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Close Quarters: Seeking patriotism in old Pune

History waits in every corner of the city's winding lanes

Vishrambaug Wada, an example of the Peshwas’ opulent lifestyle.
Vishrambaug Wada, an example of the Peshwas’ opulent lifestyle.

The city was just waking up as we made our way to Shaniwar Wada in Pune. It was my seventh visit to Pune, yet it was the first time I was seeing its old city with a group of friends.

Once the grand residence of the Peshwa ruler Bajirao I, Shaniwar Wada is today a meek reminder of its glorious past. In 1828, a fire reduced the magnificent complex to ashes, and now only the fortified boundary walls remain. Our imaginations worked overtime to recreate its heyday with the aid of the handful of informative signboards at the spot. One of the few surviving remnants at Shaniwar Wada is the magnificent Dilli Darwaza or Delhi Gate, an imposing door with iron spikes to thwart elephant attacks. Ironically, it wasn’t external attackers but infighting and betrayal within the family that brought down the Peshwas.

A short 2-minute walk from Shaniwar Wada is Lal Mahal, a reconstructed version of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s official residence in the city. Shivaji grew up and lived here until he moved to Torna Fort, which he captured when he was just 16. Lal Mahal fell into ruin in subsequent years. In 1988, the Pune municipal corporation rebuilt the present structure.

Our next stop was Vishrambaug Wada, a 10-minute walk from Lal Mahal. Located on the busy Bajirao Road, it is a magnificent example of the Peshwas’ opulent lifestyle. Despite the hawkers outside and the continuous flow of traffic, the building’s red facade and ornamental balcony immediately drew my gaze. Built by Peshwa Bajirao II in the 1800s as his personal residence, the structure now houses an exhibition on Pune’s history, a handicrafts shop and a post office. It is much smaller than Shaniwar Wada, but here I could see the exquisitely carved pillars and courtyards I had only imagined at the former.

Walking down the narrow winding lanes around Lal Mahal, we came to the 19th century home of Bhau Lakshman Javale. Bhau Rangari, as he was fondly known, was one of the initiators of the public celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi as we know it today. At a time when Indians across different castes were forbidden from congregating by the ruling British, the sarvajanik Ganeshotsav celebrations united people. Close to his house, we saw the original idol from 1892, made of paper and pulp. The small Ganesha is shown slaying a demon, symbolizing freedom from the colonizers.

It made me think that perhaps valour and patriotism come naturally to the residents of Pune.

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