October 24, 2011

Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've a many curious things to shew when you are there.”
– Mary Howitt, "The Spider and the Fly"

Even though located in the immediate vicinity of the perennially crowded Connaught Place (refer Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place), the commercial and cultural heart of Delhi, the magnificent Agrasen ki Baoli (aka Ugrasen ki Baoli) happened to be a rather difficult find – none of the people, including auto-rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers, traversing the busy streets or manning the glittering shops seemed to know about its forgotten existence, leave alone directions to its enthralling presence, nor did Google maps prove to be of any help either – the last indicated the presence of the beautiful step-well on Hailey Road, off the Consulate General of Malta, but heck! Nobody even knew where the Consulate General was located and Hailey Road is too long a stretch to explore! My persistence only fueled the anger of Divya, Rashmi and Bhavna who had agreed to accompany me to see the majestic Jantar Mantar complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Jantar Mantar) and the baoli, under the misguided assumption that I knew both their locations (I knew neither actually, as they later discovered!) After being shouted upon by the three for over an hour while we navigated near-deserted streets, I eventually succeeded in flagging down an old Sardar ji driving an auto-rickshaw, who agreed to give us a ride till we discovered the evasive Baoli, although, much to our undisguised dismay, despite plying in Connaught Place and adjoining regions for over half a century, he had never even heard of Agrasen or his baoli. Unbelievably, another hour and Rs 90 later, on the verge of despair, our perseverance did finally pay off and we spotted a miniscule sign, painted blood red, indicating the presence of the Baoli within a narrow by-lane – bewildered, one wonders if the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) couldn’t have installed a bigger board? Thankfully, at least the three ladies, impatient as always, were smiling. Phew!!

Agrasen ki Baoli - The camouflaged lover's haunt

On the outside, the baoli, or rather the periphery walls that flank its ethereal existence, appears mediocre – an unkempt, cobweb-shrouded set of small alcoves and chambers, composed from rubble masonry and surrounded by a stone courtyard delineated by sharp steel fences – not one’s picture of a bewitching ruin that holds in its bosom the secret promise of transforming into a lover’s haunt. But wonders of wonders, the interiors are an altogether different world and the massive underground superstructure, so cleverly hidden amongst its surroundings that the millions of occupants of the huge skyscrapers looming in the distant background, to which it compliments strikingly, have not the slightest clue of its existence. The pristine, undisturbed environments and the unparalleled silence and sense of tranquility that the place offers makes one feel suddenly, implausibly transported back to the past when the megalith was constructed and the locals had begun to converge here for social obligations, gossip and as an escape from the sweltering summer heat.

Sadly though, the historical step-well, deemed protected by ASI under the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act (1958), lies forgotten, unvisited and ignored. And although there are no historical records to prove when or by whom it was commissioned, in popular imagination it is said to have been originally built over 5000-years ago by the legendary Mahabharata-era king Agrasen (the benevolent father of the evil Lord Kansa of Mathura and therefore the brother of the maternal grandfather of Lord Krishna, the supposedly divine, exemplar cowherd-statesman-diplomat-warrior-charioteer-philosopher) and rebuilt in 14th-century by the Agrawal community which traces its origin to Maharaja Agrasen. The structure does find mention in the 12th-century Sanskrit work “Pasanahacariu”, penned by an Agrawal poet Vibudh Shridhar who resided in Delhi during the reign of the Tomar king Anangpal III (ruled AD 1151-80). The same poet also does give one of the first references regarding the historicity and christening of Delhi in his verses –

“Hariyanaye dese asankhgaam, gaamiyan jani anvarath kaam
Parchakk vihtanu sirisanghtanu, jo surav inna pariganiyan 
Riu ruhiravtanu biulu pavtanu, Dhilli naamen ji bhaniyan”

“In the country of Haryana exist several villages where the people toil hard.
They do not accept domination by others and are experts in shedding their enemies' blood.
Even Indra, the God of Thunder, praises their valor. The capital of this country is Dhilli.”

Ruins of an era long gone - The Tughlaq-era mosque

Architectural historians however contend that the structure was in all possibility constructed, or at least refurbished, during the Tughlaq Dynasty reign (AD 1320-98), which does explain the relatively straightforward, unornamented nature of the structure, true to Tughlaq aesthetic simplicity and emphasis on function rather than form. It might also explain the presence near the step-well’s entrance of the diminutively-proportioned, minimally adorned and nearly collapsed rectangular mosque that possesses besides the unusual curved sloping roof, three arched entrances and medallions inscribed with calligraphy. Over time, hidden from prying eyes and forgotten even by the most thoughtful of minds, the baoli remained stuck in a time eons past in history while the city around it mushroomed, modernized and transformed into the highly metropolitan entity that it is today.

