The Seat of 18th Century Maratha Power
It isn’t often that you come across a monumental historical residence such as this, where even the bare bone structures have a tale to tell. For nearly a hundred years, the stories of the residents 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 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 the residences and 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.
Journey from Glory to Dust
Serving 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 uncontrolled fire in 1828 destroyed almost the entire fort, I discover that the carelessness to preserve 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 is surrounded on all four sides by narrow roads, that gets busy as the day wears by with traffic. Lots of hand carts and small shops dot the landscape around the place. Surely 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 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 gardens of the quadrangle of 6.25 acres.
Art and Architecture
Breathing in the pungent smell of the limestone painted walls and of the ageing teak wood doors and ceiling panels, my sights were set on the fading Ganesh and Garud murals, on the ageing massive walls of Delhi Darwaza, the main entrance. 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
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, I discover, Nagarkhana served as the soul of Shaniwarwada. Right above the Delhi Darwaza, forming the balcony of the Nagarkhana, 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 left me pondering over questions of what if Nagarkhana hadn’t survived. We would have lost every little chance to have a conjectural image of Shaniwarwada. 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 evidently are the wooden fort gates that speak louder.
Trial By Fire
The Mastani gate to the left of Delhi Darwaza, symbolises 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 being accepted in the fort. This smaller side gate that we now know as Mastani gate, got constructed as a way to drive home Mastani’s segregation from mainstream life. The foundation stones that I see on the north eastern end of the wada, 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 pale shade. The Narayan gate, at the far end of fort precincts, reminds me of the gruesome horror, on the full moon night of 30th August 1773, the last day of Ganpati festival. I could quite visualize the Peshwa Narayan Rao, being chased all over the wada 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 lives on.