Well and truly old

February 8th, 20118:10 am @

Agrasen ki Baoli

Stepping out . . . set amid Delhi's apartments and office blocks, Agrasen ki Baoli.

Delhi is full of old stuff. Most visitors are well-versed in the city’s Ancient A-List – the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, the Qutub Minar, pretty much every taxi – but some of the most interesting old stuff is dotted across the capital’s sprawling suburbs.

Over the past two millennia Delhi has played host to seven cities, each leaving its mark on the place in different ways and in sometimes surprising places. On our first day in Delhi we were impressed by a large and rather old structure stuck bang in the middle of the road. We asked the taxi driver what it was and he nonchalantly replied: “Eh, some dome.” To this day Sabz Burj in Nizamuddin is referred to as “some dome”.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see old domes woven into the fabric of the modern city and sporting satellite dishes. We have an ancient building in a nearby park – I’m told it was once a library – today it’s a spot for local kids to sit and rest between park cricket matches.

A short walk from my office sits one of the most impressive of these ancient landmarks. Not a dome this time, but Agrasen ki Baoli – a massive step well carved into the earth and now sitting amid the sedate prosaicness of inner-city apartments.

No-one knows who built the 60-metre long structure, but there’s evidence it was rebuilt at some point in the 14th century – a time when the Ottoman Empire and the Hundred Years’ War were just kicking off, the Black Death was busy wiping out a third of Europe, Wat Tyler and the peasants were revolting, and the Catholic Church managed to find itself with not one, but three Popes.

That is to say, it’s old. Very old.

In a city as parched as Delhi, keeping hold of water is a crucial task, something Agrasen ki Baoli was designed to do – in spades. As well as storing water, it was a popular spot for locals. Deep, shaded and surrounded by cool stonework, not to mention a lot of water, it was an ideal spot to escape the unrelenting heat of summer on the plains.

It still is, in fact. On a surprisingly warm Saturday afternoon in February the well was a hive of activity. The wide steps offered a spot for locals to sit and read, sketch, or swap sweet nothings with a lover – illicit or licit. Meanwhile, others – mostly younger – scampered along the ledges and up through the narrow and crumbling passageways in the side of the well, popping their heads through openings to wave back at friends below.

At the far end of the well, above its deepest point, young guys tried to impress their girlfriends by standing as close to the edge as possible. Above them, the well’s modern occupants – the pigeons – performed their own courting rituals on the ledges.

If this age-old structure were at home – apart from causing somewhat of an archaeological stir and much rewriting of textbooks – it would be fenced off, or covered in glass, with a visitor centre and a multimedia “experience” (along with requisite fee, of course). Yet here it was in Delhi, free to anyone who wanted to scramble across its timeworn ledges, soak in its cool air and pass the time. Just a part of the city’s furniture.

Or – as a tired taxi driver might say – “some well”.


For more images – see this Flickr set.

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