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The Wazirpur Gumbad is one of Delhi’s lesser-known monument complexes. This Lodhi-era compound has five tombs, a prayer wall, and a few grave platforms—all unmarked. Standing in the midst of its well-manicured lawns, Wazirpur is also home to the Munirka baoli, or stepwell. Up until the early 20th century, the Munirka baoli was filled up, and later excavated by the ASI.
Although small, this baoli is a thing of architectural beauty. Vikramjit Singh Rooprai writes in detail about its design and functioning in his new book about the baolis of Delhi, which he began writing in 2016.
A software engineer by profession, Rooprai fell in love with Delhi’s heritage and began exploring the hundreds of monuments nestled within the city. Eventually, he quit his job to become a heritage activist and educator in 2009.
“History is mostly the narrative of the victim,” he says. “Heritage is something that we’re living with.”
Rooprai works with schools and colleges to help people understand how to study monuments, and their own heritage and to implement this knowledge to the present to make the future better.
A four-volume list from 1910 mentioned nearly 1,300 monuments in Delhi, Rooprai found. Of them, hardly 700 survive. “I have seen about 450,” he says. In a city with yesterday’s relics every stone’s throw away, the writer set his eyes on the one that addressed today’s needs: water.
In his research, Rooprai found that most of the baolis of Delhi had water as recently as the 1960s. Ugrasen ki Baoli, for instance, was completely filled with water until the 1970s. What happened in the last four decades, and where did the water go? So began Rooprai’s journey chronicling the baolis of Delhi.
Rooprai developed a matrix to help him decide which baolis to feature in the book. He started digging up old archival records of when the baolis were built, how their water level changed from the 1880s to today, their size, condition, accessibility to the public, historic value, popularity with tourists and the amenities around them. He found that although Ugrasen ki Baoli was the largest in Delhi, Feroz Shah Kotla baoli actually covered more surface area on account of being circular.
This research, however, wasn’t an easy undertaking. In-depth information about the baolis isn’t readily available in English. To his credit, Rooprai studied Urdu to be able to access this information in books from the 1800s and early 1900s, which were never translated. Before 1911, a lot of Delhi’s archives were kept in Punjab, and later in Agra, making them extremely hard to locate.
What surprised Rooprai the most was the scientific prowess with which these baolis were built. The aqueducts used water pressure to ensure that water flowed from the well to the tank, but not the other way around. The baolis were oriented in a way that the steps would be to the north, leading down to the tank in the south. This allowed the baoli to remain under shade for most of the day, keeping the water cool.
The book goes into detail about 12 of Delhi’s baolis, but also mentions dozens more that are either lost, buried, dry or still functioning. Rooprai has included architectural blueprints and photographs to guide the reader through the layout of the baolis, their history and possible significance. The book has a clean design, is compact, and easy to carry if you’re ever exploring the baolis of Delhi.
The baoli of Munirka now lies in R.K Puram as the city was rezoned in the 1950s and 60s. There’s another well in the complex, which was probably dug after the first dried up. This little piece of history is testament to the beginning of what led to Rooprai’s work today.
While it might not be feasible for the baolis to serve their original function today, Rooprai’s hope is to see them not fall to waste, but be adapted to spread the art, culture and heritage of the city they once serve.
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