Shaniwarwada Fort – The Seat of 18th Century Maratha Power
You do not often come across a monumental historical residence like Shaniwarwada Fort, where even the bare bone structures have a tale to tell. For nearly a hundred years, the residents’ stories here had all the ingredients of a crime thriller, yet the populace held this place as a symbol of Maratha pride. I am at the Shaniwarwada Fort, in Pune, the seat of the powerful Maratha Peshwas, right from its rising in 1732 till ceding control to the British in 1818.
At the zenith of Maratha power, the 9 Buruj (bastions) and 5 Darwaza (gates) Shaniwarwada Fort had an iconic seven-storeyed structure to form residences and the offices of the royal families, officials, and their attendants. Indeed at one point in time, more than a thousand people resided in the fort, as also elephants and horses. Catering to all of this, I perceive the fort had an excellent water and resources supply system.
The journey from Glory to Dust
Shaniwarwada Fort serves as a shining example of making the best use of available natural resources, from within the region, residential complex got constructed with the teak wood from the jungles of Junnar, stone from the quarries of Chinchwad, and lime from the belts at Jejuri.
However, while the uncontrolled fire in 1828 destroyed almost the entire fort, I discover that the carelessness in preserving the remains destroyed whatever got left of it. As a net result, what you get to see are the stone wall fort precincts and lifeless foundation stones to imagine a glorious past. The gardens laid out on the ruins are a window dressing for history seekers today.
The Old World Charm
Shaniwarwada Fort is surrounded on all four sides by narrow roads that get busy as the day wears by with traffic. Lots of hand carts and small shops dot the landscape around the place. Indeed there is some old-world charm retained despite the modern-day developments all around. I can say that’s like a breath of fresh air.
Once inside the holding area of the Shaniwarwada fort, through the Delhi Darwaza, the main gate, I held myself back a bit longer in the shade to soak in the cool breeze that blew across. That was a cool move, as there is little cover while you walk around the quadrangle gardens of 6.25 acres.
Art and Architecture
Breathing in the pungent smell of the limestone painted walls, and of the aging teak wood doors and ceiling panels, my attention fell on the fading Ganesh and Garud murals, on the pale cream large walls inside Delhi Darwaza, the main entrance of the Shaniwarwada Fort. The ambitions to capture power at Delhi drove the idea of having the fort entrance facing north. The massive teak wood gates with a 9×8 grid of long sharp steel spikes and the imposing stone walls gave me a sense of reliving a slice of history.
Soul of Shaniwarwada Fort
Running up a flight of steep steps within the Delhi Darwaza structure, I get to this second-floor large hall, called the Nagarkhana, carpeted with white tiles, lined with well-shaped teak wood pillars and wooden panel ceiling. With folk music played here in the evenings during the Peshwa times, I discover, Nagarkhana served as the soul of Shaniwarwada. Forming the balcony of the Nagarkhana, overlooking the Mula-Mutha river, are the Jharokas, evoking a striking similarity to a Rajasthani edifice.
Left to Imagination
But do the woodwork that we see today in Nagarkhana represent the bedrock of their architecture? The nearby Nana Wada offers some clues of similarity. This architectural similarity left me pondering over questions of what if Nagarkhana hadn’t survived. We would have lost every little chance to have a speculative image of Shaniwarwada Fort.
It is from here that I got the best seat to view the stunning green gardens of the quadrangular Shaniwarwada complex. The decrepit foundation stones feebly convey a bygone era, but what I notice are the wooden fort gates that speak louder.
Trial By Fire
The Mastani gate to the left of Delhi Darwaza symbolizes the divisive politics inside Shaniwarwada. Trouble started in 1732 when Mastani came home as BajiRao Peshwa’s consort from Bundelkhand. I believe caste and religious systems prevented her from being accepted in the fort.
This smaller side gate that we now know as the Mastani gate got constructed to drive home Mastani’s segregation from mainstream life. The foundation stones that I see on the northeastern end of Shaniwarwada Fort represent the quarters where she led a life of trial by fire, much vilified as an outcast.
Left without a choice, Mastani moved out of Shaniwarwada in 1734 to Mastani Mahal in Kothrud, Pune. With compulsions to hold the fraternity together, I sense Baji Rao didn’t realize the idea called Shaniwarwada that he so hopefully conceived.
Murderous Dark Night
But a turmoil, smeared in blood, 40 years later, painted the Mastani episode in a pale shade. At the far end of fort precincts, the Narayan gate reminds me of the gruesome horror on the full moon night of 30th August 1773, the last day of the Ganpati festival.
I could quite visualize the Peshwa Narayan Rao, being chased all over Shaniwarwada by a murderous Gardi gang at the instance of his uncle Raghunath Rao, get hacked down mercilessly, chopped into pieces, put in earthen pots, and taken out through this gate surreptitiously.
Legend has it that on full moon nights, people living in the vicinity of Shaniwarwada talk of hearing the chilling cry “kakaa mala vachwaa” (uncle save me), Narayan Rao’s last words. The ghost of Shaniwarwada Fort lives on.
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