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Travelogue : All is well!

Travelogue : All is well!
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Sriparna Saha How did the people of olden days keep themselves cool in the sweltering summer heat before air-conditioning was invented? The question...

Sriparna Saha

all2How did the people of olden days keep themselves cool in the sweltering summer heat before air-conditioning was invented? The question had been plaguing my mind for long and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a possible solution on a pre-summer afternoon while wandering around Connaught Place, the hip and happening heart of Delhi.

Remember the strikingly beautiful step well in the film 'Paheli' where Shah Rukh Khan along with his newly-wedded wife takes a break for a brief respite from the heat? Agrasen Ki Baoli, the Delhi step well I chanced to visit, too was built on similar lines for catering to similar purposes.

Snaking between the modern-day high rises and low rise bungalows of Lutyen's era is Halley road, one of the prime thoroughfares of Delhi. A sleepy offshoot from this artery leads to one of the best secrets of the city- a beautiful ancient step well (known as baoli in local lingua) that has somehow managed to stay afloat amidst the tides of time.

Baolis are basically step-wells predominantly built during the pre-British era for storing rainwater to cope with the seasonal fluctuations and ensure availability of water round the year. It usually consists of two components- a vertical shaft (for drawing water from the bottom using a pulley) surrounded by a maze of sheltered subterranean chambers and galleries acting as quiet, cool retreats during the daytime. However, during the British rule, the step wells fell into neglect as questions were raised regarding the hygiene of the well water. The British instead began installing pipes, a practice which sounded the death knell of the step well.

all3Agrasen Ki Baoli, one of the few remaining relics which shed light on ancient water management practices is believed to have been initially built by the legendary king Agrasen of the Mahabharat era and later rebuilt by a scion of the Agrawal community in 14th century. The red sandstone mosque at the northern end of the baoli is believed to have been added by the Tughlaq rulers.

As we stood at the entrance, at the very first glance, the exotic sight of the beautifully-crafted stairs (there are 103 of them) going earthwards left all of us swathed in sheer amazement. Then as we slowly began descending into the womb of the earth, the concrete jungle and accompanying cacophony of the city, as if by magic, suddenly ceased to exist. It felt as if we had entered another era when the structure was alive with the sound and steps of the people for whom it was built.

We moved past arches and hidden staircases flanking the stairs. Hundreds of pigeons, flying from one corner to another while gurgling to each other, surrounded us. We were trespassers into their territory and they were making it very clear by bombarding us with their droppings.

The stairs descend in a number of levels. While climbing down, at each level we came across a number of horizontal walkways leading to alcoves and tiny rooms. Some of them are in ruins because of which iron grills have been set up at the door to restrict public access and prevent accidents. Once reverberating with life and laughter these spaces are now dark gloomy recesses presenting an ominous sight. Army of bats clinging to the ceiling further added to the spooky feeling.

We finally landed at the bone-dry rock-bottom. It was a little past noon and though outside the sun was reigning in full strength, at that depth, the light had lost most of its intensity. A local person, who appeared to be a regular visitor, informed us that the baoli contained water till about a decade ago after which due to depletion of ground water levels caused by excessive construction of high-rises in the vicinity, the water just dried up. Juggling memory, he told us how the boys of the neighborhood would jump into the water, splash and swim here on hot summer afternoons. A little later, he also enlightened us about this being a favorite suicide spot where the depressed would try to drown themselves.

To ward off the scary feeling, we turned towards the sky and were immediately greeted with a striking sight- the rose-hued stone walls rising against the match box high-rises. The juxtaposing of two centuries- 14th and 21st created an unforgettable collage.

Today, the popularity of the baoli along with the water it once held, has simply evaporated. Agrasen Ki Baoli does not feature among the regular sightseeing points of Delhi because of which it is mostly unknown among the masses and tourists. Despite being a 10-minutes-walk from Connaught Place's N Block, the place remains desolate even during the busiest of days. At times, some office goers � the handful few who are aware about its existence, drop in for a smoke.

The anonymity, has in one way, been a blessing in disguise for it has helped preserve the unique essence of the place. And the structure, in spite of the lack of maintenance, has managed to retain much of its original magnificence. A visit to the place makes one realise that baolis are not just openings in the earth but ornamental historical structures facilitating the flow of life around them The next time you are in Delhi you too can have your date with history � a magnificent piece of ancient architecture which showcases how you can create an ideal cooling environment by using simple, low-tech solutions.

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