“Tell him ‘Baba ka paani hai’,” the elder of the four boys in the baoli (step-well) quipped mischievously when his friend walked, dripping wet, up the steps of the 13th century step-well in Delhi’s Nizamuddin basti. He was full of how water had splashed into the bowl of khichdi their other friend was eating while still in the water.

Hungry from all the diving and splashing about in the noon hour, the khichdi passed around was appetising enough to make him oblivious to the fourth teen leaping off the eastern edge of the enclosure before hitting the water hard a few feet from him. He tried vainly to shield the khichdi from the murky green water splashing up; the kind that makes you wonder what else has got mixed with it.

Bolo Baba ki paani hai,” the older boy repeated to his friend as both watched the discomfited young lad smiling sheepishly as he parted the khichdi with his finger to assess the damage before deciding what to do with it. He was not about to give up on his khichdi.

The water in Nizamuddin baoli was murky despite the recent cleanup. Yet the faith that millions have invested in its waters for its association with the Chistiya Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325) continues to this day.

I was watching from the baoli steps after the gatekeeper unlocked the gate, nudged by a middle-aged man standing in the shade of a shop selling talismans and books on the life of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau’s poetry, among others.

“The boys, they get in from anywhere,” the gatekeeper said, pointing to an opening between the containing wall and the gate. “From there too,” he said nodding in the direction of the retaining wall to the east.

It was during the building of this baoli that Nizamuddin incurred the displeasure of Delhi’s ruler, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, founder of Tughlaqabad. He had decreed that all available hands should be working on his city. When he found that some worked nights to build the baoli, he forbade the sale of oil for the lamps that lit up the darkness.

The legend goes that Nizamuddin, not one to let lesser mortals stand in the way of his baoli, commanded his disciple, Naseeruddin, to use baoli water to light the lamps, and lo and behold, light shone again and the baoli was completed. Nizamuddin conferred Naseeruddin with the title Roshan Chiragh Dilli. Eventually, a village of the same name grew around the resting place of Roshan Chiragh Dilli.

The Sultan however, incurred the wrath of Nizamuddin, who cursed his Tughlaqabad project thus: “Ya rahe ujar, ya basey Gujjar.” (It will remain deserted or be inhabited by Gujjars.)

And so it turned out.

Taking exception to the Sufi’s miracle, Ghiyasuddin, away on a campaign in Bengal issued an edict asking Nizamuddin to leave Delhi before he returned. That inspired the famous line attributed to Nizamuddin: “Hunooz Dilli door ast.” (Delhi is still far.)

And so it turned out, again.

Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq did not make it back to Delhi alive. The pavilion constructed in celebration of his victorious campaign collapsed and buried him when he was only a few miles south of Delhi on his way back.

The Sufi lies in a tomb in a square chamber surrounded by verandahs south of the baoli whose water is held sacred, helped in no small measure by the faith the Sufi invested in it to light the lamps and the lengths he was prepared to go to ensure its completion. I look at the scrummy green waters in a new light.

The older boy points me to a niche in the northern wall where a lamp stands in an opening blackened from use. The sun bears down on it hard.

“That lamp is lit every day. People also light the lamp as an offering to him,” he explains, pointing southwards, where Hazrat Nizamuddin lies amid the fragrance of roses visitors offer at his grave. The melody of the qawwalis from the Sufi’s dargah hangs over the waters, plaintive and haunting.

Beside the lamp stand two small bottles empty of oil: one against the wall, the other upright. I turn to the water, looking at the murky greenness. It’s hard to miss the irony.

It reminded me of what an old caretaker said outside a mosque in the blazing heat of Bijapur’s summer sometime ago. I had gone looking for a medieval-era mosque, Aasman Seedi (Stairway to Heaven), near the road that connected the city centre to Torvi. I had asked him if devout Muslims still made their way to the top of Aasman Seedi to pray for rain in harsh summers.

He had laughed out loud, sweeping the emptiness with his hand in an emphatic no. “Those days, people were different. They had integrity, purpose, and faith. Their prayers were taken note of, and answered.” He had raised his hands to the heavens to leave me in no doubt who answered the prayers.

“These people, now, nothing. They lack the integrity to make their prayers count. Their prayers for rain won’t be answered,” he had declared. He seemed amused as much at my naïveté as with how I hadn’t realised the obvious.

So I looked again at the two empty bottles that stood by the lamp and wondered if what the old caretaker of an even older mosque in Bijapur, had got it right after all.

