Traditional water bodies of Delhi

Amita Bhaduri reports about the tenth public lecture of the Delhi Heritage City Campaign by the INTACH Delhi Chapter delivered by Sohail Hashmi.
18 Dec 2011
0 mins read

Sohail Hashmi, an author, film-maker, one of the founders of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and a true Dilliwala on 5 December 2011 at the India Habitat Center. The presentation woven around photographs of the city's step wells, reservoirs, natural water bodies and canals built during the thirteenth to the eighteenth century located the traditional water bodies within the socio-cultural milieu of the several Delhis. 


agrasen ki baoliAgrasen ki baoli

Photo courtesy: The Hindu

UNESCO’s list of heritage cities, INTACH is reaching out to the Capital's citizens through heritage walks, public lectures, seminars, media campaigns etc. The lecture was chaired by Ravi Agarwal, engineer, environment activist (Director, Toxics Link), artist, photographer and curator while the speaker was introduced by Swapna Liddle, Co-convenor of the INTACH Delhi Chapter.

Sohail Hashmi’s lecture dealt with the various Delhis, all of which were fortress cities and had elaborate water management systems that included wells, step wells, water tanks etc., to meet the drinking water needs of the residents. These water bodies have played a vital part in Delhi’s history. Hashmi drew attention to the geographical features of the land around Delhi, particularly the hilly prominences of the Aravallis to the south west of the city in order to better appreciate the features that contribute to its location. These were to house Lal Kot or Qila Rai Pithora and Tughlaqabad. 

The other two Delhis namely Al’a-ud-Din Khilji’s Siri, and Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah were located in the plains. All these Delhis except Tughlakabad did not depend on the Yamuna but on water bodies. Hashmi discussed about how Mehrauli relied on water bodies like Hauz-e-Shamsi built by Altamash and the Naulakha Nala as well as other streams which emerged from the ridge to meet its water needs. The Hauz-e-Khas built by Ala-ud-Din Khilji was fed by a couple of streams both perennial and seasonal, some running through the present IIT campus. Ibn Battuta, who was in Delhi during this time, describes the scale of Hauz e Khas: one mile by two miles. These streams were collected in the depression to meet the water requirements of the garrison town at Siri. The water which flows down from Mehrauli through the present Aurobindo Marg, was directed into the Hauz. The stormwater drain system of the present days drains straightaway to the Yamuna. The area faces serious problems every monsoon. Hashmi suggests the channeling of this water to the Hauz-e-Khas instead of its diversion to Yamuna will address this.  

Hauz e Khas

Hauz e Khas

Photo courtesy:

The Tughlaqabad fort was built on the Aravallis using the lake as a moat. The fortified city depended on kunds, baolis (wells, step wells) natural and manmade lakes and on the streams that fed the Yamuna and not on the river itself as it was fairly far. The peasants who lived outside the fortified cities depended on the streams. Some of these water bodies were believed to have miraculous healing powers. 

As per an 1807 Archeological Survey of India (ASI) map, a stream starting from the south of Khanpur, at Saidulajaib, passes through Khirki, Chiragh Dilli, behind Nizamuddin and to Barapula. More than half a dozen natural streams joined at the Barapulla bridge built by Jehangir near the present Nizamuddin Railway station. The streams have disappeared and the place is now used for parking rickshaws. The natural flows were taken into consideration while planning the fortified areas and towns. The ASI claims that the satpula in Lodhi Garden built during Akbar’s reign had a stream under it. It is believed that Aurangzeb’s commander, Ghaziuddin Khan, repaired the Hauz-e-Shamsi and created a network of fountains and an artificial waterwall – the Jharna during the eighteenth century. The water body has become dirty now though people visit it during the phoolwalon ki sair, a local annual gathering.

Rajon ki baoli 

Rajon ki baoli

Photo courtesy:

Hashmi drew attention to the canal built by Ferozeshah Tughlaq for bringing water from Haryana into Delhi. The canal was repaired from time to time and Shahjahan even extended it by thirty kilometres to divert water to Shahjahanabad. The canal’s entry to the walled city was through the Kabuli Darwaza, which is no longer there. An account suggests how Shahjahan’s personal physician stated that the water of the Yamuna will become polluted and that intake of spicy food was the only remedy. This only shows that the canal could have been polluted even then.

Lutyen’s Delhi and one which developed post independence saw the emergence of settlements on the plains and the road network cut across the natural flow of water and created depressions where waterlogging occurs during the monsoons. The settlements along the river too face the same problem.

Hashmi also dealt with the water bodies and the stream in Sanjay Van which used to have catfish as well as the water bodies inside the ridge at Dhaula Kuan. Hashmi discussed how in the early ’60s, there was an accident at the Shriram Chemicals factory near Zakhira when a pipe carrying Rath vanaspati ghee burst and drained its contents into the Najafgarh nala. It was winter and huge lumps of frozen oil were floating in the water. The surrounding population jumped in with buckets and scooped away the huge lumps of frozen vanaspati ghee which was used by them for months. The nallah was that clean in those days and people used to fish there. It has been reduced to a sewage choked mess now.

Delhi mapNorth Delhi drainage map based on an 1807 map of the drainage of Delhi, made by a British cartographer

Image courtesy:

In all, Hashmi’s lecture presented how the traditional water harvesting systems of the city were not only water carriers but also imprints of histories, traditions, and cultures. The moot point which he made was that these cities which emerged during the period thirteenth to eighteenth centuries were dependent on the traditional water bodies and not so much on the Yamuna. He has used the works of experts and scholars to drive home the point that it is only during the British times and later when we increased our dependence on the river that the situation deteriorated.

The gathering was also addressed by Prof. A G K Menon, Convener, INTACH Delhi Chapter. He talked about INTACH’s efforts to bring Delhi on UNESCO’s list of world heritage cities, and how the organisation was reaching out to the Capital’s citizens to increase awareness of their heritage. The Delhi government through the Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation (DTTDC) has signed an MoU with INTACH Delhi Chapter to prepare a nomination dossier that will be submitted to UNESCO in February 2012. For wider reach and subsequent impact, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are being used by DTTDC and INTACH.

As of part of this, INTACH was holding seminars, lectures, films, performances and discussions on the city and its "living heritage" and has also launched a website to help Delhiites track the nomination process and inform them of the upcoming events. The agency has identified four urban zones - Shahjahanabad , Lutyens' Zone, Nizamuddin and Mehrauli that would be proposed for the nominations. The four selected sites qualify under three points (ii), (v) and (vi) of the ten points any of which allows qualification to UNESCO’s list. UNESCO has 226 cities inscribed on its list of world heritage cities under the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Of this not a single Indian city has been listed as a heritage city so far. India has about 28 world heritage sites, of which 23 are cultural and five natural sites. Prof Menon added that INTACH wants to start with Delhi and if successful, other cities may take a cue and move in this.

The lecture ended with the note that Delhi is truly a heritage city for it has been constructed and reconstructed over a thousand years and yet has survived and retained diverse cultures. 

Posted by
Get the latest news on water, straight to your inbox
Subscribe Now
Continue reading