Delhi’s stepwells are something special and should be on your to do list. These man-made marvels once offered Dilliwalahs more than just precious water. Giving much needed shade from the from the sun they were also a place to trade and talk during the heat of the day.
Delhi once had hundreds of step wells, but today it’s estimated that only around fifteen to twenty remain. Of those, only a few are in good condition. Here’s a rundown of my favourite three and what else can be found around each one.
Agrasen ki Baoli, near Connaught Place
Slap bang in the centre of the city, Delhi’s most impressive stepwell is said to have been built by King Agrasen during the Mahabharata era (which is said to be somewhere between the third to fifth millenia before the Christian era).
Rebuilt in the 14th Century, this huge stepwell takes you away from the high rises of Connaught Place and into a subterranean world. Stretching out 60 metres, it’s 104 steps once took Dilliwalahs to water. Today it’s dry, but the stepwell’s shady spots remain popular with canoodling couples.
If you walk around the back of the stepwell you’ll also find central Delhi’s Devi Prasad Sadan Dhobi Ghat. Here you can watch how the washer men clean clothes and hang them out to dry. It’s a launderette on an industrial scale.
To find the dhobis, leave the stepwell, turn right and keep on walking. You’ll find clothes hanging on the line soon enough.
Where is it? On Hailey road, off Kusturba Gandhi Marg on the way to Connaught Place. Here’s a google map to give you a good idea where to go.
Nizamuddin Basti, off Lodi Road
Located in the complex housing the Dargah (tomb) of revered Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, this is one of Delhi’s most popular stepwells.
Built in the 1320s, the waters of Nizamuddin Basti are said to have healing powers. It’s 160 feet deep and is the only remaining stepwell in Delhi that has water in it.
On hot summer days it’s popular with teenage boys. They climb the walls of the surrounding buildings and dive into the Basti below. It’s a great place to watch boys be boys as they complete with one another to see who can climb the highest.
While you’re here, spend some time at the Dargah complex and wander the lanes of Nizamuddin. You might also want to treat yourself and visit one of Delhi’s best biscuit makers. Located in the lanes off the Dargah complex, you can read about the brilliant biscuits sold at Aoulia Bakery here.
Where is it? Located in Nizamuddin West, in the complex housing the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin, at the eastern end of Lodi Road. Here’s a google map to give you an idea.
Firoz Shah Kotla stepwell
Dehli’s only circular stepwell is now gated so you can’t go in. The site was said to be popular with people seeking to commit suicide and a fence was erected a few years back.
Although it’s now locked up, there’s lots to see around the stepwell.
For a start, it’s located inside the walls of Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq 14th Century fortress.
There’s also an Ashokan Pillar on the site. A huge stone column from the 3rd century, it’s inscribed with the official orders of King Ashoka on how life should be led. It was moved here from Uttar Pradesh in the 7th Century.
On Thursday evenings, from around 4.30pm, devotees visit Feroz Shah to write letters to the Djinns. They light candles and offer milk, sweets and meat to appease the unsettled spirits and ask for their wishes to come true. I’ve also seen people feeding meat to the hawks and eagles from the fort’s ramparts during the day.
Where is it? Located off Bahadur Shah Zafar Road (the inner ring road) just south of the Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Ground. Here’s a google map that shows where it is.
One more Delhi stepwell I really want to see
One of three stepwells in the park, it is said to be the most impressive and one of the best preserved in Delhi. Built in the early 16th Century the walk to the stepwell is along a deserted dirt track, but I’m told it’s well worth it. When I get there, I’ll let you know what I think.
Want to know more about stepwells?
Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India,by Morna Livingstone has been recommend to me as a good read. I haven’t read it myself, but if you want to know more I bet these booksellers will be able to help you out.