Aamir Khan’s PK drew attention to Agrasen Ki Baoli, which lay hidden for years among the high-rises near Connaught Place, New Delhi. But PK is only a blip in the long life of the grand baoli. The history it has witnessed and the mysteries hidden in its depths will never be truly revealed.
The centuries old Agrasen Ki Baoli was made famous in 2015 by Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma’s Bollywood flick PK. The baoli becomes a shelter for PK, the character played by Aamir Khan in the movie. Ever since, curious visitors have joined the regulars and global tourists to pay the monument a visit. PK was a good thing to have happened to Agrasen Ki Baoli. In its own way the movie created awareness about the baolis of Delhi, some of which badly need attention and others which are fast disappearing.
Agrasen Ki Baoli, central Delhi’s oldest monument, remains one the best preserved baolis of Delhi. It is located in the narrow Hailey Lane, off Hailey Road, near Connaught Place, New Delhi. With Jantar Mantar less than 1.5 KM away and India Gate about 2 KM away, Agrasen Ki Baoli remains one of the most easily accessible baolis of Delhi. The monument remains open from 7 AM to 6 PM and the entry is free.
Even though it can be reached easily, Agrasen Ki Baoli remains hidden among the tall buildings, residential societies and bungalows on the periphery of Connaught Place. Photos from the 1920s show vast expanse of open land around the baoli. But today Agrasen Ki Baoli will only reveal itself to the inquisitive. It is not wonder that many people, who have worked for years in the vicinity, still do not know the exact location of the baoli.
Agrasen Ki Baoli or Ugrasen Ki Baoli?
The red sandstone plaque outside has Ugrasen Ki Baoli, the official name, written on it. In the past the monument had other names. An old map dated 1868 at the National Archives of India in New Delhi, made by British officials, records the now-famous baoli’s name as ‘Oojer Sain’s Bowlee.’ The map shows another ‘bowlee’ to the immediate north-west of Agrasen Ki Baoli. It seems to have disappeared during the urban expansion after 1911, when the capital of India shifted from Calcutta to New Delhi.
Baoli (also called bawdi in Hindi, barav in Marathi, vaav in Gujarati, kalyani or pushkarni in Kannada) is an elaborate well with steps leading down to the source of water. In fact a baoli is much more than a stepwell. It is a staircase-well divided into multiple levels with elaborate architecture, intricate design and in some cases rooms for users.
Delhi in the early twentieth century was not the city it is today. It comprised of villages, small localities, numerous ruins of historical monuments, gardens and large tracts of wasteland. Wells and a few baolis dotted the landscape and were the main source of water for the citizens.
Baolis also played the role of community places where people, especially women, could get together. The lower levels offered escape from the cruel heat of Delhi’s summer months. The centuries old Agrasen Ki Baoli serves the same purpose today even though there is no water. At almost any time of the day you will find visitors, mostly groups of college students and young couples, hanging around and clicking selfies.
Design and Architecture
According to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Agrasen Ki Baoli measures 58.52 metres x 13.71 meters at ground level. It has been constructed by putting together uneven stone units, usually called ‘rubble masonry.’ The monument is divided into four levels with a flight of 108 steep steps leading down to the well.
The steps are flanked by thick walls on both the sides with two series of arched niches at the first (top) and second levels. Each series of niches are divided into two levels — the top level is a shallow ‘false niche’ which seems to be there more for the purpose of design. However, the lower niche is deep and can easily fit two people, serving as a meeting place and providing relief from the heat. There are passages and rooms inside the baoli, which are now locked and inaccessible.
At the northern end of the baoli is a circular well measuring 7.8 meters in diameter. It is covered by iron grills at the top and is connected to the baoli through a shaft. In the past, as the water rose in the well, it would fill the baoli from the bottom to the top level.
The Origins of Agrasen Ki Baoli
The design of Agrasen Ki Baoli point at late Tughlaq (1321-1414 AD) or Lodi (1451-1526 AD) architectural style. However, according to popular legend Agrasen Ki Baoli (which means the Stepwell of Agrasen) was built by Maharaja Agrasen or Emperor Agrasen. He is believed to have lived in the ancient town of Agroha, Haryana, during the times of the Mahabharata. Maharaja Agrasen is considered to be a contemporary of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, and with 3124 BCE assumed to be his year of birth.
The Mosque at Agrasen Ki Baoli
On the west corner of Agrasen Ki Baoli, above the flight of stairs, is a small mosque. A portion of the roof had fallen off a long time back. Old photos and records have always shown the mosque as we see it today. The four pillars made of red sandstone, which support the roof, stand out against the general design of the mosque.
