In Bajirao's backyard

In Bajirao's backyard

In Bajirao's backyard
It took a Hindi movie, with all its concoction, to draw attention to Shaniwar Wada, Pune’s iconic palace cum fortress. Once a seat of the Peshwas of Maratha kingdom, Bajirao Ballal Bhat’s formidable fort dates back to 1732. It is said to have housed more than a 1,000 people once during the Maratha reign.

The stone and wood fortress constructed by Bajirao Ballal Bhat found its name in the fact that it was visualised and inaugurated on a Saturday (Shaniwar). Costing Rs 16,110, a staggering figure in those days, the wada has an impressive gate, which was designed as the main entrance. Called the Delhi Darwaza, it is studded with heavy metal spikes to prevent its razing by elephants. Each panel of the gate is studded with razor-sharp 12-inch steel spikes, numbering 72. These are arranged in a grid pattern of nine by eight and located at approximately the height of the forehead of a battle-elephant.

The entrance leads to a zigzag passage, so designed as to deter a rush of enemies. Interestingly, traces of paintings that once adorned the walls can still be seen and the Naubat Khana, where the nagadas announced the arrivals and departures of the royalty, still stand above the gates.

Robust structure
The nine-bastioned wada once housed a complex of residences, darbar halls, courtyards, temples, gardens and fountains. Among the notable structures were a huge 16-petal-lotus-shaped fountain called Hazari Karanje (fountain with a 1,000 jets). Each of the 16-petal-lotus was equipped with jets that spewed water at an arch of 80 foot, providing an amazing sight to the onlookers.

Each of the gates — Delhi Darwaza, Khidki Darwaza, Ganesh Darwaza, Narayan Darwaza and Mastani Darwaza — had their own importance. For instance, Delhi Darwaza was the main entrance, Khidki Darwaza on the east was so called because of the armoury window, Ganesh Darwaza to the south of the fortress was used by the womenfolk to visit the Kasba Ganpati Temple located on that side.

According to our guide, the Narayan Darwaza was once known as Jambhul Darwaza, and was used by concubines to enter the fort. It was renamed Narayan Darwaza after the body of Narayan Rao was carried through the gate by his assassins. “The palaces were exquisitely carved and murals painted on the walls. Impressive archways, carved pillars, sparkling chandeliers, fine rugs and furniture added to the beauty of the halls,” recited the guide as he led me through the wada.

The legendary ‘Hall of Mirrors’ was where many important celebrations took place. Built on the lines of the Sheesh Mahals of Mughal and Rajput palaces, this hall was an important part of the fortress during Bajirao’s time.

Ganpati Rang Mahal, which was also known as Diwan Khana was the main audience hall, where the Peshwas met people. It is said to have been built by the third Peshwa to celebrate the Ganpati festival in 1755. This historical hall with ornamental carvings and decorations was witness to many important political and social events, including the famous Pune Darbar in 1791.

As for the Mastani Darwaza, which was the entrance leading to the lady’s palace, it is said to have been built because Radhabai, Bajirao’s mother, objected to a Muslim girl entering the fortress from the main entrance. Although there is much debate about the religion of Mastani, the fact remains that Radhabai, who wielded considerable clout and power, forbid her son to house the second wife in Shaniwar Wada.

Mastani Darwaza has changed its name many times. A tiny plaque near the gate provides information about its history. It is described as Natakshala Gate in the old records of the Marathas. Later, it was renamed as Mastani Darwaza when the lady arrived at Shaniwar Wada. The gate was used exclusively by Mastani for her outings from the palace. The name was changed to Ali Bahadur Darwaza after Ali Bahadur, Mastani’s grandson, conquered Bundelkhand and founded the kingdom of Banda.

After a series of assassination attempts on Mastani, Bajirao is said to have constructed a palace for his lady love at Kothrud. A Mrityunjayeshwar Temple stands where the palace once stood. Rumours point to the presence of an underground tunnel under the temple.

It is said to lead to Shaniwar Wada, and was once used by Bajirao to visit Mastani. Although Mastani Mahal has long gone, a replica of the palace can be seen at Raja Kelkar Museum, which has recreated the palace along with the impressive carvings, ornate chandeliers, vibrant paintings and musical instruments that adorned it during its prime.

Ghosts come alive
Like most ancient palaces, Shaniwar Wada has its share of folklore and ghostly tales. People vouch to have come across a ghost in the wada. According to historical accounts, Narayan Rao, the minor grandson of Bajirao, was crowned as the Peshwa after his father’s death. Since he was a minor, his uncle, Raghunath Rao, was appointed as a regent.

Story goes that the regent, being an ambitious man, was bent upon retaining his hold on the throne, so he plotted to have the Peshwa killed. When the killers attacked Narayan Rao, the young boy ran to his uncle screaming, ‘Kaka, Malaa Vaachwa’ (Please save me, Uncle). Of course, the uncle did nothing to stop the killers and the boy was assassinated.

Many historians and writers have implicated Anandibai, the wife of the regent, as the culprit. She is believed to have changed the order given by her husband. By altering a single alphabet, the cunning lady changed the farman to read — ‘Narayan Rao la Mara’ (kill Narayan Rao) instead of ‘Narayan Rao la dhara’ (imprison Narayan Rao).  

The run of Peshwa luck came to a grinding halt in 1818, after they lost the third Anglo-Maratha War. Then, on February 27, 1827, a raging fire engulfed Shaniwar Wada. It is said to have raged for one full week and destroyed the entire fortress. All that remains today is the massive entrance and traces of the fine palaces along with the legend of Bajirao and Mastani.

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