In the midst of one of Delhi’s busiest locations, lies a forgotten 14th century step-well known as Ugrasen ki Baoli. Deborah Dutta takes a step back in time and goes behind her camera to capture the grandeur of this forgotten relic.
Hundreds of pigeons take flight and settle down just as quickly around me. I can’t help but take a deep breath as the sounds of the city are instantly drowned in the silence of the well. I have just stepped through the modern-day bustle of Delhi’s Hailey Road into the mysterious quiet of Ugrasen ki Baoli.
An unassuming entrance through lonely by-lanes hardly prepares me for what lies beyond. My surprised eyes feast on the grandeur of the baoli, 60 metres long and 15 metres wide. Believed to have been built by the legendary king Agrasen, the well, made of rubble and dressed stones, dates back to the 14th century and is one of the finest wells in Delhi. King Agrasen, known as a stalwart of peace, compassion and bravery is believed to have battled Lord Indra himself. Historical evidence suggests that he established the city of Agroha, about 20 kilometres from present-day Hissar in Haryana and his descendants are said to constitute the present Aggrawal community.
A Unique Structure
The well goes down three levels with chambers and passageways flanking both sides of the stone complex and I am instantly drawn down the 104 steps that lead to the well’s dried bottom.
I close my eyes and breathe the cold, musty air that carries ghostly strains of voices from a time when the baoli was a reservoir for heat-stricken citizens in pre-Lodhi times. The other side of the complex houses a small mosque with three openings. It has a whale-back roof and four-pillared columns of red sandstones carved with chaitya motifs and stucco medallions in spandrels—a distinct structure.
I can’t help but wonder at the stark contrast of the city skyline visible from the edge of the baoli, symbolic of the invisible thread of humanity running from past to the present.
Step-wells are unique to West India where water has always been a scarce commodity. Some date back to as early as 600 AD. Most are architectural marvels intended to provide water at the base after climbing down stairs leading to a reservoir. This made accessibility and maintenance of ground water easier. Some wells were built with a wheel mechanism to be pulled by cattle. Others had a covered well to cool the premises in summers.
Ugrasen ki Baoli: 5 Hailey Road, near Kasturbha Gandhi Marg, Connaught
Nearest Metro Station: Barakhamba Road
If Ugrasen ki baoli does not take your breath away, others surely will. Take a map and follow the dusty roads to Rajon ki baoli near Mehrauli in Delhi. This beautiful three story complex was built by Sikander Lodi in 1516. Unfortunately, other lesser known baolis in and around the capital have turned into slum residencies or have collapsed with decay.
Rani ki vav in Patan, Gujarat is another step-well worth visiting. It has a unique pillared multi-storeyed pavilion structure with elegant designs adorning the walls. As the name suggests it is truly the queen among step-wells in India. Adalaj Vav in Ahmedabad, Chand Baori near Jaipur and Rani Ji ki Baori in Bundi are some of the other famous wells with beautifully, intricate architecture and an enthralling history.
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