Shaniwarwada: ‘Curse’ of the Peshwas

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    So little remains of Shaniwarwada, the once-grand palace complex in modern-day Pune that was the seat of the Peshwas of the Maratha Empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji in the 17th century. But even in what remains, there are traces of intrigue and ancient rivalries, like the little door that still stands to one side, amid the ruins of gateways, walls and plinths.

    The door was built especially for Mastani, the princess from Bundelkhand who married the great Maratha empire builder, Peshwa Baji Rao I, in 1729. The Marathas didn’t want her in the house. In fact, she was so unwelcome that for the few years that Mastani lived at Shaniwarwada, she was housed in a special wing known as ‘Mastani Mahal’. She came and went through her separate entrance.

    Her royal rivals would be horrified to know that Mastani was resurrected with great fanfare in 2015, in the lavishly produced Hindi film, Bajirao Mastani, and that hundreds throng Shaniwarwada today, just to see the remains of the palace where she once lived.

    But even filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali could not overstate what Shaniwarwada once was – a place of gilded statues, mirrored halls, lit-up fountains, dance halls, courts of art and culture. All of it was tragically lost to a fire in 1828. The absence of historical records makes its hard to reconstruct exactly what it looked like in its heyday, but some spellbinding details remain.

    Noted historian Dattatray Balwant Parasnis (1870–1926) painstakingly collected all the information he could find and published it in a book titled Poona in Bygone Days (1921), which is still the most comprehensive account of the fortified complex that was the Peshwas’ headquarters for 67 years.

    Building a Palace

    The Peshwas were Prime Ministers to the Maratha emperors but later led the Maratha confederacy till they lost their power to the British East India Company.

    Shaniwarwada was built by Peshwa Baji Rao I (1720 – 40). His father, Balaji Vishwanath, had served as Peshwa to Chhatrapati Shahu of Satara, grandson of Maratha Emperor Shivaji. Balaji Vishwanath’s family lived in a wada or estate at Saswad, 32 km from Pune. When he died in 1720, Chhatrapati Shahu appointed Baji Rao I as his father’s successor. Baji Rao I was just 20 years old at the time but, under Chhatrapati Shahu, he would go on to redraw the map of the Maratha Empire, extending it to Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand until it reached almost as far as the gates of Delhi.

    In 1730, Peshwa Baji Rao decided to move his residence from the old family wada at Saswad to the then village of Pune. He selected 5 acres of land, compensated the few fishermen and weavers who lived there with alternative plots, and laid the foundation stone of his new estate on an auspicious Saturday (Shaniwar), on 10th January 1730. Over the next two years, a two-storey palace with three chowks or courts was built here, at a cost of Rs 16,110.

    The opening ceremony of the palace was performed according to Hindu customs on another auspicious Saturday, on 22nd January 1732. For astrological reasons, the palace was named ‘Shaniwarwada’ or Saturday Estate.

    Three years earlier, Peshwa Baji Rao I had married Mastani, daughter of Raja Chhatrasal Bundela. Among the orthodox Brahmins of Pune, this second marriage was unacceptable. And to add to the break from custom, the princess was half-Muslim. Separate quarters were built for this new, unwelcome bride, to one side, to be accessed by the ‘Mastani Darwaja’. When things became too unpleasant for the young princess, Baji Rao built a separate residence for her at Kothrud, not far away, where she lived until her death in 1740.

    Shaniwarwada under Nanasaheb Peshwa

    Peshwa Baji Rao I also died in 1740 and was succeeded by his son Balaji Baji Rao, better known as ‘Nanasaheb’. Under Nanasaheb, the Maratha Empire reached its greatest extent ever, stretching from Attock in what is now Punjab in Pakistan, to Thanjavur in present-day Tamil Nadu. Pune became not just the political capital of the Maratha Empire but a great commercial centre as well.

