September 09, 2014

Rajon ki Baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi

Despite the presence of river Yamuna, Delhi has always been besieged by a deficiency of water, a problem further magnified by an amalgamation of extremely long spells of sweltering summer and the proximity to vast arid regions of Haryana and Rajasthan towards the south and west of the state. The medieval-era population of the city, thus overwhelmed, resorted to construction of wells, dams and artificial lakes to hold water during the short but cheerful monsoon and make it available for agriculture and daily consumption when the summer became scorching. Of all such practical water conservation and transfer structures built, the most aesthetically pleasing were the “baolis”, or step wells, that are even centuries later regarded as a brilliant fusion of architectural and artistic sensibilities conceived to serve simultaneously the purpose of both form and function. The general plan of a baoli consists of an enormously deep subterranean shaft equipped with a wide staircase descending to the water level, the face opposite the staircase outfitted with numerous shallow chambers and passages for the people to rest in and enjoy the considerably cooler ambiance, while the two arms connecting the staircase and the baoli face might possess similar chambers or ledges for the patrons to walk on that also act as diving boards facilitating plunges into the deep tank underneath for the more adventurous. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule – the baoli in Delhi’s medieval citadel Feroz Shah Kotla (refer Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla) is circular, so are numerous other baolis scattered throughout north and central India; the one in Red Fort is L-shaped (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli) and though most baolis commissioned by Islamic rulers and patrons are relatively plain and unadorned, the ones built by Hindu kings and patrons are very finely detailed and sculpted into places of religious devotion and congregation. These step wells were not just source of water for daily ablutions and washing, but were also used for gatherings, leisurely swimming and as a resort against the sweltering summer heat. 

The well of the masons

The historically important settlement at Mehrauli, considered to be the oldest populated region in Delhi and its vicinity, would have once faced an extreme scarcity of water given that the area is dotted by natural rocky outcrops that would not have been capable of retaining water runoff, hence the presence of several baolis, dams and water reservoirs here spread over more than a millennium of construction and architectural development. Rajon ki Baoli, also known as Rajon ki Bain, not the most popular, nor the largest or deepest, but certainly one of the most beautiful and architecturally prominent baolis of the city hides in plain view in the wilderness of Mehrauli Archaeological Park, camouflaging itself amongst numerous other medieval structures. 

The beautiful baoli complex - On the right terrace are the tomb-mosque complex

Said to be constructed by a certain Daulat Khan during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517), the grand baoli is said to be christened considering that it was used as a residence by local masons (“rajon”/”mistri”) till around the early 20th century. Descending down four levels, the baoli today holds a very small amount of black gooey water (hence the alternate name “Sookhi baoli” or “the dry step well”) and is not in use for any particular purpose except dumping wastes and polythene packets, but it nonetheless retains its original graceful charm and architectural beauty, especially since it has been very recently restored as part of the overall conservation effort for the entire archaeological complex being spearheaded by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) – the baoli’s magnificence has more to do with the sudden thrill that one unexpectedly experiences on entering the small enclosure that makes up the circumference of the baoli and its associated structures since the descending structure slowly reveals itself to the eye as one walks towards the broad staircase. On either side run a row of chambers along the first level culminating into a circumambulatory cloistered and enclosed passageway on the baoli’s opposite face. The levels down below, except for the chambers on the face, are entirely plain and display the rough hewn rock and the bare rubble framework of the entire structure. On the left side though, a few large fragments of the underlying rock still protrude from the walls and it set me thinking as to why these fragments were never removed even though the baoli has been in existence for over five centuries and has been in use for a major part of its age. The walls also have small shallow alcoves where once earthenware lamps (“diyas”) would have been lighted up for ease of use during night gatherings and ablutions. 

Dry and desolate - Another view of the baoli's structure

Staircases on either side lead up to the terrace level and from here one can spot the vast expanse of the archaeological park spread around and even make out the domes and outlines of several tombs and wall mosques (“qiblas”) strewn around the historic baoli complex. On the right terrace exist a small rectangular mosque and a distinctive twelve-pillared canopy tomb (“barakhamba”). Opposite the tomb is an alternate entrance  that connects the terrace to that particular side of the archaeological complex. The entrance gateway is a compelling structure, it is always interesting to observe the trabeate arches (thick stone ledges of subsequently increasing sizes placed one over the other to span space), invented (and modified to resemble arches) by Hindu masons for their Muslim patrons and emperors in the immediate aftermath of the first Muslim invasions in the country (late 12th century), but the touch of Hindu influences, in the form of elephants and round vessels overflowing with vines or floral outbursts, is ubiquitous in the entire structure despite the fact that it was being used several centuries after it was first modified for use in Muslim religious buildings. Though the construction of a proper arch (Roman arch) had been mastered by the time the baoli complex was developed, the artists and sculptors continued to use the trabeate arch and ornament it in the fashion of yore proves that the unique design found resonance amongst the patrons who commissioned these structures. Proceeding towards the mosque-tomb duo one occasionally peeps down on the expansive stairs of the baoli – the depth and the square strength of the structure, combined with a fear of heights and an inability to swim, gave me a sudden rush of adrenaline and set my heart racing apace!