The columns, ‘quite unusually’, are carved with Buddhist-chaitya motifs (a chaitya is a Buddhist shrine). The spandrels (the space between the arch and the rectangular enclosure) are decorated with ‘stucco medallions’ (the medallion is made of stucco, a material which is applied wet and hardens into a dense solid when it drys up).
The Haunted Agrasen Ki Baoli
There are stories that Agrasen Ki Baoli is haunted and that the ‘black water’ of the baoli invited people to jump into it and commit suicide. How much of it is true is actually difficult to say. The baoli nowadays remains almost waterless. The very little water that is there in the well is anything but black. There are hundreds (definitely not thousands) of bats inside the baoli but all they do is create a ruckus, which can be heard as you walk down the steps to the bottom.
Going by the legend about the suicides there should have been a high number of incidents reported in newspapers. However, in the past many years, there seems to have been just one report. It happened in June 2007 and was reported in the Hindu newspaper. Even at that time the level of water was “just four to five feet deep.”
These stories have only added to the popularity of Agrasen Ki Baoli and given it a place in the numerous lists of the top haunted sites in India. Most stories seem to be the result to very fertile imaginations or derived from the old photos of Agrasen Ki Baoli.
Raghu Rai’s Famous Photo of Agrasen Ki Baoli
One of the most popular photos, clicked in 1971 by Raghu Rai, one of India’s most famous photographers, captures the past glory of Agrasen Ki Baoli. The black and white photo shows the baoli full of water, and the water is black (quite obviously). Titled ‘Diving into Ugrasen Ki Baoli, a 14th century monument,’ the image captures a young boy in the act of jumping from a wall of the baoli into the water. The newly constructed Hans Hotel and other high-rises on Tolstoy Marg can be seen in the background, above the baoli. Two swimmers are already in the water and one can only make out their heads.
There is an interesting incident about the photograph and Agrasen Ki Baoli that Sam Miller writes about in his 2008 book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. Over 26 years after the photo was clikced, Sam Miller visits Agrasen Ki Baoli. It is locked and is opened by an unenthusiastic watchman.
Mr. Miller has seen Raghu Rai’s photograph countless times and decides to check with the watchman if he has also seen it. The watchman’s response ‘stuns’ him. It turns out that the young boy in the photograph is the watchmen himself. Bagh Singh, the watchman, has a kept a clipping from a magazine and shows it to Mr. Miller as proof. The book has a photo of a cigarette-smoking Bagh Singh holding the clipping with Agrasen Ki Baoli in the background.
The Restored Agrasen Ki Baoli
That Agrasen Ki Baoli was full of water till the 1970s is clearly established by the photograph. Over the years as the urban jungle around Agrasen Ki Baoli grew, the water level receded. It left behind mud and silt and revealed that much of the baoli was buried underground. Over the years Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) worked on de-silting and restoring Agrasen Ki Baoli and other baolis in Delhi. Comparing Rahu Rai’s photograph with what the baoli looks like today, one can see that a lot of restoration work has been done. In the old black and white photograph, the baoli looks dilapidated and in serious need to repairs.
However, in pre-independence era, even though the historical monuments were not in good shape, they were not as edangered as they are today. With less population, there was abundance of water (unlike today). In fact the area around Agrasen Ki Baoli lay in ruins and was mostly wasteland. The closest important human settlement was the village of Madhoganj (‘Madhogunje’ in old British maps), which lay north-west of Agrasen Ki Baoli and next to Jantar Mantar.
Madhoganj Village and Agrasen Ki Baoli
‘A palace and stables of the Raja of Jeypur once existed in Madhoganj, the village just east of the Observatory [Jantar Mantar], and this village is still held in jagir by the Jaipur State. Rather less than half a mile east of it is an extremely fine baoli, or reservoir-well, known as Ugar Sen’s baoli.’
— Delhi: Past and Present (1902) by H.C. Fanshawe
Till the 1920s there was an ‘imposing gateway’ built by Mirza Sawai Madho Singh I next to Jantar Mantar and which was the entrance to Madhoganj village. Madhoganj itself was named after Sawai Madho Singh, who succeeded his half-brother Mirza Sawai Ishwari Singh to the throne of Jaipur in 1750 AD. Both were the sons of Mirza Raja Sawai Jai Singh II, who built the city of Jaipur and set up the astronomy observatories, Jantar Mantar, in Delhi and Jaipur.
Madhoganj, Jaisinghpura, Raja Ka Bazaar are names of villages and localities that are buried in history and will seldom be remembered again. They existed much before Delhi became the metropolis it is today. During the urban expansion that the British carried out in the first quarter of the twentieth century, much of the old villages were flattened. Only a few monuments like Hanuman Mandir, Bangla Sahib, Jantar Mantar and Agrasen Ki Baoli were spared. Of these few, Agrasen Ki Baoli has been silent witness to a large part of Delhi’s history that is now lost in forgotten books and decaying maps.