The outstanding, evocative 60 meters X 15 meters rectangular structure, consisting of a single flight of 103 steps that culminate in a (now dry) water tank, is flanked by stone walls that are stark and yet striking. Walkways interrupt the walls at three levels, allowing a visitor to explore the various alcoves and chambers that mark the peripheries and would once have been used as shaded retreats. Presently however, the more hazardous of these rooms, considered structurally unsafe, are secured with iron gates, and of course, one must at all costs avoid the overly territorially possessive pigeons who now claim them as their own private roosts. The domed roof surmounting the water tank on the far side appears thoroughly darkened and nightmarishly appears heaving to and fro – hundreds of bats who come to nest in the baoli converge along the concave surface where they hang upside-down throughout the day before taking off during night. Spooky, to say the least! Especially considering that one literally feels naked and vulnerable to the threat exposed by these feral creatures while walking on the narrow ledges that define the arched openings on the different levels against the colossal water tank.


Heading down the stairs, to the innermost recesses of the earth from where the sky, framed by the baoli’s ominously dark walls, appears like a sliver of glorious blue light and where the stink of pigeon feathers and droppings nearly become unbearable, past heaps of rubble walls long collapsed and layers of sand that once might have formed the waterbed, one can step into the dry water tank after squirming around (almost) on all fours and come face-to-face with one of the city’s most intimate secrets – here, standing in the well, looking at the far off brilliant disc of light that is the opening against the sky, one can feel what it must be like to have fallen in a well without actually doing so – claustrophobic in my opinion. The cobweb-layered walls, stuck with rotting, foul-smelling pigeon feathers and the disorienting desolation of the place are reason enough for one to become silent and subdued, but the ghastly figures that the rotten, semi-decomposed pigeon and bat carcasses portray visually do force one to beat a hasty retreat. Thankfully, the splendid visual composition emerging from the upside-down view looking at the handsome arched openings sheltered by the rows of eaves (“chajja”) supported on ornamental sculpted brackets does render the walk down (and back up) the ever-narrowing staircase worthwhile.

Interestingly enough, the remarkable architectural specimen is not without its fair share of myths, superstition and folklore – local legend is that the place, when it used to be filled with groundwater and monsoon showers, was haunted by spirits and entities of the malevolent kind which manifested as ghastly voices and exercised an extreme degree of compulsion upon stressed and depressed minds, mercilessly urging them to drown into the water and raise its level, thereby leading to numerous suicides. It is hard to imagine the place to be anything but a splendid, majestically noteworthy monument in the heart of the city, but then who knows what kind of depression and loneliness creeps up on some folks when they are solo in some such desolate and long forgotten corner. The Government has therefore, by official order, prohibited visitor entry to the monument after sunset.

Colors of Delhi

The baoli has been condemned to a state of perpetual disregard by the ASI and the public in general. Although there is a guard on duty (sitting on a broken plastic chair) during daytime within the premises, no caretaker has been assigned and the place is neither cleaned regularly, nor redeemed of the pigeon feathers and droppings that carpet its staircases and alcoves. The ignorance is perhaps a good thing – the place survives as one of the most beautiful and soothing spots in the entire city, untouched by tourists and unruly crowds. Thankfully, even the lovers who haunt it do not scribble their names on the walls.

Edit (November 2014): I did visit the baoli again – this time on a photowalk with my photography club Delhi Instagramers Guild, whereby we also did cover the Sunday morning Raahgiri event in nearby Connaught Place (CP). I seemed to remember some of the routes despite the passage of several years and thus the place did not seem so far-off nor so isolated, although in all honesty, the Raahgiri event which encompasses the streets to be necessarily free of vehicular traffic and available for pedestrians, cyclists and people for dances, acrobatics, yoga and stunts, did render the outer areas of CP appear isolated and uninhabited, as if one was walking in a movie-like post-apocalyptic/holocaust Delhi. The event itself, lasting every Sunday for the short duration of two hours (7-9 am), is an interesting concept, and apart from numerous pretty ladies walking and jogging about whom the photographers in tow never failed to click, there were stretching classes structured by Reebok, dance and band performances organized in collaboration with Times of India (a partner to the event along with Delhi Police and Municipal Corporation of Delhi), musical sermonizing by the "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" group (custodians of the nearby ISKCON Temple, refer Pixelated Memories - ISKCON Temple, Delhi), nearly thousands of participants of all age groups walking, jogging, cycling, skating, dancing, flying kites or simply strolling about and lastly, numerous stunt performers and daredevil dancers. Besides several smaller, relatively inconsequential graffiti artworks that dot the streets adjoining Kasturba Marg and Hailey Road, we also did spot the massive, vibrantly colorful, albeit now crumbling graffiti designs portraying demons, nuns and Lord Ganesha, the pot-bellied, elephant-headed Hindu deity of auspiciousness and luck, that have been present opposite the baoli for quite a long time now but one way or the other I kept missing visiting the area. Finally! And I’m impressed I must admit.

The city's newest fad - Raahgiri Sunday

Location: Hailey Road, near Connaught Place (Coordinates: 28°37'33.4"N 77°13'30.0"E)
Nearest Metro station: Rajiv Chowk
Nearest Bus stop: Connaught Place
How to reach: Walk/avail an auto from CP.
Timings: 9 am - 5 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Other places of interest located nearby -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jantar Mantar
  3. Pixelated Memories - India Gate
  4. Pixelated Memories - National Museum
  5. Pixelated Memories -  Parliament House
  6. Pixelated Memories - Presidential House
Suggested reading - Archdaily.com - Article "India's Forgotten Stepwells" (dated June 28, 2013) by Victoria Lautman

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