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Reviving Baolis: ‘Restoring Stepwells, Providing Life’

verse structures have been built across India to collect and store water for the harsh Indian summer. Of these, Baolis or stepwells, which are spread across the country, are most recognized. They satisfied the everyday water needs of the populace, ranging from drinking, washing, cooking, bathing, irrigation, and such. Additionally they served as cool havens […]

verse structures have been built across India to collect and store water for the harsh Indian summer. Of these, Baolis or stepwells, which are spread across the country, are most recognized. They satisfied the everyday water needs of the populace, ranging from drinking, washing, cooking, bathing, irrigation, and such. Additionally they served as cool havens for travelers, pilgrims and caravan throughout the sweltering summer months. At the turn of the last century, over a hundred baolis dotted the landscape of Delhi, of which barely a dozen survive now owing to the growing modernization and dropping water table. Water structures – wells, tanks, amongst others – have suffered the same fate across the country.
The deplorable state of stepwells in India can partly be attributed to the Colonial Era, when Britishers rendered them ‘unhygienic breeding grounds of diseases’, and they were either barricaded, destroyed or left to decay. However, contemporary water crises call for the restoration of these structures.
Taking a step in this direction, in 1997, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture commenced the garden restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage site. As part of the effort over 120 rainwater recharge pits were introduced within the 26 acre Humayun’s Tomb gardens. Since 2007, the AKTC has been engaged in undertaking the Humayun’s Tomb – Sunder Nursery – Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative. Conservation works under this Initiative was carried out by AKTC in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India. About 60 monuments have been conserved as part of the project including two significant baolis, a lotus pond and a dozen 16th century wells. Each of these structures now collects rainwater and recharges the ground water aquifers.
An exhibition showcasing conservation, by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, of eight stepwells located in Delhi and Golconda, Hyderabad was recently held in Delhi. The ‘Restoring Stepwells, Reviving Life’ exhibition demonstrates the conservation process including the manual desilting of 40 feet of sludge and the building of alternate houses for 18 families who lived atop the Nizamuddin Baoli – all possible with significant community involvement.
In Hyderabad, at the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park, water had to be purchased for conservation work at the onset of the project in 2014. Here over 100 monuments are being conserved, of which six are step-wells. Conservation, including major reconstruction, for the six-16th century Baoli’s coupled with regrading of earth across the 106- acre complex now allows 20 million liters of rainwater to be collected annually, creating a significant surplus of water. Here, the cost of conservation works will be recovered in lieu of the water collected in just a few years.
This comes as a glimmer of hope in the face of the acute water shortage in India. India is the largest extractor of groundwater, and scanty rains in many parts of the country further exacerbate the issue. Therefore, the revival of stepwells would prove to be of great help in not only water harvesting but also in replenishing the groundwater table. Turning back to the roots may prove to be one of the best ways to combat the contemporary water issue.
In 2021, the Nizamuddin Conservation effort, including the Baoli received UNESCO’s Award of Excellence and in 2021 the Conservation of Baoli’s at the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park received the Award of Distinction from UNESCO. Through the showcasing the conservation of the Baolis, it is hoped that these will serve as demonstration projects and spur conservation of similar structures across India.

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