A slew of graves surround the Sufi’s final resting place. They string Delhi’s history in a continuous sweep of time ranging from Jahanara (Shah Jahan’s daughter), Muhammad Shah (Mughal emperor), and Mirza Jehangir (Bahadur Shah Zafar’s brother) to Mirza Ghalib, the Urdu poet, Amir Khusrau, poet and disciple of Nizamuddin, and nobles from the Mughal court—each seeking the comfort of the Sufi’s presence.

Delhi’s celebrated step-wells go back a long way; some date the oldest in the city to the 13th century—the Nizamuddin baoli among them—though Suraj Kund, on the outskirts of Delhi, is said to go back even further.

Antiquity aside, these wells are feats of engineering. It was in the contrast between the buildings that rose in the backdrop of a 14th century step-well in Connaught Place, Agrasen ki Baoli, and the baoli’s broad stairway descending into the earth, obliterating buildings overground from view step by step, that I grasped the nature of the task its builders had taken on and the effort they’d invested into constructing a “building” below ground.

Baolis in regions dry for much of the time served as a year-long water supply for daily needs and in some instances even for irrigation. Low water tables meant the baolis were constructed with steps leading down to the water basin, often several storeys deep. Unlike wells and tanks, the ground water in a baoli can be reached by people using steps, numbering close to a hundred in most instances, sometimes more if the water table is deeper.

Typically a baoli consists of a well reached by a vertical shaft used to draw water for drinking, and a water basin either square or rectangular  depending on the baoli’s ground plan, both separated by a partition. The water basin or tank is usually surrounded by a circumbulatory passage and served the needs of washing, bathing and on occasions, religious purposes like performing of ablutions before offering prayers at the masjid or in performing Hindu rituals.

These ‘baolis’ are not just destinations but also facilitators of Delhi’s telling of its own stories, each story a conduit to its legacy, a bridge to a past, glorious and bloody in equal measure. They spin incidental tales of survival and loss, of identities crushed even as newer ones take hold.

Delhi’s baolis largely feature a single, straight descending stairway to the water basin, the exceptions being the baoli at the Red Fort that has a partial cross-shaped plan with two flights of steps meeting at the water tank, and the one at Firoz Shah Kotla; a circular baoli reached by winding stairways via openings in the floors.

In the trail of Delhi’s step-wells, stringing them together over several days, I didn’t just go on a jaunt around parts I’d not normally find myself visiting but also through the city’s history.

These baolis are not just destinations but also facilitators of Delhi’s telling of its own stories, each story a conduit to its legacy, a bridge to a past, glorious and bloody in equal measure. They spin incidental tales of survival and loss, of identities crushed even as newer ones take hold.

Even so, none of them spans a historical timeline as wide and diverse as the baoli in Purana Qila. The Purana Qila runs over two kilometres along its perimeter and is believed to be the site of the ancient city of Indraprastha of the Mahabharata, the excavations for which are visible in the vicinity. There is evidence of occupation from the Mauryan, Sunga, Kushan, Gupta, and Rajput periods before Delhi fell to Islamic invaders riding in from the west.

Walking among the few remaining monuments amid well-kept lawns, it’s striking how little Purana Qila communicates its long and eventful pre-Sultanate past.

Though the fort is of relatively recent origin (16th century), its history records that Sher Shah Suri (1538-45) demolished Dinpanah, the city the Mughal emperor Humayun (1508-56) built, to raise the fort seen today.

I find the baoli easily. It is located amid lawns frequented by couples looking for a bit of peace and quiet, close to Sher Mandal, a striking double-storeyed octagonal tower of red sandstone believed to be where Humayun met his end after falling down the stairs of the library located in it.

In the narrow stepped passage that descends 22 metres down 89 steps to the well, punctuated by eight landings along the way, there’s little hint of the turn history took by way of the tumultuous change the Mughals confronted in the wake of Humayun’s death in its vicinity.

Also in the vicinity of the baoli are Qila-i-Kuhna mosque (1541), Khair-ul-Manazil masjid (1561), and the gates that once guarded access to the fort.

Of all the Delhi baolis, I found the single stairway descending to the well to be the narrowest. Parakeets and squirrels make merry on the steps contained by side walls with recessed niches marking landings. The light is beginning to fade. Flowers and leaves lie on the ground, untrampled. The entrance is shut. I’m standing outside, looking in.

At one time it supplied water to the inhabitants of the fort. Now it is abandoned, left alone to live with the echoes of the time when life had imbued it with purpose and probably pomp.

The baoli is essentially utilitarian, a source of water. Elsewhere, most notably in Gujarat, they became an occasion for ornamentation in stone with relief work, sculptures, and ornamental niches, essentially responding to their use for religious purposes. Step-wells in India date from around the 2nd century CE but the original design may be much older, derived from Mohenjodaro’s cylindrical brick-lined wells. They are most common in the semi-arid regions so western India (Gujarat and Rajasthan) is probably where they were first built to provide dependable, year-round groundwater.

