“Visitors are not allowed to see the wada," announced the white sheet of paper stuck to the wooden front door of the Mujumdar Wada in Kasba Peth, Pune. To me, its amusingly brusque tone was the only bit of colour on the depressingly grey façade of the house in front of me.

On that early Sunday morning, I was in the old quarter of Pune, attempting to educate myself about an area that prides itself as the one-time de facto capital of the Maratha empire which once dominated large parts of the subcontinent. Despite having stayed for almost 20 years in Pune, I have an incomplete sense of its past, especially about neighbourhoods that the assal (genuine) Punekar emphatically calls the “city". While many cities let you tangibly feel their history through architecture, here, I’d come to depend heavily on my imagination.

The wadas, or traditional residences, were a good place to begin my explorations. The wadas emerged in Pune in the 18th century with the ascendance of the Peshwas. My friend, Amit Paranjape, whose family lived in a wada until the 1950s, describes the concept as being similar to the modern housing complex, only more close-knit, since it housed members or close friends of an extended family. People in wadas formed close social ties, the kinds that supported—but sometimes stifled as well.

The Nana Wada, home to the 18th century Peshwa Nana Phadnis. Photo:

We began with the Shaniwar Wada, built by the Peshwa Baji Rao I. The Shaniwar Wada evolved into a fortress-palace for the Peshwas during their eventful reign from the 1730s till 1818. All that remains today of this mix of Maratha and Mughal styles is a shell of stone and wood, the remnants of a devastating fire that ruined it in 1828. Behind the tall Delhi Darwaza are empty courtyards amid the original plinths. I stood under the stone bastions that flank the main gate (above this is a wooden music room), trying to conjure up an imposing image of this one-time political centre of the most dominant force in the region. I blamed my failure to do so on the commonplace familiarity that had accrued over time as I’d passed by it to shop at Pune’s wholesale markets.

Though famous for playing host to two centuries of Indian history, from the Peshwas to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, most wadas have simply been homes for ordinary people (some were also used as offices). My friend Nikhil Marathe described the Marathe Wada (no longer extant) as a typical one: two floors, a layout resembling a sort of rectangular figure eight with rooms around two courtyards, a well and common toilet facilities. His family shared the wada with eight others, all hailing from the same middle-class, white-collar background.

Intricate carving at the Vishrambaug Wada
Intricate carving at the Vishrambaug Wada

By now, I had walked past several wadas, most of them in a dilapidated condition, walls cracked and façades distraught. Many lived in an uneasy partnership with the latter-day concrete and iron additions that dwarfed them. I was shown the carved windows and the Ganesh Patti (a wooden strip with auspicious figures) on top of the doors, a welcome relief from the shapelessness of modern housing.

I couldn’t help but be aware that I might not see some these the next time I came by. Most wadas are being torn down, yielding to the pressing demands of real estate developers, while the crumbling outlines of others seem ever ready to come down voluntarily any moment.

The Nana Wada is likely to escape this fate, for it belongs to the Pune municipal corporation. I’m greeted by scaffolding here, for the wada is under restoration. Only the front part of this large wada exists in its original form. It is made largely of timber, and has arches and other decorations. The balconies have wooden railings, the timber ceiling has a carved pattern running across it, and the columns in the front room are shaped like cypress trees. The faded wall paintings are hardly visible.

The Nana Wada was built by the influential minister and diplomat Nana Phadnis. Many men like him who prospered during the Peshwai built wadas in the area. In the 19th century, leaders such as Tilak and Jyotiba Phule launched their movements from their wadas. I could see why: The courtyards in wadas like Vinchurkar Wada and Bhide Wada were suitable for meeting like-minded men from specific socio-economic classes, and the cohesiveness of the wada provided shelter from the social order outside that they aimed to overturn. Others, like the Mujumdar Wada, provided spaces for the arts, music and theatre.

The cloud-capped balcony of the Vishrambaug Wada

By now, the sun had pierced the morning cool. My final destination, Vishrambaug Wada, provided soothing relief, living up to the promise in its name. This wada has survived fire and regime changes to become perhaps the best example of wada architecture in Pune. Its façade has a classic curved pavilion called meghadambari (a reference to its cloud-capped balcony), and wood carvings with flower and animal motifs. The restored wada has tall windows, open courtyards, pillars and other representative elements of the period, such as exposed brickwork in several patterns. Inside the wada are miniature models of prominent Pune buildings. Since most of these are not labelled, I walked about, trying to identify them. Here, in one place, was a catalogue of Pune’s mixed urban architecture: a little bit of the Maratha, Mughal and British styles.

I tried to think of how Pune’s wadas, disappearing into some kind of urban quicksand, could keep their tangible and intangible heritage for outsiders like me to experience. My imagination came up short—so I took in the sights and sounds around me to hold on to them in my mind as best I could.

J. Ramanand is a computer science researcher, quiz-maker, and writer based in Pune. He quiz-blogs at Infinite Zounds and dreams of living in Iceland.

TRIP PLANNER | PUNE, MAHARASHTRA

GO

Pune is well-connected by air, train and road. The city centre is accessible by autos and buses. If driving, beware of congestion and one-ways. Most of the heritage spots in the area can be covered by foot.

STAY

Pune has a wide variety of accommodation to suit all kinds of budgets—from 1,000-8,000 per day. Most of it is within 5km of the old city.

DO

The city centre offers a rich variety of shops, selling clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks and wholesale goods. Visit the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Shukrawar Peth for a unique collection of cultural artefacts acquired by one man. The Kasba Ganpati and Tulshibaug temples are among Pune’s oldest and best-known religious destinations. Visit the Shaniwar Wada, Vishrambaug Wada and Vinchurkar Wada for a glimpse of Peshwa architecture.

EAT

Try the ‘misal pav’ at Bedekar (Narayan Peth), a Maharashtrian ‘thali’ at Durvankur (Sadashiv Peth), and the ‘mastani’ (an ice-cream shake) at Sujata Mastani (Sadashiv Peth). Buy ‘bhakarwadi’ at Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale (Sadashiv Peth).

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