The Sufi's stepwell: The Nizamuddin baoli as a symbol of medieval protest and potential source of modern-day job creation

  • Water in a city can take many forms – centralised, top-down affairs that lend themselves to a narrative of command-and-control, or charming, distributed sites, like the Hazrat Nizamuddin Baoli, that lend themselves to kinship and community.

  • Today, the baoli, where so many have visited for comfort, is in need of some help itself.

  • When we visited, the waters were a murky, unappetising, algae-bloom green, and there was trash floating on it.

  • Would the Sufi have tolerated his blessed waters, which have survived invaders and dynasties, to be laid low by the apathy of those who seek its blessings?

When my friend and I entered the tiny bylane off Lodi Road, there was no sign that something quite special lay within. This seemed a crowded lane like so many others in Indian cities. Hole-in-the-wall shops serving gigantic parathas, myriad smells, chickens in tiny cages, a grimy butcher’s stall, a mechanic store. The first signs of a sacred site emerged with cubbyholes selling flowers. Fifty feet in, we ran into a raucous, aggressive auction for storing our footwear, with bids from Rs 100 to Rs 500. We succumbed to the dignity of a man who quietly beckoned to us to leave our shoes under his bench. After buying two plates of flowers, we entered the dargah (tomb of a saint). We came upon a baoli (stepwell) – a baoli, I might add, that has held water continuously for 700 years. Through Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s move from and back to Delhi, through Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s building, through Taimur’s looting and butchery, through the Mughals, through the British, through the creation of independent India, through Delhi’s groundwater crisis, this baoli has held water and offered succour to many a visitor. This is special enough to warrant an understanding of the man behind the baoli.

 The Sufis stepwell: The Nizamuddin baoli as a symbol of medieval protest and potential source of modern-day job creation

Rendition of the Baoli, from ‘Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’, Thomas Metcalfe, 1843, British Library, Wikimedia Commons

More than 800 years ago, Nizamuddin’s mother, Zulaika, and her family, direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad, fled from Bukhara in Turkey to flee the Mongols. The family ended up in Badaun, a centre of learning in those times, in modern day Uttar Pradesh. There, in time, Zulaika married her uncle and had two children. But, she lost her husband soon after Nizamuddin was born – legend has it that when her husband was very ill, she dreamt of an angel who asked her to choose between her husband or her son. Zulaika chose her son. With no husband and two children, life was hard and the family had little to eat. Sermon and spirituality substituted for food, a lesson that left a mark on the little boy, who made sure that every visitor to his khanqua (hermitage) would always leave with a full stomach. He believed that one coin spent on a gift of food was worth 20 spent on alms. Indeed, when we were leaving the dargah, we saw plates of the aromatic biryani being passed around.

Imagine life in 13th-century Delhi. Islam was the newcomer on the block. To Hindus, seeing their temples destroyed, being taxed differentially, having no access to the language of power (Persian or Turki) or the religion of their rulers, life must have looked bleak. Local or Afghani Muslims faced a certain amount of racism from their Turkish overlords. The khanqua provided an avenue for universal networking. The word ‘miracle’ comes from the Latin root, ‘mirus’, meaning ‘wonder’. And getting a man like Nizamuddin in a time like that: born into poverty, yet choosing to give; seeing violence all around him, yet choosing to embrace; living next to power, yet choosing to remain aloof; is indeed miraculous. Nizamuddin lived through three dynasties – Mamluk, Khilji and Tughlaq – remaining a constant counterpoint to the melody of power.

A symbol of that counterpoint is his baoli.

After donning his spiritual mantle, Nizamuddin settled in Ghiyaspur, a sleepy hamlet to the North East of then-Delhi. Soon, a large group – seekers, students and people looking for succour for both stomach and soul – gathered around him. There was already a small matter of money between the new Sultan, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and Nizamuddin. The earlier Sultan, Khusrau, had given the saint money, perhaps as a reputation-cleansing move, and the new Sultan wanted it back. But the saint had already donated the money to the poor. This strained relations between the saint and the Sultan. Then came the building. Ghiyasuddin came into power by violence, so, naturally, protection was foremost in his mind. He had already spied a defensible site and pressed all available labour into building a giant fort at Tughlaqabad.

The only problem was that the Sufi wanted to build a baoli to water the growing crowds at his khanqah. The workers had to obey the Sultan. Today’s workers can protest or quit. In the 14th century, such insolence meant death. The workers compromised by working on the fort in the day, and building the baoli at night by lamplight. Furious, the Sultan denied oil for the lamps. Unflustered, the Sufi blessed the water of the baoli. His disciple filled the lamps with this water, and flames burned bright. The Sultan swore revenge. The Sufi merely said, ‘Ya base Gujjar ya rahe ujaad’, meaning the beloved fort of the Sultan would either be abandoned or be inhabited by Gujjars, the nomadic tribe of that region. Interestingly, the fort was abandoned within a few years of its construction – some blame water issues, while others point to the curse of the Sufi. The baoli, as we see, has endured.

Babur mentions this place by name, having visited the tomb (and presumably the blessed baoli) just three days after the Battle of Panipat, on 24 April, 1526. He mentions specifically,

On Tuesday (Rajab 12th), after we had halted on two nights and had made the circuit of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya's tomb.

Taimur spared the tomb, his descendant, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, visited the tomb, and the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar entrusted his family relics, including the hairs of Prophet, to the shrine keepers' tomb. The baoli lasted through British years as well, where, as per Thomas Metcalfe, "A celebrated Boulee or deep Reservoir adjoining to the Shrine of the Saint Nizamoodeen. It is much resorted to by Travellers, to witness the feats of Divers who are located at the place, and Jump from a considerable height into the Reservoir."

Water in a city can take many forms – centralised, top-down affairs that lend themselves to a narrative of command-and-control, or charming, distributed sites, like this baoli, that lend themselves to kinship and community. Indian cities have always had both: Indeed, in many parts of India, Madurai and Alwar to name two, the distributed model of water infrastructure has, until recently, been the dominant form, providing a foundation for communities to thrive.

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Nizamuddin Auliya Baoli today. Images by the author

Today, the baoli, where so many have visited for comfort, is in need of some help itself. The Aga Khan Foundation has recently renovated the baoli, removing a few encroachments and desilting the baoli itself. This is nowhere close to enough. When we visited, the waters were a murky, unappetising, algae-bloom green. There were piles of clothing on the steps – the guard said these were discarded by those who took a purifying dip in the waters. There was trash floating on it. What would have Hazrat Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya thought? He was a tolerant man, to be sure. But would he have tolerated his blessed waters, which have survived invaders and dynasties, to be laid low by the apathy of those who seek its blessings?

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Murky waters of the baoli and discarded clothes of pilgrims at the baoli. Images by the author

Consider an alternative: a well-marked entrance with a meaningful ticket price, signages, guide and history books, gift shops, trained guides – in short, a tourist economy around the baoli. To those who object that thinking of economics is too crass in so holy a site, I can only point to the loud hawkers selling Rs 50-rupee polystyrene plates of roses and religious knick-knacks around the site. There is an economy, but it can be supercharged with a little planning, better maintenance and some history. If that keeps the baoli clean while providing a few more jobs, there’s the bonus. For a country in need of jobs and growth, this is a fruit fallen on the ground. The Auliya, I think, would approve.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.

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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2020 09:51:14 IST