At the end of the 19th century, Delhi was known to have about 100 baolis. Today there are about 15 left, of which fewer than eight can claim to have retained much of their original construct, and it is to perhaps the oldest, and possibly the grandest, of these that I am headed, in Mehrauli, the Rajon ki Baoli. The plan is to revisit two step-wells close to each other, not far from Adham Khan’s tomb near the Mehrauli bus-stop: Rajon ki Baoli and Gandhak ki Baoli.

Adham Khan’s tomb is an imposing construction on a raised terrace reached by steps from a small bustling marketplace. The domed octagonal chamber encloses the graves of Adham Khan and his mother Maham Anga, the emperor Akbar’s wet nurse. Adham Khan, a general in Akbar’s army, was flung to his death from Agra fort after he killed Ataga Khan, another of Akbar’s generals elevated to prime minister, his ascension said to be the reason for differences between the two. Akbar built the tomb as a resting place for both son and mother who died of grief soon after her son’s death.

Mehrauli is one of the seven cities that make up present-day Delhi. It squats between Hauz Khas, Tughlaqabad and Vasant Kunj, and was the capital of the Gurjar Tomar chief Anangpal II in the 11th century. He lost it to the Chauhans in the 12th century. Mohammed Ghori and Qutubuddin Aibak followed, the latter proclaiming himself ruler of Delhi after Ghori’s death, laying the foundation of Delhi’s first sultanate, the Mamluk dynasty.

The 200 acres comprising Mehrauli Archaeological Park is a reassuring trove of Delhi’s early sultanate history, represented by the remains of the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Balban, ninth of the Mamluk rulers. Aside from mosques and tombs, Mehrauli is home to two of Delhi’s surviving step-wells: Gandhak ki Baoli and Rajon ki Baoli.

I reach Gandhak ki Baoli walking down the road from Adham Khan’s tomb. It’s the older of the two and has been dated to the reign of the third Mamluk sultan Iltutmish (1211-36).

With five tiers, a water tank and a well to the south, Gandhak ki Baoli is named for the smell of sulphur in its waters. In the winters, passersby looking for some sun and quiet can be seen warming themselves on the narrow walkways along each tier. It is frequented by school children looking for a quick cool-off in its waters and the occasional resident bringing clothes to wash now that water has returned to the baoli.

Wanderers and dervishes, among others, visiting Qutbuddin Kaki’s dargah down the road from the baoli sometimes step in for a bit of quiet and conversation in the shade of a tree. I had a portly man in a straw hat and dark glasses carrying a jhola for company. He fixed his glasses on me after making himself comfortable on the ledge of the low wall fencing the baoli from the street, and leaned against the railings.

Four school friends had stripped down and were splashing in the water when the Straw Hat Man made an appearance. Soon Straw Hat is joined by a middle-aged man with hair pulled back in a ponytail, and they lapse into village gossip.

Leaving them to their conversation and the boys to their diving, I exit Gandhak ki Baoli through a small gate that opens into the street. The Pahalwan Dhaba opposite announces itself as “A Centre of Mughlai Dishes”, a correction from “A Centre of Mughlai Dieses” from an earlier visit when Gandhak ki Baoli was dry.

Keemabhejakadhaai goshtsubzi gosht, kaleja, and korma are on offer with roti at the dhaba. Two boys in prayer caps stand on the roadside in the shade of the baoli’s exterior wall, watching a youth in a vest stir a large vessel in the tandoor.

It’s getting hot and I have two choices: go past the dhaba to Qutbuddin Kaki’s dargah, or step off the road and take the beaten path by a freshly-painted masjid that winds past Rajon ki Baoli, tentatively dated to 1506 and credited to Daulat Khan, a nobleman during Sikander Lodhi’s reign who is said to have built it for the welfare of the community.

Rajon ki Baoli it was and just as well, because there I met Mohammed Afsar, an elderly local man who invited me to join him on his way to Qutbuddin Kaki’s dargah after overhearing me ask for directions to the dargah.

He happened to be showing his brother (“Yeh mere bhai lagte hain”) around. “Bareilly se aaye haiboley ‘Chalo ghuma lao’. Jamali Kamali dikhaye, abhi Qutb sahib ki dargah.” (“He is my brother, from Bareilly. He said, ‘Show me around’. We've been to the Jamali Kamali Mosque, now here at Qutub sahibs dargah.”)

