Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa

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The seat of the Maratha empire from 1730 to 1818, the Shaniwar Wada is a very important place in Indian history. Built by the Peshwas (Prime Ministers) of the Maratha King (Chhatrapati), this palace fort has nearly been destroyed completely by a combination of military attacks and fires through the centuries.

History

Under the Peshwai (leadership) of Bajirao I, the capital of the Maratha Empire shifted from Satara to Pune. Bajirao chose Pune for his seat because he found the climate and geography of Pune most suitable for the Peshwai. As both ceremonies – laying the foundation stone and a house warming – took place on Saturdays and the Wada was built in Shaniwar Peth, it was named Shaniwar Wada.

Bajirao I – the Great Cavalry General and Peshwa who build Shaniwar wada as the prime seat of Maratha kingdom. © Gaurav Lele

The main entrance of the Shaniwar Wada is called the Delhi Darwaza, so called because it faces the north and due to Bajirao’s ambitions of conquering Delhi. The building of Shaniwar Wada is thus a pivotal moment in the history of Pune, which has been the cultural capital of Maharashtra ever since.

After Bajirao I

Nanasaheb or Balali Bajirao, the son of Bajirao-I, was the longest ruling Peshwa at 21 years and saw the glory of Shaniwar Wada multiplied during his tenure. However, by the end of his rule, the Marathas had lost the third War of Panipat which resulted in the glory of the Shaniwar Wada being somewhat diminished.

Madhavrao I – Nanasaheb’s second son, his eldest son having been killed in Panipat – who became Peshwa after Nanasaheb, spent considerable time and resources fighting many enemies of the Peshwai, including his uncle Raghobadada), and was thus unable to undertake further constructions in the Wada.

A cannon placed at the entrance of Shaniwar Wada © Gaurav Lele

The Father-Son Murder-Suicide

Nanasaheb’s third son Narayanrao was appointed Peshwa after the early death of Madhavrao. Raghobadada, who was the regent for Narayanrao, soon had major disagreements with his nephew, leading to Raghobadada being placed under house arrest. During the Ganpati Festival of 1773, several armed Gardi soldiers led by Sumer Singh Gardi entered the Shaniwar Wada, either with the intent of freeing Raghobadada and his wife or attacking Narayanrao. During the skirmish in the Wada, the young Peshwa was cut down by the Gardis. The body of Narayanrao is believed to be smuggled out of the Wada through the Jambhul Darwaza (the gate used previously by concubines) and cremated by the river at midnight.

The dark corridors inside the Shaniwar Wada © Gaurav Lele

According to popular legend, Raghobadada had written to the Gardis with the Marathi word ‘धरा’ (to hold Narayanrao) but the letter was intercepted by his wife Anandibai (Raghobadada’s senior wife), who changed a single letter in the word, making it ‘मारा’ (kill). Narayanrao, after being chased by the Gardis, is said to have run inside the Wada crying  ‘काका मला वाचावा’ ‘(uncle, save me). This gruesome crime is said to have brought ill fate to the Peshwai, which never rose to its previous heights after Narayanrao’s demise. Rumour has it that Narayanrao’s cries for help are still heard around the Shaniwar Wada making it one of the most famously haunted places in India.

Narayan Darwaza Renamed after being used to smuggle the corpse of the young Peshwa after his grisly murder. | © Gaurav Lele

Sawai Madhavrao, the next Peshwa and the posthumous son of Narayanrao is said to have been both physically and mentally weak. During time of his rule, it was the ministers of the Barbhai council led by the pragmatist Nana Phadanvis. At the age of 21, Sawai Madhavrao is believed to have jumped into the Hazari fountain, which was built for the pleasure of the infant Sawai Madhavrao, and died after sustaining severe injuries. Thus, this majestic Wada witnessed not only the gory murder of a young Peshwa but also the unfortunate suicide of his son, forever damaging the psyche of the Peshwai.

Hazari Karaja © Gaurav Lele

Next to become Peshwa was Bajirao II, son of Raghobadada, who proved to be the antithesis of his namesake – Bajirao I. Bajirao II is said to have been incompetent and cowardly and his tenure saw the Maratha confederacy being surrendered to the British by 1817, making him the last Peshwa. The inhuman oppression of untouchable castes, which rose to eminence after the death of Bajirao I was a major reason for defeat of the Marathas  to the Brits (see Battle of Koregaon – i hope to cover this in  some other blogpost). The union jack was hoisted in Shaniwar Wada on the 17th November 1917, marking the consolidation of colonial rule in India. With the greatest Indian power humiliated, the Brits went on to rule the subcontinent for over 130 years.

Fires

1791 – A major fire broke in the Wada, devouring 5 levels.

1808 – Fire that destroyed all the important artifacts and documents in the palace.

1812  Fire that destroyed two stories, a warehouse and Asmani Mahal.

1813 – Fire that destroyed the Royal Hall.

1828 – The fifth and biggest fire which is said to have lasted a week.

