Rajon ki Baoli: A medieval step-well

I’m feeling a sense of elation right now, because I’ve submitted the manuscript of the next Muzaffar Jang book. It will probably be about a year before the book’s published, but getting this done and out of the way has given me some breathing space.

Last week, I began a series of brief articles on interesting secular (and relatively little-known) historical monuments in Delhi. I started with Baadli ki Sarai, a Mughal-era sarai near modern-day Azadpur Sabzi Mandi. This week, we’ll focus on something different. Also practical, also meant for the use of the public, and also not too well-known: Rajon ki Baoli (also known as Rajon ki Bain), in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.

A view of Rajon ki Baoli.

A view of Rajon ki Baoli.

Delhi, despite its location beside the Yamuna, has always had problems regarding the supply of water—brought on, partially, by the long and extremely hot summer, and by the proximity to the arid zones of neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan. From early days, therefore, Delhi’s rulers began establishing waterworks: dams, canals, artificial lakes and wells. Among the last-named, some of the most prominent were the baolis, or step-wells. A baoli (known in neighbouring Haryana and in Rajasthan as a baori) is a (usually) four-sided well, with flights of steps built all the way down to the water. As water is used up or evaporates, more steps have to be traversed to get to the water.

Rajon ki Baoli (‘rajon’, in this instance, does not mean ‘kings’, but ‘masons’; perhaps a group of masons used this for a while) isn’t one of the deepest of baolis: it only consists of three long flights of broad steps leading down to the water. This is, however, one of Delhi’s more beautiful baolis. Supposedly built in 1506, during the reign of Sikandar Lodhi, the baoli has lovely arches all along the sides, with some exquisite plasterwork—very distinctive of the Lodhi period—along the arcade at the top of the baoli.

Rajon ki Baoli, seen from the top.

Rajon ki Baoli, seen from the top.

The Rajon ki Baoli was obviously meant to act not just as a source of water, but also as a place of rest for thirsty travellers. This is why, besides the small cells (used as rooms) which line the walls, there is a small and pretty mosque here, decorated with more of the finely incised plasterwork.

The main doorway to the mosque at Rajon ki Baoli.

The main doorway to the mosque at Rajon ki Baoli.

Detail of incised plaster at the mosque.

Detail of incised plaster at the mosque.

In addition, there’s a small tomb, in the form of a chhatri (a domed pavilion). This, according to an inscription, was built possibly by someone named Daulat Khan, for a certain Khwaja Mohammad, in 1506.

The mosque at Rajon ki Baoli, and the tomb of Khwaja Mohammad.

The mosque at Rajon ki Baoli, and the tomb of Khwaja Mohammad.

Unfortunately, despite restoration and conservation work in the recent past, the Rajon ki Baoli is now mostly dry—which is why it’s also now known locally as the ‘Sookhi’ (dry) Baoli.

18 thoughts on “Rajon ki Baoli: A medieval step-well

  1. I just stumbled upon this on facebook. I wasn’t aware that you had this space, I love history, old monuments, the stories about these monuments et al. I am usually so short of time that I am always rushing, today I spent a little time on facebook, yes I finally completed my post and I saw this. I have to take time to check out everything that is here. I wasn’t even aware that such a place existed in Delhi but then I am not at all familiar with Delhi. This is nice, right up my street, I will try my best to make time and read all the interesting stuff here.

  2. This we HAVE to see :-) I’ve always wanted to see one, but thought they existed only in Rajasthan. To think it was right under my nose every time I went to Delhi and didn’t even know about it!
    Thanks so much Madhu. I’m waiting eagerly for the next piece.

  3. Shilpi: Thank you for stopping by, and for commenting! Yes, I do have this website, which is mainly devoted to my writing other than on classic cinema (though there is a link at the top, leading to Dusted Off). Since a lot of people who read my books read them mainly because of the historical element, I like to do occasional articles about interesting facets of history.

    Do have a look, whenever you get the time – I had a lot of fun researching some of these pieces. Also, most of them are fairly short (not like my film posts), so they’re easier to get through quickly.

  4. Pacifist: Oh, yes. Delhi has quite a few baolis – in fact, Agrasen ki Baoli is just off Connaught Place and is also quite an impressive one. Near Rajon ki Baoli, also in Mehrauli, is the Gandhak ki Baoli. Then there are baolis at the Wazirpur monuments, and in Purana Qila… not as impressive as some of Rajasthan’s baolis, but also not unimpressive!

    We’ll go to Rajon ki Baoli when you’re here. The Mehrauli Archaeological Park has some very interesting and beautiful monuments, including a spectacular painted tomb.

    • Interesting article, Ashish – thanks for it! There was another good one the other day, which a friend who’s obsessed with step wells shared on Facebook: a list of the 10 (or 15? I’ve forgotten best stepwells in India). One particular baori I’ve been wanting to see the splendid one at Abhaneri, which (from what I’ve heard) was the one used in the Lee Pace starrer The Fall. It’s quite spectacular.


          • The article covers about 18 stepwells but you gotta skip each picture. Not very intuitive. It’s not your fault.

            I just marvel the architecture and quality of work that has lasted this long despite not being particularly taken care of.

            • I must have gone through the article in a real hurry, because to me it seemed pretty short – certainly not 18 stepwells. Must go back and have a look at it. :-)

              I agree with you about the architecture – it’s stunning (one of the most beautiful baoris I’ve been to is the Raniji ki Baori, in Bundi: decorated all over with spectacular carved pillars and friezes depicting Hindu deities. What I find amazing is that, all said and done, these were purely functional buildings, yet so magnificently decorated. Compare that to the watertanks which dot every Indian town and city these days!

              • The cnn article has pictures and right next to the picture there is an arrow to see next picture and on the bottom it describes each of those stepwells as the pictures change. Not very intuitive and quite short description but it gives enough of an oveview for each of those 18 stepwells. Very impressive.

                You hit the nail on the head. These are all functional buildings and it is amazing how the architects were able to make the water work for them and not weaken the foundation and the structure.

                Btw, totally unrelated here, but I loved your mixing fiction with fact in the Englishman’s Cameo where Muzaffar cleverly figures out the water channel that would be flowing into haveli and taking advantage of it.. Fascinating. :)

                • Thank you, Ashish! Glad you liked that bit about the water channel. On a trip to Rajasthan (I think it was to Jaigarh, overlooking Jaipur) that I was told about these underground tanks – sounded such a sensible way of conserving water in a desert climate.

      • Random rubble masonry. That is, pieces of stone (not neatly cut), bound together with a thick mortar. The mortar would probably have been an organic one, including (besides stone dust etc) organic elements like bael pulp, methi, urad dal, dahi and cow dung. There are some decorative elements in red sandstone and – I don’t remember offhand – but possibly some Delhi quartzite.

  5. I just visited this stepwell today. Beautiful! I had no idea it was in Delhi, and this was my fifth trip here. Just wanted to add that it did have some water in it today – not a lot, and pretty putrid looking, but you can’t tell that from the pictures. Thanks for the article!

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