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Opinion: The Peshwas and their capital

  • Pune during the Peshwa period, is also an interesting study in the management of life under indigenous governments before the Raj
  • The Peshwa-era elite, like their counterparts elsewhere, lived in considerable style 

A painting of Pune, as seen from the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers in the late 1700s, by British artist Henry Salt. Photo courtesy: British Library
A painting of Pune, as seen from the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers in the late 1700s, by British artist Henry Salt. Photo courtesy: British Library

By the mid-18th century, the city of Pune was in the ascendant on the political map of India. As the seat of the Peshwas, hereditary ministers to the Maratha king, this riverside town of little previous significance grew into a prominent centre of commerce and diplomacy, attracting large numbers of traders, artisans, courtesans and mercenaries. A massive season of construction was launched as the Peshwas—descendants of a clerk risen to greatness—left their enduring stamp on the city. They renamed areas that honoured previous Islamic rulers and introduced new temples and festivals into the lives of various castes and people. There was a massive population explosion too: One estimate suggests that Pune rose from being home to 25,000 residents in 1700 to 100,000 at the dawn of the next century, making it “equal to Copenhagen, bigger than New York, a little smaller than Marseilles"—but either way a major urban node in pre-colonial India.

Pune during the Peshwa period, however, is also an interesting study in the management of life under indigenous governments before the Raj. Certainly, the Peshwa-era elite, like their counterparts elsewhere, lived in considerable style. Persianate clothes were worn, fabric for these imported from Bengal and Multan. The scholar Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, in fact, notes a contemporary record that refers to “pants made of elk-skin and another to a shirt made of rat-skin", suggesting that some people, at any rate, had the time and wherewithal to make interesting decisions vis-à-vis their wardrobes. Tobacco was available easily, and there was also demand for Chinese tea, while fruits were imported from faraway places to cater to the appetites of the aristocracy. In the early 19th century, with British influence growing, there was even vaccination from smallpox available, administered to as many as 12,000 people by an English doctor.

But how did such a city manage itself at a larger level? As Brahmins, the Peshwas were orthodox in matters of caste, but there was a dispassionate bureaucratic machine that operated their capital on an everyday basis. N.K. Wagle’s study of police documents in Pune between 1767-91 offers a fascinating view of contemporary life, and of the issues the authorities had to arbitrate.

“By far," he notes, “the most numerous offences in the Kotwal’s Papers punishable by fines are the cases of sexual misdemeanor," and this included adultery, “male and female homosexual activities", as well as “bestiality". One woman called Rakhmi was assaulted by her father-in-law, who defended himself by insisting it was an accident—he was on his way out to urinate, and somehow “I stumbled and my hands fell on Rakhmi’s breasts". The police found the man guilty. “Even in a husband-wife relationship," notes Wagle, “sex without consent constituted rape." Lakshmi, wife of Jugraj Pardesi, for instance, complained that the latter forced himself on her, and for this he was slapped with “a hefty fine". So, too, if a customer beat up a prostitute, she had the right to report the matter and see him punished.

The Kotwal’s role, however, didn’t begin and end at keeping the peace and upholding the law. One occupant of this position, who sat in the seat for half a century, had a salary of over 600 a year. A Brahmin from Kannauj, his duties, writes Gokhale, also involved the “supervision of markets, enforcement of the use of approved weights…control of singers, barbers and prostitutes, sanitation, streets, safety of buildings, drainage, care of visiting dignitaries, registration of documents of sale and contract…and the taking of censuses". He was assisted by three clerks, 10 officers, and 118 policemen, spread over six stations.

For the Pune police, there was never a dull day: One man reported that his wife beat him when he was “on his way to the washroom". In another case, a woman was arrested after she was found guilty of murdering her husband “by administering poison in sweet potatoes". Yet another would-be murderess mixed powdered glass into a lump of dough and tried to feed her other half the treacherous bread that emerged.

Justice was often dispensed in a systematic fashion, though matters of custom were determined through the most conservative texts—the Peshwas took it upon themselves to demote castes and upgrade others on the basis of various codes. In everyday affairs, the courts were swift. One celebrated judge called Ramshastri Prabhune served for 25 years, deciding a little under 1,400 cases, his reputation so tall that even disputes from outside the Peshwa’s dominions were argued before him. Indeed, Prabhune is best known for passing the death sentence on Peshwa Raghunathrao for the crime of having murdered his predecessor. It was another matter that the sentence was never carried out, but the prestige attached to the judge only multiplied, as did faith in the system. It was, however, still not an ideal universe and things could go horribly out of hand—that very Kotwal who served for 50 illustrious years was at the end of his career lynched by a mob of angry men after a case of mass custodial death.

At the end of the day, however, Pune was run by a Brahmin elite that dominated all avenues of power. Many of them were bankers with networks across the country, and in their time over 200 temples were constructed in the city. Pune also offered a rare occasion for the orthodoxy to exercise direct political power. The fall of the Peshwas in 1818 put an end to this chapter as British imperium replaced the reign of the Brahmins, and power slipped to centres elsewhere. Elite resentment grew but the ferment also birthed a churn from below—the work of Jotirao Phule, for instance, against caste and its injustices.

These dynamics sparked the birth of west-Indian nationalism and brought to the fore firebrands like B.G. Tilak and others. But even as they thundered for swaraj (self-governance), these leaders also recalled the days when the Peshwas were strong and Pune was proud—when an Indian elite reigned, before they were displaced by white men from afar and the challenge of those once deemed low.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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