THE FORGOTTEN STEPWELL OF RED FORT

And speaking of stepwells….

I’m out of town and away from my laptop at the moment, so this is going to be a shorter than average post. And what better to write a shorter than average post about than something which has practically no documented history?

Tucked away in a seldom visited corner of Delhi’s Lal Qila (or Red Fort), the capitol of the Mughal empire for most of its existence, is an interesting but puzzlingly obscure piece of indo-islamic architecture.

This is Lal Qila’s forgotten stepwell, which, though less impressively huge than the more well known Agrasen ki Baoli near Connaught Place, and far plainer than the ornate Rajon ki Baoli in Mehrauli, is nonetheless an interesting side-excursion when visiting the Red Fort.

I had been to Lal Qila several times without having any idea that it contained a stepwell –and there are vanishingly few Delawarians who enjoy a good Indian stepwell as much as I do–so I was quite surprised when, while perusing Lucy Peck’s excellent Delhi-A Thousand Years of Building, I saw one indicated on the map of the fort. However, unusually for Peck’s otherwise comprehensive guide to Delhi’s historical architecture, the book provided zero information about the structure beyond it’s location. I think that this might have been because back when the book was written the stepwell had recently been off limits on Indian Army land and was (at least according to some of the articles l’ve read), being used as a garbage dump…it seems like you wouldn’t have wanted to visit it until after the Archeological Survey of India took over the site in 2002.

View towards the northern flight of steps

The Red Fort Baoli has a layout which is unique among the stepwells of Delhi. The structure consists of two largely identical flights of steps that decend below ground to an octagonal well shaft. One flight leads down from the north, the other from the west, and they come together to form a right angle. The well is thus shaped like a big letter “L”.

In the twilight years of colonial rule in India several of the niches of the stepwell, like the one pictured above, were converted into prison cells to hold members of the anti-british Indian National Army, which had fought alongside the Japanese in WWII

Despite the well having been in such close proximity to the famous goings on at the Mughal court, there are very few mentions of it in historical sources. It’s said to predate the Red Fort, and certain scholars believe that it was actually associated with the earlier Tughlaq era city of Feroz Shah Kotla. When the later Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Red Fort, the walls of the fortress encircled the already centuries old stepwell.

But just how old the stepwell truly is is a matter of some debate. The architecture certainly looks, at least to untrained eyes such as mine, as though it dates from later than the Tughlaq era, though this of course does not rule out the current iteration of the well being a renovation of a much older structure.

Just a word of warning if you intend to visit the Lal Qila Baoli: I’ve read that it’s technically closed to the public. This was apparently true when I visited, though I never saw a sign to that effect, and nobody prevented me from going in. But that was several years ago, so the situation might be more restrictive now…which would be a pity, as the Lal Qila Baoli is an interesting addition to Delhi’s fantastic collection of stepwells.

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