Rajon ki Baoli has a wide, stairway leading down four levels to the water basin, surrounded by colonnaded arcades with internal rooms. The name comes from its usage by masons, according to an inscription on a chatri near a mosque connected with the step-well.

Descending the levels down, I lean against the pillars in the arcade overlooking the stairway opposite; the repeating pattern of steps conducting visitors down to the water basin has a hypnotic pull, not unlike watching waves breaking on the shore.

At first, on my way to Rajon ki Baoli, I had wondered if I had made the right decision after seeing several buses carrying a film crew go by. I expected them and the location of the film shoot to be guarded by bouncers in tight black T-shirts. I was confronted at the gate by two burly Jat bouncers who I suspected had puffed out their chests a bit more upon seeing me come in.

“What do you want?” asked one. He had dropped his hands to his sides, fingers splayed, showing off large rings. On insisting that I had to see the baoli, they let me in after warning me off the adjoining masjid where an ad shoot for clothing was under way. The baoli was as striking a setting as any they could hope for to show off their designs.

Leaving the dargah, I walked past a group of qawwals to the exit where, seated with local residents, was Straw Hat Man’s friend with the ponytail. He was listening in silence to more stories, only the storyteller was different.

It was inevitable that Red Fort would have a baoli of its own. Baolis in forts were a strategic necessity both in times of war and peace. However, this baoli is from the 14th century and predates the fort (17th century).

One early morning, we made for the step-well in the historic fort along a shaded road where Mahipal Singh, bent at the waist, was busy looking for ants to feed in the mud roadside.

“Feeding ants is good for karma,” he said. “I’ll be doing this for 41 days at a stretch. Now I use biscuits to feed them. Before I used atta with ghee,” he explained.

There was no one around when we got to the baoli. An octagonal shaft 14 metres deep goes down to the well, while arched apartments take the visitor around it. from the Red Fort baoli has steps on two sides, instead of a single stairway characteristic of most of the other Delhi step-wells.

During the Indian National Army trials, also known as the ‘Red Fort Trials’ in the 1940s, the British used the baoli to house prisoners, closing off the chambers save for an opening for breathing.

The other baoli that features prominently in this context is the Hindu Rao baoli originally dating from Firoz Shah’s time. Located on the Northern Ridge, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles during the 1857 revolt and where the British slowly began to turn the tide, the baoli was a crucial source of water for the British during the siege.

While we managed to locate Khooni Khan Jheel (lake) deep within the ridge, initially used as a source of water when the British made a stand before being turned into a dumping ground for bodies both British and mutineers, the Hindu Rao baoli eluded us.

Of all the baolis we navigated across Delhi, the one at Firoz Shah Kotla fort (1354) was distinctive for its architecture, a circular, triple-storeyed baoli.

Around the large central well are apartments on both storeys, ground and first. A circular balcony projects over the well. Unlike the other baolis that take the visitor to the water tank at the bottom via straight stairways contained between side-walls, this one had narrow winding stairwells leading down floor by floor. It was constructed with a complex system of terracotta pipes and water channels to convey water to the roof from where it was taken outside.

Arranged around the well are two storeys of rooms where visitors could rest. Among the visitors were riders whose horses were watered here. To this day, water from the baoli is used to tend the gardens.

One of Ashoka’s pillars etched with his edicts on following Buddhism rose in the distance behind the baoli. Originally erected in Ambala by the old Emperor, Firoz Shah carted it to Delhi.

The entrance was fenced off when we reached it. We were told that “the key is with a woman who you’ll find somewhere around there.” Sure enough she was enjoying a nap in the shade of a tree, with other four others, pallusw covering their faces.

“We keep it locked because people enter and play mischief,” she said, letting us in and locking the gate behind us. “Once you’re done, come to the gate and give me a shout. I’ll let you out,” she said before returning to her siesta.

Ram Krishna Puram (R. K. Puram) Sector 5 was the last place I expected to see a baoli. The locals too seemed clueless. I met with many blank looks and wrong turns. It didn’t occur to me to ask for the Wazirpur tomb complex. The baoli is located in the complex dating to the Lodi period—the last of the Delhi Sultanates—between a lawn and homes. A straight stairway descends to the water basin, flanked by walls with shallow cells wide enough to sit but no further.

Unlike the other baolis, this one is set off by two domed turrets. Two water channels cut in stone lead out from the turrets. I wonder if the channels were built to drain excess water out should the levels rise. A wall mosque stands facing west near where the water channels drain off.

Give anything sufficient time and stories will coalesce around it, lending it meaning, purpose, and significance far beyond its original context. For this alone the surviving baolis of Delhi are priceless. They remind of a time where function married form to create purpose not restricted to water alone.

The baolis survived but most of their stories are lost.