pune heritage walk: lal mahal and shaniwar wada

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Aah, those wondrous figures who live on in the dusty worn out pages of time—the larger than life legends who changed the course of history! I am talking about Chhattrapati [Sovereign] Shivaji Maharaj [top left image] and Peshwa Bajirao I [top right image] of the Maratha Empire.

Though India’s Mughal-centric history has pushed the Maratha Empire to its periphery, it lives on, passionately and firmly embedded in Maharashtra, its founder’s state, and in Pune, the empire’s political seat.

The Maratha Empire or the Maratha Confederacy, often credited with ending Mughal rule in India and being the direct predecessor to British East India Company rule, lasted from 1674 to 1818. It was ruled by a Hindu knight group from present day Maharashtra on the principle of Hindavi Swarajya [Hindu self-rule].

In 1760, at its peak, the empire covered 2.8 million square kilometres in area, from Attock to Cuttack, or two-thirds of what was later to become British India. Its territory encompassed Tamil Nadu in the south to Peshawar in the north, and Bengal and Andaman Islands in the east. Raigad was the imperial capital; Marathi and Sanskrit its official languages. No other Hindu or Indian dynasty has wielded as much power in the Indian subcontinent after the 6th Century as the Maratha Empire did.

Since a large portion of the empire was coastline, a key part of the Maratha military strategy was made up of securing the coastal areas and building fortifications to keep the Portuguese and British naval ships at bay. These forts still stand, albeit now crumbling and moss-covered, in the misty green folds of the Ghats.

I mentioned two men.

The stories of Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Peshwa Bajirao I are woven into the very fabric of Pune. To know Pune, is to know these two men. And once you know these two, you understand Pune a little better. 🙂

Shivaji was a Maratha Bhonsle aristocrat and is considered to be the founder of the Maratha Empire. His grandfather received the fiefdom of Pune in 1595 from the Ahmednagar Sultanate in return for his services.

The realm Shivaji founded, 4.1 percent of the eventual version, was expanded 10-fold by Pune’s second hero—Bajirao I, the empire’s second Peshwa or Prime Minister (1720 – 1740). Bajirao I fought over 41 battles during his tenure and is said to be the only unbeaten general in the world.

He is equally referred to as Bajirao Ballal or Thorale [Marathi for “elder”] Bajirao to distinguish him from Bajirao II, the last Peshwa under whose rule and the ensuing second Anglo-Maratha war, the Maratha Empire lost out to the British for good.

Shivaji’s childhood home and site of his attack against the Mughals: Lal Mahal

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Lal Mahal was young Shivaji and his mother, Jijabai’s, home in Pune. Shivaji’s father had got himself a second wife and left for Karnataka to lead a military campaign on behalf of Adilshahi. Both, mother and son moved into Lal Mahal in 1640 together with his guardian Dadoji Kondeo. Once older, Shivaji often used Pune as a transit base for his military campaigns.

Born in Shivneri Fort on 19 February, 1630, Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire ruled from 1674 to 1680 [he died of high fever at Raigad Fort]. Committed to self-rule, he led a revolt against the Sultanate in a bid to free the Maratha people, and throughout his life fought against the Mughals to keep his people free. He was crowned Chhattrapati [Sovereign] on 6 June, 1674 in Raigad.

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A miniature model of the Raigad Fort where Shivaji was coronated and died. An avid fort builder, as well as a warrior, Shivaji was born in a fort, coronated in one and either captured or built around 370 of them in his lifetime.

Very little is known about Shivaji’s childhood, and much of what is known is often claimed to be too fantastical to be true since it was written 150 years after his death. By that time he had become a semi-legendary figure.

Also referred to as Rang Mahal, maybe because it was covered with wall paintings commonly found in the old Maratha wada walls, Lal Mahal has long disappeared. A recent reconstruction stands in its place today—the only similarities are the dimensions at 82.5 X 52.5 feet and both being painted red. The original structure consisted of a basement and two floors, with three wells within the compound.

The absence of a bygone structure, however, does not diminish the place’s heritage value one iota because Lal Mahal is less about an edifice, and more about a site. Not only was it Shivaji’s childhood home, it is where he led one of his most strategic attacks against the Mughals, or to be more exact, Shaista Khan a Mughal Sardar.

