A reminder of Peshwa legacy

Shaniwarwada, Pune

A reminder of Peshwa legacy

The city of Pune has grown to be the second largest and populous metropolis in Maharashtra. Right here in the hubbub of crowds and overflowing traffic is a historic heritage structure of Shaniwarwada that stands imposingly defying all the din around. For the local populace, the fortress is just another building, but for tourists and history buffs, it is a place where one can travel back in time. 

In the 17th century, warrior king Shivaji was in charge of the successful Maratha empire, which revolted against the Mughals, and expanded his rule to most parts of India. Later, Shivaji’s grandson Chhatrapati Sahu enlisted Peshwas (or prime ministers), to plan and execute expansion strategies for the empire. The Peshwas not only lived up to the expectations creating a vast Maratha empire, but also succeeded as the rulers for almost a century.

Being at the zenith of Maratha reign, the Peshwas sought to build a huge fortress that also served as the residential complex for their families. So, on a Saturday (Shaniwar), January 10, 1730 Peshwa Baji Rao I laid the foundation stone here to build the fort. Two years later, the majestic structure was completed and inaugurated on a Saturday, again considered to be auspicious, and came to be known as Shaniwarwada.

History mystery

Though the initial construction was done by Baji Rao I, more and more structures and battlements were added by successive Peshwas in the following years. Shaniwarwada remained as a stronghold of Peshwas until 1818 when the British won the Anglo-Maratha war and annexed it. Ten years later, a devastating fire raged for a week, bringing down most of the architectural wonder to dust. Where the monuments once stood, one can find tablets with detailed descriptions of each structure and its purpose.

In the foreground of Shaniwarwada is an equestrian statue of Baji Rao I and a small shrine. The building was built as a fort with gigantic strong walls. The main entrance itself was tall enough to allow elephants with howdahs. At the same time, it was also designed to ward off all attacks by elephants and the army. The front of the door panel has rows of metal spikes at the level of an elephant’s forehead so that the denizens would not dare to push through the door. The circular bastions beside the entrance have openings at the top from where hot oil used to be poured over the enemy soldiers. The entrance also has turns to right and left to dissuade the soldiers from barging in quickly. The carriages of cannons are placed in the entrance passage.

Clever construction

Once past through the entrance, which is called Delhi Darwaza, as it is facing north, the walkway leads to a sprawling courtyard full of green lawns and garden. The complex also has four other  entrances. As you take a stroll from the right, the second entrance called Mastani Darwaza is seen. Named after Baji Rao I’s second wife, the door was used by the queen. Further down is the east-facing entrance called Khidki Darwaza, consisting of an armoured window. The path leads to the remnants of Ganesh Rang Mahal where Ganesh festival used to be celebrated.

It also opens to the Ganesh Darwaza to the south-east. The complex had many buildings like the vast reception hall, dance platform and a mirrored hall. The tablets describe that these halls were well-decorated with Cypress-shaped teak pillars supporting the ceiling where intricate plant creepers and flowers were carved. The windows were adorned with silk curtains, while the crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Reading these descriptions will fire one’s imagination to visualise the opulence and grandeur in which the Peshwas lived here. Another attraction was the lotus fountain with 16 petals with jets.

To the southern end is the Narayan Darwaza, named so after Peshwa Narayan Rao whose body was taken out through this arch for cremation.

There is also a gory side to the monument. A story of greed for power and heinous assassination. Narayan Rao was one of the three sons of Peshwa Nanasaheb. When the other two sons died in war, Narayan Rao, who was still an adolescent, became the young Peshwa with his uncle Raghunath Rao in charge. But Raghunath Rao’s wife, who was greedy for power, hatched a conspiracy to kill the boy. On the night of a new moon, a group of assassins stealthily came to the young Peshwa’s room. Realising he was being attacked, the boy called out to his uncle “Kaka, mala vachva!” (Uncle! save me!). But the intruders mercilessly hacked him to death and escaped into the night. It is believed that on new moon nights one hears the same cry for help.

With remnants of artistic architecture and mysterious stories, Shaniwarwada is worth a visit.

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