A plaque pointing to the place where the Arse Mahal (Mirror palace) stood before being consumed by fire © Gaurav Lele

Shaniwar Wada Today

Shaniwar Wada is often not high on the list of must-visit monuments for history enthusiasts in India. It consists of a gardens and ruins surrounded  by tall walls in the heart of Pune. The noisy traffic from the roads surrounding the Wada can be heard everywhere inside the Wada. This sorry state can be blamed on the combination of the Fall of the Marathas, the Destruction by fires, the consequent neglect by the British, and the relative apathy of the ASI (Archaelogical Survey of India) and PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) towards the Shaniwar Wada. A sound and light show, which was popular among visitors, was discontinued after 2009 for reasons best known only to PMC and ASI.

A view of the busy street adjoining the Shaniwar Wada from its ramparts © Gaurav Lele

However, there is a positive side to the state of affairs at Shaniwar Wada since 2016. Ever since the release of the Bollywood film Bajirao Mastani, tourists are thronging to the Shaniwar Wada to get in touch with the history of Peshwa Bajirao. The sound and light show is being revived to entertain the tourists who have began to venture into this Wada. Even the release of the forgettable Panipat had renewed interests in the Wada, before the Pandemic struck.

Shaniwar Wada – outer walls © Gaurav Lele

A few years ago when i visited the Wada, it was a lazy weekday evening as the tourists had a mini picnic at the Wada, sound testing for the sound and light show is being undertaken, creating a unique ambiance. The car parking inside the Wada was full indicating which is always a good sign. Rumours of the screams of Narayanrao (काका मला वाचावा) heard on the full moon are discussed with avid interest on the Wada lawns beside young lovers pledging life long secret love to each other, while a certain famous song plays on in the background:

You can check out anytime you like,

But you can never leave………………

Shaniwar Wada – Tourists in the interior lawns © Gaurav Lele

 


This article was originally published on Culture Trip and has been republished here with minor edits.

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22 Replies to “Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa”

  1. Was planning on republishing this later – but proceeded to publish today as its the Birth Anniversary of Bajirao I.

    For people interested in knowing more – i would recommend books by Uday Kulkarni in English
    For novelised versions – Panipat (Vishwas Patil), Rao (N.S. Inamdar), Swami (Ranjeet Desai)

    1. When asked about the must-visits in Pune during my initial days of stay, the Shaniwar Wada was the first place that was suggested by my Punekar interlocutors, and in a way, implored to visit. And it is ironical, that during my year-long stay, I’ve been almost everywhere but the Wada lol. I’ve a thing for this Marathi girl from my cohort, and things were even getting serious in the weeks prior to Holi. In fact we were planning to visit the place together, but then all of a sudden she left for Mumbai(thanks to COVID), and my hopes of visiting the Wada and getting close to her accompanied. I hope this vaccine proves to be a panacea for everything.

      (I like Pune better than Delhi, by the way, especially in terms of cleanliness, i find it far more salubrious; only if the Pune administration could ruminate about what is all wrong with the public transportation, bcuz that is something that leaves a lot to be desired, and only more so for someone from Delhi)

      1. To be honest its not a spectacular monument. Just ruins and a place in history. But if one imagines it can appear majestic in ones head.
        They could make a Peshwa museum or something but it appears there is not interest in any such activity.
        The Raja Kelkar museum in Shukravar peth is more interesting for ppl who want to actually see stuff.

        Pune is a great city (:P Lol) if you have a two wheeler and dont mind riding. Bus connectivity sucks if you r not on busy routes. Metro is on its way though

        1. I love Pune. During my visits in the 90s and 2000s it was among my top 3 places to ‘retire @35 plan’. The other 2 were Indore and Bangalore.

  2. What was the reason for the fires? Looks like the Marathas fell due to the same reason as the Sikhs, dynastic in-fighting and successors lacking ability.

    1. Tbh after Bajirao 1 there were hardly dynamic rulers who could expand. The subsequent Peshwas won pretty much how traditional armies won. With sheer numbers and better resources than their enemies ( nizams , delhi, awadh, rohilakhand, afghans). Bajirao was the last time they really fought pitched battles and won.

      Most of the subsequent Peshwas real art lied in restructuring and conserving their gains

      1. @Ali
        @Saurav
        Do you think no really violent succession wars were to blame? Peshwa succession disputes were an underwhelming affair especially when compared to towers of heads Mughals could pile in their fracticides.
        Insufficient selection pressure = unprepared/undeserving Peshwas.

        1. Yes. Peshwa or Chatrapati intra wars are nothing compared to the mughals. For one thing here the Marathas didn’t have enough contender heads to make towers of as well.

          By all accounts Raghoba did feel some regret about the way he handled Madhav and Narayan.

          1. Not enough wives = not enough kids = not enough contenders = (all else being equal) not enough cumulative ‘talent’ at war/murder/deceit = insufficient selection pressure.