The year was 1663. Shaista Khan, Aurangzeb [the Mughal Emperor’s] maternal uncle, aided with an army of 150,000 soldiers had captured Maratha territory [in 1660] and made Lal Mahal in Pune his home. Shivaji ofcourse was not going to take this lying down. Though there are multiple accounts of what exactly happened, the unanimously agreed version goes as follows:

On 5 April, one night before Ramzan and armed with a band of 2,000 soldiers, Shivaji crept into Pune from Raigad. Thereafter, 400 of his men, including himself, disguised themselves as part of a wedding procession. The figure later trickled down to a group of 50 who quietly entered the palace through a hole they made in the kitchen wall. They then rushed into the bed chambers slashing their swords through the covers, and killed one of Khan’s sons and a few family members. Khan, however, managed to escape but not before getting three of his fingers chopped off by Shivaji in an one-on-one combat. An embarrassed Aurangzeb immediately transferred Khan to Bengal.

What happened to Pune, you may well ask? It came back under Maratha rule in 1670 after the battle of Sinhagad.

Bajirao I’s home and the Peshwas’ seat of power: Shaniwar Wada

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The equestrian statue of Bajirao I in front of Dilli Darwaja, aptly placed.

Though better known today perhaps because of the histrionics in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani, Bajirao I’s real life was no less dramatic.

Born on 18 August, 1700, Bajirao I was appointed Peshwa when he was merely 20 years old and died aged 39. Determined to conquer the Mughals, he wanted to replace their empire and create a Hindu-Pat-Padshahi [Hindu Empire] in its place. Delhi eventually fell to the Marathas in 1757.

Peshwa meaning “foremost leader” in Persian, was a hereditary post founded by the fourth Maratha Chhattrapati Shahu. Initially the Peshwas served as subordinates to the Emperor, but later grew to become the de facto leaders of the empire, with the Chhattrapati reduced to a figurehead.

Described as India’s finest cavalry gentleman by the British army officer Bernard Montgomery, Bajirao I’s strategies are being taught to US marines three hundred years on. On the personal front his love affair with his second wife, the half-Muslim Mastani, is what mythical love stories are made of—replete with passion, doom, and death. Pune was Bajirao I’s adopted home.

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Dilli Darwaja: Whilst seven of the bastions are Indian in design with semi-circular towers, the two flanking Dilli Darwaja or the Delhi Gateway are European in style and hexagonal in shape. [image by: Ashok Bagade]

According to legend, he once saw a rabbit chasing a dog at Shaniwar Peth in Pune. It was sometime in 1730. The sight mirrored within him his own outrageous ambitions. He then and there decided to move his base from Satara to Pune and built his wada, a Maharashtrian home with rooms hemming a central courtyard, at the site. The wada, completed in 1732 at a cost of Rs. 16,110, and added on to by his successors, in particular his son Balaji Bajirao aka Nanasaheb (1740 – 1761), was to be the home of the Peshwas from then on.

A charming factoid: Pune’s old city is divided into peths or boroughs, their names based on which day of the week the local bazaars were held. Hence, Shaniwar Peth had its local market on Shaniwar [Saturday]. And Shaniwar Wada is so named because it stands in Shaniwar Peth, and was officially opened on Shaniwar. Simple times and their simple logic. 😀

To get back to the architecture of Bajirao I’s wada, magnificent dwellings decorated with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata once stood within, encircled by gardens, fountains, and small courtyards. There was even a 7-storeyed building inside. The hazari karanje fountain on the east side was so called because it emitted a thousand spouts of water simultaneously!

Historical records claim at least a thousand people used to reside within these walls in 1758. Much of these architectural marvels were razed to the ground in a series of fires between 1791 and 1828. All that remains now are their ruins encased in fortification walls punctuated with nine bastions and five gateways, each of which tell a story to those who would pause to listen.

There is Dilli Darwaja facing Delhi and a reminder of Bajirao I’s dream, Mastani Darwaja the door used by his beloved Mastani, Khidki Darwaja a window expanded into a gateway, Ganesh Darwaja by the Ganesh Temple, and Narayan Darwaja through which the 17-year-old Peshwa Narayanrao’s murdered body was sneaked out in August 1773, unnoticed in the ongoing Ganesh festival’s mayhem.

Of all the gateways, the Dilli Darwaja built in 1752 is easily the most grand. Topped with a Naqqar Khana [wherefrom drums used to announce the Peshwa’s arrival] and flanked with European styled octagonal bastions, the gate’s spiked facade is carved with a sun and moon. What do they mean? The professed eternal reign of the Maratha Empire.

