Fighting to preserve Pune’s fading remnants of Peshwa power7 min read . Updated: 08 Nov 2019, 03:08 PM IST
In Pune’s ‘peth’ area, carved façades and coloured glass windows of the crumbling ‘wadas’ hint at a glory that once was
The formidable weight of Maratha history sits light on Rasta Peth, a middle-class neighbourhood in old Pune, a 20-minute walk from the majestic Shaniwar Wada that was the seat of Peshwa power in the mid-18th century. Its narrow by-lanes between packed buildings are a melee of hawkers, garland sellers and two-wheelers. Turning a corner, I see the once-grand Raste Wada, built in 1785 by Sardar Anandrao Raste, brother-in-law of Nanasaheb Peshwa and a prominent figure in the Maratha court.
The front façade is lost behind signs for a school, laundry and post office, and it is only after stepping into the massive courtyard that I see glimpses of ancient grandeur. The Rastes were an influential family and this is one of the few remaining grand wadas, or family homes, of Pune. Their sister Gopikabai was married to Nanasaheb Peshwa (son of Bajirao I and Kashibai), and the brothers were made generals in the Maratha army. At the peak of its glory, the wada housed cavalry with horses and elephants. Walking around the sopa—vast pillared corridors that wrap around the courtyard—I see the large, empty hooks from which chandeliers were once hung, the carved pillars of the family temple in a hall skirting the courtyard, and the enormous kitchen that once employed 30 cooks.
My guide to this majestic structure is Gopika Raste, a 13th-generation descendant of the famous ancestor she is named after. She shoulders the responsibility of preserving Raste Wada’s heritage or, at least, of the part that she has inherited. Her uncles own other portions of this massive family home, sections of which have been let out to a school and other tenants.
Raste introduces me to the typical features of a wada. It is a large building with rooms arranged around an open courtyard. Some of the architectural elements, like balconies and carved pillars, are copied to this day. Another special feature is the massive wooden main door, big enough for an elephant to walk through, and the smaller dindi darwaza built into it for regular entries and exits. Belgian crystal chandeliers, believed to be from the 19th century, hang from the ceiling of the diwankhana (meeting hall) on the upper floor, where Raste and her mother Poornima live.
The 11,000 sq. m wada is a labyrinth of stairways and halls, with pillars, latticed windows, carved ceilings and decorative limestone wall niches. I follow Raste up a flight of steep, narrow stairs and enter what used to be an entertainment hall with an elaborate false ceiling and coloured glass windows. It leads to yet another hall and a room with shelves that hold vintage figurines, dolls, lampshades and other collectibles. Small doors built into the thick walls lead to a small corridor with a lookout window. “Growing up, the house was the best place to play hide and seek," says Raste.
The Peshwas—prime ministers to the Maratha kings—wielded formidable power in the 18th century. Shaniwar Wada, the fortress-like home built in 1732 by Bajirao I, came to symbolize the seat of the Peshwas and a cluster of wadas grew around it in Kasba Peth, the oldest part of Pune. Many of these were demolished to make way for wider roads or apartment blocks. Walking through the puzzle of lanes of Pune’s old peth area, I can see many remnants of that past—an arched wooden window on a semi-demolished wall, a balcony with a carved teakwood canopy or an ornamental wooden truss that would have once supported the sloping roof of a wada.
“Money and social status were the determining factors of how grand a wada was," says Ashutosh Potnis, who conducts heritage walks with Sahapedia, an online art, culture and heritage resource. “Another was its proximity to Shaniwar Wada. There were some common features all wadas had, such as the courtyards, aqueducts, temples, diwankhanas and ganeshpattis (wooden doorway strips with auspicious carvings)."
The ganeshpatti is all that remains of many lost wadas. On a walk with Potnis, I see the beautiful ganeshpatti entrance of Parasnis Wada, though the rest of the façade has crumbled. Among the few tenants who still live in the wada is Atul Kulkarni, whose family has stayed here for over 100 years. He shows us the Vishnu temple inside, with wooden trellis work typical of the era.
