Conservation in India
India’s neglected but magnificent stepwells are relics of a nuanced history
The story goes that devout followers of Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi saint who lived from 1238 to 1325, had already begun work on his baoli or stepwell when Ghazi Malik, the new sultan of Delhi, ordered all projects to stop until the construction of an impregnable citadel for him was finished. Out of adoration for Nizamuddin, the labourers worked on the fortress by day and the baoli by night. Enraged, Ghazi Malik banned the sale of oil for lamps—whereupon Nizamuddin blessed the well’s water and told his followers to use that instead. Miraculously, it burned.
Today, Nizamuddin remains one of South Asia’s most admired Sufi saints. His message of tolerance and humanity appeals in an age when political leaders preach communal division. Not just Muslims but Hindus, Sikhs and Christians flock to his dargah, or shrine, in New Delhi, where qawwali songs of devotion are performed. Thousands crowd every day down the narrow, beggar-lined passageway that runs alongside the baoli on their way to strewing rose petals on the holy man’s tomb. Many pilgrims believe in the healing power of the baoli water.
Until recently that water was filthy. The tank was full of rubbish; the neighbourhood’s raw sewage flowed into it. Worse, the structure, which is more than 160 feet (49 metres) deep, was in an advanced state of dilapidation. One section of its walls of grey Delhi quartzite had collapsed. Other parts were bulging alarmingly—and, for the dozens of families who had built homes atop them, perilously.