    Nanasaheb (r. 1740-1761) made several additions and alterations, and added much splendour and beauty to Shaniwarwada. With great care and attention, as well as considerable funds, he transformed it into noble accommodations that would literally be worth writing home about. Based on bills of accounts and other documents, it is estimated that there were as many as ten palaces and five guesthouses in the complex by the time he was done.

    Then tragedy struck. In January 1761, Nanasaheb’s eldest son, Vishwas Rao, and his cousin Sadashiv Rao Bhau were killed in the Third Battle of Panipat, fighting the armies of Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali. Shocked by the loss, Nanasaheb died only months later. He was succeeded by his son Madhav Rao, just 16 years old at the time.

    The brief, 11-year term of Peshwa Madhav Rao I was marred by plotting and intrigue on the part of his powerful uncle, Raghunath Rao. Madhav Rao I died in 1772, from tuberculosis, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Narayan Rao.

    Shaniwarwada in its Heyday

    Let’s pause here to look around a bit. At this point, with the grand expansions complete, the main palace at Shaniwarwada was six storeys high. It is said that the spire of the Alandi Temple, 23 km away, could be seen from the top. The rooftop soared so high for its time that it was called the ‘Meghadambari’ or ‘Room of Clouds’.

    The palace complex had four gates, apart from the small entrance added for Princess Mastani. These were: Delhi Darwaja, the main entrance, which faced north; Ganesh Darwaja, which was near the exquisite Ganesh Mahal; Khidki Darwaja, accessed through a window; and Jambul Darwaja, named for the jamun tree nearby.

    Inside were four large chowks and several halls or state rooms. While we know very little about them, we can guess at their splendour from their names: Ganpati Rang Mahal, the hall of public audience; Nachacha Diwankhana, the dancing hall; Arse Mahal or the hall of mirrors; Hastidanti Mahal or ivory hall; and there were many more.

    As with most grand palaces, Shaniwarwada had luxurious common areas, and different wings inhabited by different members of the royal family, their kin and their attendants. The sheer size of the estate meant that it also functioned like a mini city, with a medical wing, armoury, massive storerooms, library, treasury and archives. A large administrative department managed the different households, with separate officers appointed for the supervision of different aspects of palace management. At any point, about 500 guards stood on duty.

    Ganpati Rang Mahal

    The main Durbar Hall at Shaniwarwada was Ganpati Rang Mahal, built by Balaji Baji Rao in 1755 for Ganesh festival celebrations and to entertain important dignitaries. It is here that the famous alliance between Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao and Sir Charles Malet, the British Resident, was signed in 1790, to join forces against Tipu Sultan of Mysore. This famous room appears in a painting by Thomas Daniell, now at the Tate Gallery in London.

    Captain Moor, a British army officer who visited Poona in the 1790s, described the splendour of this hall, saying:

    "He (the Peshwa) has a very magnificent room in his palace at Poona, called the Ganes room, in which, on particular festivals in honour of Ganes, he receives numerous visitors; I have seen more than a hundred dancing girls in it at one time. At one end, in a recess, is a fine gilt figure, I believe in marble, of this deity, and many other mythological decorations around it; the other end of the room, bounded by a narrow strip of water in which fountains play, is open to a garden of fragrant flowers, which, combined with the murmuring of the fountains, has a very pleasing effect. This room is well designed in Mr. Daniell's fine picture of the Poona Durbar unrivalled perhaps in oriental grouping, character, and costume.”

    Hazari Karanje (Fountain of a Thousand Spouts)

    Shaniwarwada wasn’t just a place of business; it was a home. And around its many beautiful fountains, the Peshwas and their families liked to relax. A distinct Mughal influence can be seen in the fountains here, the most famous being Hazari Karanje or Fountain of a Thousand Spouts.

    This fountain was shaped like a lotus flower with 16 petals; each petal had 16 giant spouts measuring 80 feet each in circumference. Through an elaborate system of engineering, water emerged from 196 spouts at a time, and played in hundreds of patterns, making it seem like there were ten times as many spouts at work.

