Author and heritage activist Vikramjit Singh Rooprai has written a book about Delhi’s ancient stepwells, or baolis, which were constructed centuries ago for water conservation purposes and continue to this day to serve the locals, writes Mayank Jain.
Water is a necessity for human sustenance. Civilisations have originated and flourished beside the great rivers of the world. Our water conservation techniques have also evolved with time, from the Great Bath of Mohanjodaro to modern-day dams. But this evolutionary arc isn’t strictly linear, with the traditional approach giving way to what’s new. Sometimes, the most traditional methods of conservation can prove to be more enduring and effective than all the technologically advanced options at our disposal.
Baolis, or stepwells, are a great example of how a centuries-old water conservation technique can survive and find relevance down the ages. In many arid regions across India, these ancient baolis are still a lifeline for the locals who depend on these perennial sources of water.
Baolis are also unique to India. There are many such structures in the water-scarce regions across Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan. These are examples of ancient India’s engineering prowess, and they show us that water conservation has always been a part of our cultural heritage.
Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, a software engineer turned heritage activist and educator, has recently written a book on baolis, called Delhi Heritage: Top 10 Baolis, published by Niyogi Books. “To build wells for water was a compulsion because rivers were not everywhere and the water level of a river also varies,” he said. “But to fetch water from these wells was tough, therefore people made tanks, so water could be transferred to these tanks. They constructed stairs to make the activity of fetching water easy. These structures were called baolis. A typical baoli consists of a well, attached to a separate water tank or basin with a window. Tanks were made for general use, like bathing, washing clothes, etc.; while wells fulfilled the people’s drinking requirements.”
About the design principle used for baolis, he writes, “Baolis and wells work on the simple process of sedimentation. While the well penetrates the confined aquifers, the walls of the baoli/ tank/well also allow the seepage of water through small gaps between the stones. This creates water pockets behind each such gap. Tiny water channels that are created naturally after rains seep through the catchment area and interconnect the pockets. Mud, mixed with water, settles in the tank, and one gets clean water at the top.”
Rooprai told us that baolis are not linked to a particular culture or dynasty. He even cited a few examples to explain this. “Raja Anang Pal Tomar of the Tomar dynasty built Anang Tal in Sanjay Van, Mehrauli. It was not exactly a baoli but was quite similar to it. The Surajkund tank [in Faridabad] was built by Raja Surajpal Singh Tomar. These are some of the famous baolis that have been built by Hindu rulers. Baolis have been a part of Indian culture since before the Delhi Sultanate days and the Mughal period,” he said.
There have never been any standard architectural rules for constructing baolis. They could be of any size and shape. Baoli designers historically have taken a freestyle approach, a design ethos that reflects in the uniqueness of each extant structure. Compare the L-shaped baoli at Delhi’s Red Fort with the circular baoli at Feroz Shah Kotla. Interestingly, many baolis in Delhi have their wells situated towards the southern end of the structure, in contravention to the old design norm of placing the well north of a baoli.
According to Rooprai, all baoli designers followed this north-south alignment principle, and they had a very good reason to do so. In his book, he writes, “A possible explanation for such an architectural alignment is the effect of sunlight. If the deeper portion (i.e. the tank) is towards the north/south, it is exposed to sunlight for the least amount of time. This keeps the water cool and provides shade to those who climb down a large flight of steps to reach the water. The north-south alignment also ensures that for half a day, one side remains in the shade and the other side gets proper sunlight. Sides switch as the sun moves. It benefits during both summer and winter.”
Heritage buildings and monuments fascinate Rooprai. When he first saw a baoli in 2009, he realised the importance of these structures to Indian architectural heritage, as well as to the science of environmental conservation. Yet nobody had been talking about baolis.
He then began his research, reading various documents and transcripts about baolis in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and English. By March 2014, he had enough material for a book. “During my research, I found 32 baolis in Delhi but it was not possible for me to write about all of them. So I selected 10 baolis and decided to write about them.”
In this book, Rooprai has looked at not just the history of Delhi’s stepwells, but also examined the role these baolis play in fulfilling the water needs of the present generations. This is the first instalment in a series of books on Delhi heritage that Rooprai is working on.
Today, more people need to be made aware of the usefulness of baolis. But before that, we need to think about ways of reviving stepwells that have fallen into disuse.
“Revival is easy to talk about but carrying it out is tough,” Rooprai said. “For example, to revive Ugrasen Ki Baoli, near Hailey Road, Connaught Place, we will have to demolish all the buildings around the baoli. Similarly, for Kotla Mubarkpur Baoli we will have to convince politicians, destroy shops, houses, and have to deal with the land mafia—all of which is nearly impossible. So we will never get adequate catchment area for these baolis.”
Baolis are rain-fed and rainwater harvesting is the only effective means to employ in any baoli revival project.
As Rooprai said, “It is important to dry up a baoli, clean the bed, and direct rainwater to it for a few seasons. We will also have to ensure that this redirected water is circulated properly so that all the choked pores in the walls of the baolis are desilted.”
Another big hurdle in undertaking baoli restoration work is sewage, which directly contaminates the groundwater. “Even if we manage to clean the baolis, interconnected water channels will pump dirty water into them at all times,” he said.
The most effective way to preserve baolis is to ensure that they serve as an active source of water for locals. Rooprai said, “When we stop using baolis, they get destroyed. So it is better to keep using those that are already in use.”