pune: political seat of the maratha empire


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.

Often credited with ending Mughal rule in India and being the direct predecessor to British East India Company rule, the Maratha Empire or the Maratha Confederacy 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 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 also 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


Lal Mahal is 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.

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 this 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

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.

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. 🙂

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.]

secrets of south bombay’s parel queensway


The stories and secrets Bombay holds in its folds behind its crumbling Victorian edifices and chaotic traffic spans centuries. Of all the streets which cover the city in a tangled web, Queensway, a road that leads through Parel in South Bombay, is perhaps the richest in terms of history and also the least to have divulged its mysteries.

A two and a half kilometre stretch, the wide boulevard lined with towering trees contains 19th Century temple courtyards, odes to the Indian Independence Movement, stories of magnanimous philanthropy, and an open air museum of Indian sculpture traversing 1,600 years. And if you did not know, you would not even come close to guessing they exist. Continue reading

3 reasons why the bdl tops as mumbai’s most lovely museum


Do you like museums? I do. Not all of them though. Just those that stand out, whether it be in scale or the splendour of its exhibits, recount a tale which draws one within its folds, or is so darned quaint it looks like it stepped straight out from another world, another time.

I spent this past Sunday at one that fit the last bill.

One does not often relate Mumbai to museums. And when one does, it is invariably the grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya which comes to mind. The name itself is a mouthful as is its repertoire of treasures. But there is another that is just as inimitable, albeit in an altogether different way—reminiscent of a large Victorian doll house brimming with charm and pretty things. It is the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla.

Three things set the second one apart and place it firmly as Mumbai’s most lovely repository: Its restored stunning Victorian edifice, a bevy of vibrant clay models which transform the place into a magical fantasy, and its exquisite collection of decorative arts which showcase India’s rich heritage. Quite a heady mix!

Read on to know more. 🙂 Continue reading

a self-guided walk through mumbai’s iconic business district: ballard estate


Though an avid proponent for guided walks, I love self-guided walks just that tad bit more. They are like a treasure hunt filled with the thrill of discovery! Don’t you agree? As one decodes a route and identifies details, a place takes on an added meaning. From then on, it is never just another precinct, another site, discovered and rapidly forgotten. You start to recognise its finer nuances, unveil layers, and imbibe a bit of its soul. Such was how I explored Ballard Estate a few days ago.

To many in Bombay aka Mumbai, Ballard Estate is just another business district, the chief differentiator being “London-like.” London-like? Yes, that’s the catch word!

Whilst the rest of the city, and in particular, the adjoining Fort area is Victorian-Gothic in style, with its associated chaos, Ballard Estate is serene and uniform. A meticulously planned, purpose-built district by Bombay Port Trust, Ballard Estate is the coming together of two urbanisation concepts in the period between 1914 to 1918. These are: 1) Twenty-two acres of reclaimed land using excavated rock and soil from the creation of Alexandra Dock, and 2) the aesthetic design sense of architect George Wittet. Continue reading

the heritage precinct of gamdevi in mumbai: modern india’s birthplace


Whoever said Mumbai is all steel and glass often-times grotesque, or miles of slums topped with blue tarpaulin needs to revisit it. Seriously, and, no, this is not some biased Mumbaikar’s rambling.

The city spills over with heritage. It is perhaps not in a blatant form as in other Indian cities which are decorated with grand tombs and forts. Mumbai’s heritage is sepia-toned, like a beautiful memory living on in the modern everyday life we live out on a daily basis, and are unaware of where it stems from. It is a heritage not of brick and mortar but of ideologies and modernism, the latter both political and cultural. It is the sapling that grew up to become “Modern India.”

A few months ago, this became evident to me when I joined a heritage walk through a precinct in South Bombay called Gamdevi or Gaondevi, meaning Village Goddess. The neighbourhood is named after its 200-year-old temple dedicated to Durga, also referred to by its devotees as Lilavati “a graceful woman.”

Spanning less than 500 metres across in width and length each, Gamdevi is where Bollywood talkies originated and Indian feminism shaped itself. Its lanes have triggered the imaginations of painters and authors alike, and its edifices given concrete form to convictions. It is also where Mahatma Gandhi lived and launched the Quit India Movement in 1942. Gamdevi is a pot pourri of the makers of Modern India, and their stories, and by default, our stories, I like to believe. Continue reading