Blue! - The twelve-pillared tomb and the mosque adjacent

The tomb is a handsome little structure with a perfectly round dome embossed with an inverted floral imprint and surmounted by a lotus finial. Very well preserved considering its vintage, the tomb displays remnants of blue tiles ornamenting the kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) along its roof and drum (base) of dome. A red sandstone plaque embedded in the side facing the entrance gateway is inscribed with calligraphy text detailing that it was commissioned in AD 1506 and constructed during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi. Externally, the tomb appears to be an exact, though slight larger, architectural replica of a similar tomb that stands opposite the baoli complex and has been mentioned about here – Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb, but when one peeps in one can make out numerous differences, for instance this tomb doesn't have any decorative sandstone brackets along the dome’s concave surface for ornamentation, but does possess a fairly well-defined incised plaster roof medallion and a pretty band of calligraphy above a strip of decorative alcove patterns. 

One of the gorgeous stucco medallions on the mosque's surface. Similar medallions of several exquisite designs also adorn the baoli's cloisters.

The mosque adjacent, though restored and plastered over externally, remains untouched internally and presents a strange gloomy picture as if it sits at the interface of two extremely different and separated time periods – one modern, glowing and majestically ornamented, the other dark, decaying and subjected to isolation and neglect. Indeed there couldn't have been a better picture of contrasts, while on the exterior the gorgeous and very exquisite medallions beckon visitors, the interiors are draped in layers of cobwebs and small mud nests of hornets. Nonetheless, the mosque retains an outward appearance of serenity, further magnified by the silence and seclusion it espouses – the three wide arched entrances throw in large swathes of light and set the double pillars, the intricate clusters of brackets along the roof and the medallions adorning the walls ablaze in a play of light and shadows. The mihrabs (wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, to be faced by the faithful while offering prayers) have been sculpted skillfully and ornamented with intricate medallions and elaborate rows of calligraphic inscriptions interspersed by dexterous use of convoluted and striking floral and geometric patterns. Through staircases built in each edge of the mosque’s front face, one can climb up the domeless roof and observe the majesty of the gigantic baoli foreshadowed by the perfect dome of the tomb seated between and the vibrance of the brilliant blue tiles shattering the dull monotony of red sandstone. Hundreds of peacocks that nest in the trees surrounding the baoli take to air suddenly and without any provocation and dazzle every onlooker – from the workers intent on restoring the baoli’s structure to the visitors marveling at its beauty – with a noisome flutter of wings and shuddering of entire trees when they alight. 

Dark and ignored - The mosque's interiors and the distinctive Lodi architecture influences

Climbing down, I headed to the cavernous cloistered passages on either side of the baoli – I still cannot fathom why all medieval monuments have such narrow stairs built in their walls, and then too with such far-spaced steps – hoping that in those days the walls flanking the flight of steps weren't engulfed in thick layers of spider webs like they are today, the dark and narrow staircases still are disasters waiting to happen! The elegant symmetry of the passages, with rows of arched openings on one side looking down to the baoli and walls lined with solid pillars culminating in arched walkways, is beyond belief picturesque. The silence is mesmerizing, one can easily be lost here and spend hours with a book or with earphones plugged in without the outside world bothering or even knowing. One can also climb, through similarly narrow staircases, to even lower levels of the baoli, if not inhibited by a fear of rough uneven staircases and the surface holes one is supposed to descend into to reach and explore them. 

One of the passages and one of the most common click of the baoli

It is a pity that the baoli, delightfully bejeweled with stunning medallions and fine stucco moldings in several patterns, is nestled amidst such a wilderness in the extreme corner of the vast archaeological complex, with only thorny bushes, feral dogs and stinking pigs for company, though it is in a much better condition structurally and aesthetically when compared to the twelve-pillared canopy tomb immediately opposite it and across the unpaved pathway, or the other assorted crumbling and forgotten structures that encircle it on all sides throughout the massive complex, but one has only to walk around behind the baoli to see that the mosque’s walls are still blackened and at several places reveal the rubble base underneath, or that the arcade around the octagonal well abutting the baoli on its backside is entirely assimilated in vegetation and can do with a much-desired clearing of the thorny foliage. One can only hope that in a few years when the structures in the archaeological complex have been properly excavated and restored and the park is entirely developed and lined with walkways and gardens, the baoli would be a centerpiece, far more renowned and attractive than it is today.

Forested and forgotten - The baoli mosque's backyard

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset 
Entrance Fees: Nil
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
How to Reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop and at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. The metro station is further away and one can avail a 10-min bus ride from Saket to Lado Serai. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park. 
Photography/Video charges: Nil 
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other famous baolis in Delhi -

1 comment:

  1. Hey Sahil,

    Another great writing from you. As always I look forward for your blogs, they are matchless .. I have some suggestion .. There is one mosque 'Sona Burj' which is inside Mehrauli Market.. try to explore that since I was unable to get into. The adjacent structures are also great, sadly abated by human treatment.

    Regarding the blue color. It is my observation that a lot of building in that vicinity has the same blue traces on their wall. Quli Khan maqbara and Madhi Masjid quite prominently displays it. Do you have any idea about this blue. Really a Tru Blu.. :)

    Keep doing the great work . God Bless you mate.