    Another favourite spot for Peshwas’ families to gather was a large tank near Ganpati Rang Mahal, in which stones had been so ingeniously cut and placed that the water running over them was broken into slabs. They were called chadars because they formed white shawls of running water! Behind these falls, coloured lights in niches created patterns. The Peshwas invited special visitors to witness these chadar shows, which were accompanied by music and dance performances.

    A Murder and a Tragedy

    It was in a corner of the ornate Ganpati Rang Mahal, on Anant Chaturdashi, the last day of the Ganesh festival, that the most horrific tragedy in Shaniwarwada’s history occurred. On 30th August 1773, Peshwa Narayan Rao was brutally assassinated, on the orders of his uncle.

    The commander of the palace guard, Sumer Singh Gardi, entered the palace with his men and headed to the hall. In the chaos that ensued, they hacked to death ten palace servants and the Peshwa. So carefully had the carnage been planned that it was all over in half an hour.

    Peshwa Narayan Rao’s slain wife, Gangabai, was pregnant at the time. Following the child’s birth in 1774, a group of ministers under Nana Phadnis proclaimed Sawai Madhav Rao II the new Peshwa; he was just 40 days old. Sawai Madhav Rao II would grow to serve as Peshwa out of Shaniwarwada for 21 memorable years. His brilliant courts in the Ganpati Rang Mahal were thronged by chiefs from across the Maratha Empire, and by representatives and envoys of European nations and other Indian States. The Peshwa’s wedding was celebrated here with great pomp in 1782 and the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Raja of Nagpur, the Chhatrapati of Satara and other chiefs from across India attended.

    He was so interested in the arts and sciences that he often spent hours in the Meghadambari or Room of Clouds, studying the sky through a telescope presented to him by Sir Charles Malet, the British Resident at his court.

    Sawai Madhav Rao II was an effective Peshwa too. In fact, his triumphant return to Poona after a victory over the Nizam at Kharda in 1795 was the last exhibition of Maratha glory. It would be his last great triumph too.

    In October that year, Peshwa Sawai Madhav Rao II fell from a third-floor balcony of the Rang Mahal building, crashing into a fountain below and dying a painful death. Was it an accident, a murder or a suicide? There was no way to tell. But his death left the doors of Shaniwarwada open to his still-scheming grand-uncle Raghunath Rao, who had been plotting for nearly 35 years in the hope of just such an opportunity.

    Sawai Madhav Rao II died without an heir and was succeeded by Peshwa Baji Rao II, Raghunath Rao’s 18-year-old son.

    Now things take an interesting turn. Peshwa Baji Rao II is said to have been so haunted by the death of his cousin Narayan Rao, the Peshwa his father had murdered, that he couldn’t live at Shaniwarwada. He abandoned the fortified palace complex when he took office in 1796 and built other wadas all over Poona, naming some of them after other days of the week. He lived, for a while, at Shukrawar Wada (Friday Estate), Budhwar Wada (Wednesday Estate) and Vishrambaug Wada. No Peshwa would live at Shaniwarwada again.

    The Final Tragedy

    Under Peshwa Baji Rao II, the British won a decisive victory in the Third Anglo-Maratha War, captured Poona and with it Shaniwarwada in 1818. The Maratha Empire was drawing to a close.

    All the Peshwa’s territories were annexed and Baji Rao II was pensioned off to Bithur near Kanpur in present-day Uttar Pradesh. As he left for his life in exile, the Peshwa returned to Shaniwarwada once more, to gather with him most of its service staff, much of its lavish furnishings and all the jewellery he could find.

    Shaniwarwada became a hollow shell. The British East India Company began to use it for purposes that ranged from a prison (on its ground floor) to a hospital (the first floor) and even an asylum for the mentally ill (the third floor). On 21st February 1827, a fire broke out in the asylum and raged through the complex, which was largely wooden.

    By the time the flames died out, only the gates and walls were standing. For almost 90 years, the site remained desolate and abandoned. Then, in 1919, it was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, which built a garden around the plinths.

    If you stroll around Shaniwarwada today, there is very little to remind you of the drama that played out here or all that once stood so grand and proud.

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