            Peshwas being upright didn’t even have Harems, where was the enjoyment in ruling without having a bunch of ladies? **Joking**

          2. Yes ;
            Additionally especially in the Mastani Samsher episode.
            If you can’t accept the Son of your Peshwa into the Hindu Fold – while the other side will coerce/ bully / Jizya their way to more followers means you r handicapped in more ways than one.

      2. @Saurav, Madhavarao was probably capable too but died young. BTW this “Kaka mala wachwa” is still quite a popular usage in Maharashtra, perhaps partly because Sharad Pawar is nicknamed kaka.

        1. Speaking from outsider perspective, that Pawar today’s represents the great Marathas looks like abomination.

        2. “Kaka mala wachwa” is much more general theme and not limited to Pawar. During SS power struggle, this was also used for Raj and his famous uncle.
          Pawar has many nick names, kaka however is not one of them.

          1. Thanks, I stand corrected. I noticed many Marathi commentators talking of him as “Kaka Pawar” or simply “Kaka”, along with calling Ajit Pawar Dada. So I assumed Kaka to be a nickname rather than just due to its meaning uncle (because other similarly aged politicians I don’t seem to see being called Kaka with such frequency). I have also seen “Kaka malaa wachwaa” being used specifically in the context of Sharad Pawar.

            P.S.: Not a bit of my comment said or implied that it was “limited” to Pawar.

  3. Ali, about the Fires – there are various conflicting tales – each more fanciful than other and none very believable.

    Balaji Bajirao – Nanasaheb was a good administrator by all accounts. Most of the city of Pune is his addition. The Lakes, Temples, Peths. Arguably his time was the time where Marathas had the most power across the country.
    Uday Kulkarni is next writing a book on Nanasaheb – it would be a good read.
    Though if the Panipat tells us anything it’s that politically and milatarily Marathas failed big under his reign. It can also be speculated – that Brahmanism also came to fore during Nanasaheb. he was by all accounts More conservative than his Father or Son.

    Madhavrao tried making amends but had a unfortunate life – he spend his 10 years fighting his uncle, the Nizam and Stomach Ulcers ( TB) and died at age of 27odd. But the empire had sort of recoverd during Madhava reign.
    He was also seen as a good administrator – known for even being harsh towards his maternal uncle to the scorn of his mother.
    There is no Real Peshwa after him.

    All Peshwas and even the chatrapatis were very short lived. No one of renown crossed 50 – Shivaji Maharaj being the Oldest great maratha leader at his death

    1. Yeah i think more than Peshwas, the subsequent splinters groups like Scindias and all showed far more dynamism. Perhaps had the Peshwas been some sort of non heridatory rule, then one of these guys (my choice, Mahadaji) would have gone on to head the whole thing.

      BTW like all Martha nostalgia folks , i have a soft spot for Vishwasrao. The prince that was promised 🙂

      1. There is a major Pun used to describe that.

        Vishwas gela panipatat.
        Trust was lost on Panipat. & Vishwasrao was lost in Panipat.

        I guess it’s easy for Hindi speakers to understand.

  4. with all due respect to peshwas, creativity doesnt seem to be long suit with them. i mean, look at the “brilliant” idea of naming their neighborhoods and palaces on the days of the week. shaniwar-wada, sukrawar peth, somwar-peth … wtf.

    reminds me of the movie “satte pe satta” where the 7 brothers were named after 7 days of the week. 🙂

  5. one reason for the downfall of peshwas was that they lacked the “killer” instinct that the turks and afghans naturally possess. they were susceptible to lame ideas of magnanimity in victory that gave their enemies breathing space and a chance to fight another day.

    case in point. roll 1 scene 1 take1. Feb 1728, palkhed. nizam of hyderabad and bajirao the first are at war for the supremacy over deccan. bajirao has nizam completely surrounded, along with his huge zanana and his entire army. he can easily deliver the coup de grace to nizam, finish him off summarily, conquer his territories, and remove this thorn in the side of nascent maratha empire forever. but what does he really do? he is moved by the pleadings and entreaties of the hapless nizam, and lets him go after obtaining some minor concessions and promises of payment of past due revenues. needless to say, nizam remained a constant threat to maratha empire till the very end, and ultimately nizamshahi outlasted the maratha empire. it was the constant strife with nizam that prevented peshwas to free up their soldiery and deploy their armies in the north with full force.

    roll 1 scene 2 rake 1. panipat january 1761. bajirao’s nephew sadashiv rao , along with his army and a large number of civilians is completely surrounded by abdali. sadashivrao negotiates from this severely weakened position with abdali, just to escape the stranglehold. abdali doesnt give in an inch, and marathas are cut down almost to the last men in the battle that follows. even their women are not spared and taken into captivity.

    indians never learn from history!

    1. 1971: 93,000 , no Indian flag in Muzaffarabad, 13 years later n-bomb.

      Hindus (Indians both converted and not converted) will be an example in textbooks of Chinese 1000 years from now about ‘how not to behave’.

      A third of our people(Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) already spit on their roots, genes and ancestral culture.

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