In the rush of traffic and pedestrians in nearby Sadashiv Peth, I almost miss the gorgeous carved façade of Vishrambaug Wada. The front of this leisure palace, built by the last Peshwa, Bajirao II, in 1807, is embellished with inkstand-style wooden pillars and the meghdambari—a “cloud-capped" balcony pavilion that juts out over the street. The wada, which has been restored partly, now houses a small museum on Maratha history in its multi-pillared diwankhana.
A few kilometres from Raste Wada is Mujumdar Wada, the home of Anupama Mujumdar, 73, a 10th-generation descendant of Naro Neelkanth Mujumdar, a revenue collector for the Peshwas. He is believed to have built the three-storey wada in 1770, making it the second oldest in Pune after Shaniwar Wada, according to Mujumdar. She and her husband, P.N. Mujumdar, recently found documents in the ancient Modi script that date the beginnings of the family’s Ganpati festival to even further back in 1714.
The Ganpati festival here is held to the strains of shehnai and dhol, just the way it was 300 years ago. For four days during the festival, the Mujumdars open the wada to the public, and one of the most arresting sights is an in-house museum, which they maintain with funds from their children, who live overseas. A 200-year-old burgundy paithani sari still looks good enough to wear and Mujumdar shows me a cane that has a reed-thin sword concealed inside. “Most of the items are over 200 years old," she says. The collection includes massive copper utensils and a Ganpati idol from 1770, discovered by the family’s ancestors when they laid the foundation of the wada.
Mujumdar Wada’s fame lies not just in preserving a part of Pune’s culture in the form of its long-running Ganesh puja, but also in the musical legacy of Sardar Abasaheb Mujumdar. It is the name of this famous ancestor, who was a connoisseur of Indian classical music, that is mentioned on the blue plaque at the entrance to the wada. According to the family, this was where a 20-year-old Bhimsen Joshi held his first private performance.
Maintaining the legacy of Pune’s glorious Peshwa past is expensive, as both Mujumdar and Raste have discovered. Construction nearby damaged Mujumdar Wada recently, tilting the Ganesh Mahal, where the idol is kept during the Ganpati festival. Mujumdar Wada, along with 200 others, is classified as a heritage structure by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) and Pune municipal commission’s heritage cell. The flip side of being on the list is that the wada’s residents cannot make any modifications to the existing structure even if it is dilapidated, except for restoration purposes. And with no government help, this isn’t an easy task. “The carved wooden pillars need a special kind of oil for maintenance. It’s hard and expensive to find the materials and craftsmen who have the knowledge of restoration work," says Raste, who is battling leaky roofs and falling masonry in an attempt to preserve her home.
As I leave Raste Wada and walk to Kasba Peth, I pass the 200-year-old Mote Wada, which collapsed partially in 2011. An ornately carved balcony juts out defiantly from its disintegrating, monsoon-drenched front. I step in to get a better look but there isn’t much to see—most of it is lost behind ungainly partitions, litter and tarpaulin sheets. And then, just as I am about to leave, I spot a wooden truss below the balcony, carved elaborately with motifs of flowers and creepers, still intact and eye-catching despite the layers of dust covering it.
To me, it is a poignant reminder that time doesn’t spare history, unless we guard it.
Shaniwar Wada: This massive fortress-like wada is synonymous with Pune and Maratha history. A fire in 1828 destroyed much of its interiors and artefacts but its granite rampart and the ruins of the darbars and mahals still reflect the centre of politics and power it once was. It is open 8am-6.30pm (all days); entry fees ₹5 (Indians), ₹125 (foreign nationals); ₹25 (light and sound show).
Vishrambaug Wada: Open 10am-5pm (all days); museum entry is ₹5.
Mujumdar Wada: Only open for four days in the year, during Ganesh Chaturthi. No entry fee.
Raste Wada: Visit Raste Wada with Ashutosh Potnis’ Heritage Walk on a pay-what-you-want basis. For details, email email@example.com or visit Sahapedia.org
Reshmi Chakraborty is a Pune-based freelance writer.