As I walked over the ramparts in the golden February sun, overlooking the ruins of mahals named after their occupants, I felt I was at Bajirao I’s home. I think he would have been happy to know his wada was still receiving guests from far and wide. 🙂

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The original Naqqar Khana on Dilli Darwaja (1760) in which amidst much pomp and show drummers announced the Peshwa’s comings and goings.

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Left: 72 sharp 12-inch steel spikes cover each pane of Dilli Darwaja for protection against the elephants then used in military combat; Right: One of the very many flights of steps leading out from the fortified ramparts into the wada.

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Traces of vibrant frescoes on the fortification walls. Once upon a time all the edifices inside were decorated with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

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Left: Malhar Rao (1694 – 1766), the Maratha chief serving Peshwa Bajirao I, established the Holkar dynasty’s rule in Indore; Right: Mastani Darwaja, Queen Mastani’s private entrance into Shaniwar Wada.

Bajirao I granted semi-autonomy to the strongest of the knights to enable the empire’s effective management. The dynasties, thus created, included the Gaekwads of Baroda, Holkars of Indore, Scindias or Shindes of Gwalior and Ujjain, and Bhonsales of Nagpur.

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Chimana Bag, and its perfect symmetrical pools; It must have been a lovely sight when its fountains were on and the flowers abloom.

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Walking down the original ramparts which circle the 6.25 acre wada area. The walls were built in 1760 by Bajirao I’s son, Nanasaheb. Though the palace is now in ruins, the fortification walls with its bastions, gateways and Naqqar Khana are still intact. The site is a national monument and under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India since 1919.

– – –

And with this my heritage walk came to a close. What an immensely wonderful introduction to a city. Two men. Two sites. And so much history. Bombay’s neighbour may be less glamorous in the 21st Century. But in the 17th and 18th Century, for almost 150 years, Pune was where pan-national decisions were made by India’s historical icons.

Note: My above walk was led by Dr. Ajit Apte as part of the Pune Heritage Festival 2017 organised jointly by Janwani and Intach Pune.

[Caption for title image—Left: Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj portrait, British Museum, London (1680s); Right: Bajirao I, Kelkar Museum, Pune (18th Century).]

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29 thoughts on “pune heritage walk: lal mahal and shaniwar wada

    • Thank you! Though all credit goes to Dr. Ajit Apte. He was fantastic–his walk was the right mix of knowledge, storytelling, and passion. In two hours he managed to give me a thorough understanding of two legends, and their relationship with Pune.

      I knew next to nothing about Shivaji before this walk, except that every other thing in Bombay seems to be named after him. Now I myself am filled with respect and admiration for Shivaji and Bajirao I. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Some people are quite good with their knowledge and narratives. While listening it feels as if we are watching it all in front of our eyes. I’m happy you enjoyed it thoroughly, Rama 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting post on the great warriors of Maratha Ramya! 370 forts is quite a number… Wonder in how many forts did Shivaji lived in or even visited… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha. That’s a good question. From my readings, it seems he was mainly in just one–the Raigad Fort. 🙂 The rest were either for protection or sites for battle. However, all the ones he got built apparently followed a set pattern.

      Like

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  3. Thanks for this amazing post Rama. It truly describes the cultural importance of Pune. And thank you for throwing light on two of the best maratha leaders. I don’t know about the school syllabus in India now. But while I was studying the maratha empire never received it’s true credit in the history books. They were just portrayed as decoits who looted the moguls. Sad but true

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thank you for stopping by and commenting. 🙂 Means a lot that you think the post does justice to Pune and the two Maratha leaders.

      History, in particular, has historically been prone to subjective interpretation. The person(s) writing textbooks and crafting the syllabus invariably have the power to highlight or dilute facts and events. And what we get taught, thus, is a biased version. It is the way it has always been, and will be, as can be seen even in the current rewriting of our past, all over the world, to suit political ideologies.

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  6. What an interesting post. Bravo. I’ve seen Bajirao Mastani as many times as i catch it on TV, but your post has the real history not shown in the movie. I’m very much interested in finding out the real facts than just the way they are in book. Your post served my purpose. Hope it’ll do in future too. Enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Manpreet for your kind comment. Appreciated. Must confess I am at the opposite end of the Bajirao spectrum. I have not seen the film, not even once. And, therefore, for me Bajirao will always remind me of Shaniwar Wada and Pune, and vice versa. 🙂

      Like

  7. Pingback: pune heritage walk: lal mahal and shaniwar wada — rama arya’s blog – efanc

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