 22 years, believes the waters can heal what doctors can't.

"This water is so miraculous that if you have any health problems a doctor may not be able to heal you, but take a dip in this water for seven days, with a peaceful mind and everything will be fine," Hussain said, adding that it changes colour seven times a day.

The 14th century baoli in the Kotla Feroz Shah complex is another example of a stepwell still in use.

Though there has been no restoration work, the decrepit circular well still waters the gardens of the Kotla Feroz Shah complex and supplies water for ablutions prior to namaz. It stays locked behind tall iron bars for the fear of garbage and any untoward incident.

Devendra Kumar, in-charge of the monument complex, said the risk of somebody falling in the well and the garbage left behind by people are reasons for closing it off.

The saving grace, said Gupta, is that the 'baolis' are so well built that they survive centuries.

"The Aga Khan Trust is the only initiative consciously and tirelessly undertaken to bring together communities and historic structures," she added.

It is also important to sensitise people about their heritage and preserving the structures by staying vigilant.

"Preserving them means eternal vigilance, and being wary of builders and being aware of the weight of indifference by most government agencies," she said.

While there should definitely be a connect between such places and the community, Nanda believes it should be done only under a responsible authority.

"I don't think any site can be left to people's devices without somebody taking the responsibility, because then that often gets misused. But, I think everywhere steps need to be taken to connect people to their own heritage. That's what we have tried to do in Nizamuddin," he said.

Nanda suggested reviving a stepwell is not as difficult as it may seem.

"Revival of a baoli is done on a case-to-case basis. For example, in Agrasen ki baoli in the central Delhi, all neighbouring multistoried buildings should drain water into the baoli. In Nizamuddin, we were able to open groundwater streams by removing the sludge since the water table is quite high.

"Each monument is different. The baoli in Purana Qila and in Feroz Shah, those are surrounded by large green spaces. Now over there it is important that whatever rainfall happens, it should drain into the baoli. It is as simple as that," he said.