By Nishi Pulugurtha
Blazing in the dry, hot, summer sun, in the heart of the city of Pune in Maharasthra, stand the ruins of the once majestic fort, Shaniwar Wada. Located on the banks of the river Mutha, which is dry and dirty, this fort belongs to an important chapter in the history of the Maratha Empire. Amidst all the traffic and noise of modern day Pune, the fort stands out. Built in 1745, this fort was the home of the ruling Peshwas till their defeat by the British in 1818. Peshwa Bajirao laid the foundation of the fort on Saturday, January 10, 1730 and, hence, the name ‘Shaniwar Wada’ – Shaniwar meaning Saturday and Wada, ‘residence’.
Legend has it that the Peshwa Bajirao I once chanced upon a rabbit chasing a dog in the place where the fort stands now. This made him choose this place as the headquarters of the Peshwas. The fort was the site of much palace intrigue. Bajirao I was succeeded by his son, Peshwa Balaji Bajirao, fondly referred to as Nanasaheb Peshwa. As his eldest son, Vishwasrao, died during the third battle of Panipat, Madhavrao succeeded as the 4th Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. After his death in 1772, Madhavrao’s youngest son, Narayanrao, just 17 years of age, became the Peshwa. His uncle, Raghunathrao, had been nursing ambitions to become Peshwa for quite some time. Palace intrigue intensified and Raghunathrao was kept under house arrest by the Peshwa. This led to more plots with Raghunathrao’s wife Anadibai enlisting the help of the Gardis, highly trained assassins, to kill Narayanrao.
On the last day of Ganesh Festival, 30th August 1773, several Gardi guards entered the palace and charged towards the Peshwa’s chambers. The Peshwa, sensing trouble, ran out of his chambers shouting, “Kaka! Mala Vachva!!” (“Uncle! Save me!”) The Gardis followed Narayanrao to his uncle’s chamber and killed him. It is said that the ghost of Narayanrao still haunts the ramparts of the fort on full moon nights. One story that is most familiar to people is the ‘love story’ to be played out within these walls – the romance between Bajirao I and Mastan. The Hindi film, Bajirao Mastani, is based on this episode and is set in Shaniwar Wada.
One enters into the fort through the main entrance, the Delhi Darwaza, which is huge and has iron spikes as a security measure. The fort has many other entrances with names like Ganesh Darwaza, Mastani Darwaza, Jambhal Darwaza, Khidki Darwaza. On the grounds, just in front of the fort, is a statue of Bajijrao I on horseback. The inner walls of the palace had scenes from the Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, painted on them. Nothing of that remains today. All that stands within the ramparts of the fort are the ruins of a sixteen petal lotus-shaped fountain, smaller fountains, and broken walls.
In 1818, after the Marathas were defeated by the British, the fort became the residence of British officers. In 1828, a major fire destroyed Shaniwar Wada. Today, Shaniwar Wada is a shadow of its former glory. Locals and tourists visit but the place is in a bad shape. One only hopes that care would be taken in the maintenance of our heritage. As I walk across the ramparts, traffic buzzes by. Within the fort, it seems another world, a world far removed in time. A world that goes back to a period read long ago in history books, a world of which we have just these ruins as witness of time gone by. As I navigate the high steps and climb up the walls, I am filled with a sense of its past glory, of intrigues and romance.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu
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