Such a magnificent stone stepwell was so unexpected in this remote village of mud-brick houses; it raised many questions. Who built it? Were there others? A month later I learned there were many others. Although none were quite like that at Adalaj, many were just as fascinating in similar settings throughout central India.”
Morna Livingston in the preface to Steps to Water
For some strange reason, baolis (stepwells) fascinate me. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the multiple repeat symmetry, or that they are so far from our Western perceived image of a ‘well’, or the simple beauty and variety of the structure, but whatever the reason, they do. In October 2010 we explored our first one, the Ugrasen ki Baoli (aka Agrasen ki Baoli) located in the cetnre of New Delhi and, due to the brilliant photograph, taken in 1976 by Raghu Rai (reproduced below), one of the most famous ones. This photograph is also likely to be a strong influence on my fascination.
The baoli is straight forward to find, being just south east of Connaught Place, with a helpful new sign pointing its whereabouts off Hailey Road. Or at least it was simple for us as it is marked on the Eicher city map and we had an excellent taxi driver who knew where Hailey Road was and found the turn. The nearest metro station is Barakhamba Road.
The site was being renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India when we visited with the introduction of new, stone, information plinths, with the period details dating the baoli to the fiftieth century.
Arriving mid-afternoon we found the site occupied by local teenagers. One of the younger ones insisted that he show me around the site. He was polite and friendly so I said yes. He then proceeded to take me around the site, chatting away as we went, from down the steps up to the higher galleries and around the back to the deep circular tank. He explained that the lack of water was due to the construction site behind the baoli stealing it. He then showed me a photo on his phone of what it looked like when it was full; the 1976 Raghu Rai photograph. Arriving back at the top of the steps he said goodbye and wondered off to talk to his friends, wanting no tip just happy to have told another visitor the story of the baoli.
Whilst the image of the baoli is know there is little written about it beyond the repeating of the basic details, well outlined on the site information board above. Lucy Peck’s Intach Guide (2010 update), which we have found the best general guide to the monuments of Delhi, includes the baoli but has little extra detail.
A better impression of the site is given in Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. When he visited it during his exploration-on-foot of the city he is told by the watchman, Bagh Singh, that he is the boy in the Rai photograph (page 47 Viking Edition 2008). Miller’s book is in no way a ‘guide’ to the city in the conventional sense but we have used it as a signpost for visiting some of Delhi’s less well known places. It’s a well-put-together book with hand-drawn maps and small monochrome photos, written with passion and fascination. I would recommend it as the first book to read for anyone planning to visit the city, even before Dalrymple’s City of Djinns.
For more about the baolis of Delhi the always interesting The Delhi Walla has an article and we will be writing about some of the others later.
For those who want to know more about the history and construction of baolis we would recommend Morna Livingston’s Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India with excellent photography and plenty of interesting text (although it’s more accurately described as the stepwells of Gujarat and Rajasthan). This book we do want to use as a guide book for a tour around the country.
— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth