Saturday, October 21, 2017

Whenever I skirt around the majestic Shaniwar Wada, to perpetually lose my way in the chaotic lanes of Pune’s Peths, I’m reminded of a night some years ago when I stood outside its gate – student with empty pockets and eyes full of hope. Witness to so many Maratha kings of old and their darbars, the Wada was spectacularly lit up with hordes of people rushing in to experience Ghulam Ali and his magical voice at this most beautiful of locations.

I did eventually manage to get in, by means I’m not too proud of, and was part of the audience left enthralled at the Ghazal maestro’s voice, which coupled with the lights falling on the Wada’s palatial walls formed part of a surreal experience.

Now as I walk through the massive Delhi gate of the Wada, dotted with spikes to fend off elephants from knocking it down, and pay the princely entry fee of five rupees, I cannot help but wonder about the history these walls have soaked in and the great events they have been privy to when the Maratha empire was at its zenith.

Build by the Peshwas in the eighteenth century, Shaniwar Wada has four other smaller gates and the remnants of important buildings like the Thorlya Rayancha Diwankhana (Court hall of the eldest royal, Bajirao – I), Naachacha Diwankhana (Dance Hall), and Juna Arsa Mahal (Old Mirror Hall).

The main building was a seven-storeyed structure and according to a plaque installed by the Archaeological Survey of India, the spire of the Alandi Temple could be seen from the uppermost terrace of this building! That the Peshwas did not zip around the city in pollution spewing cars contributed to that I’m certain.

Inside, the Wada is quite well maintained, clean and an oasis of calm in the busy hustle-bustle of central Pune. The courtyard is lined with fragments of stone pillars which stood tall in the era of the Peshwas and has some beautiful trees, under which couples can be spotted catching some time together. Bajirao and Mastani would approve I reckon.

Climb up the steep flight of stone stairs of the building just inside the Delhi gate and you’ll see some beautifully carved wooden pillars and panoramas of the Shaniwar Wada courtyard on one side and the busy streets of Shaniwar Peth on the other. As you walk out of the Delhi gate to Shaniwar Peth, a small chowpatty greets you with its chaats, dosas and juices. Difficult to not indulge after the long walk in the Wada!

Earlier known as Murujabad or Murtuzabad, Shaniwar Peth got its current name under the rule of the Peshwas and is a heady mix of old and new. I spotted a couple of ajjis (grandmothers) lazing on a porch inside a beautiful wada with an old dilapidated wooden door.

As I was considering pointing my camera at them, an elderly gentleman tapped my shoulder and told me to photograph the name of the wada which was proudly displayed on a board outside the main door – Niranjan Mahal. He introduced himself as Amit Kulkarni, a resident and part owner of the wada I was so intrigued by, and happened to be a former local cricketer of some renown!

To my delight he offered to show me around the Wada, all the time letting me into its delightful and precious history. Niranjan Mahal, also known as the Parasnis Wada, was built using stone and original teakwood around 300 years ago in the Peshwa era.

Don’t let the relatively small size of the doors confuse you; most of these wadas are huge inside! An unused covered up well, beautiful longstanding trees, a very minimalist private temple, exquisite designs on old wooden pillars and doors, and several families living in such proximity, the walk through Niranjan Mahal was like a walk into the past.

Mr. Kulkarni told me how the charm of these wadas and hence this whole concept of close community living is now dying since owners are opting to construct buildings in their place. Niranjan Mahal too has seen some reconstruction with a few floors added to the usual horizontal structure of wadas, which in Mr. Kulkarni’s opinion dilutes the wada culture and its way of life.

Adjoining Niranjan Mahal is a Shiva temple called Amruteshwar. This temple too, like most old structures in Shaniwar Peth, was built by the Peshwas and has a beautiful spire which can be spotted from a distance. The temple paints a picture of peace and does not seem to get a lot of visitors. The Omkareshwar temple, which is a short walk away along the Mutha, on the other hand sees a constant stream of devotees.

Constructed in 1738 by Bajirao Peshwa, the Omkareshwar temple houses a linga from the Narmada River and has little temples dedicated to the gods Ganesh, Vithoba, Shani, Maruti and Bhavani Devi. Arvind Gaade, who is a priest at the Omkareshwar temple, told me that his family has been with the temple since 1864 and he is the fifth generation of priests serving the temple! The temple complex is spacious and serene and I spotted a few students from MMCC, lost in their books, who told me they come to the temple often to study.

Shaniwar Peth has a lot of other small temples, some of them private, like the 185-years-old Kashiisheshwar temple which gets its name from the Someshwar and Isheshwar shivlings it houses.

Old and new blend harmoniously in Shaniwar Peth as these beautiful temples and wadas coexist with a sprawling offset and screen printing industry. Every second shop is an offset and screen printing shop serving the printing needs of the whole city.

Shaniwar Peth is also Pune’s primary wedding card hub and on any given day you will spot families moving from one store to another deciding on that perfect wedding card. It isn’t Diwali yet and you need firecrackers? No problem. Shaniwar Peth is where you need to head to as it has several shops selling firecrackers all year round.

If all the shopping makes you hungry head to this unnamed vada pav stall just beside the famous Agarwal cards. It isn’t too difficult to find owing to the maddening crowd that it attracts. Run by a small family, this stall starts frying vadas at around 7 pm and sells out in a couple of hours. Every vada pav is booked before it is made! Soft creamy melt in mouth batata vadas sandwiched in a pav sans any chutney and only accompanied by fried and salted green chillies. I suggest you skip the pav and just bite into the hot and steaming vadas. Food which warms the soul! I’d go as far as to rate it above the famous JJ Garden vada pav!

Om Narmedashwar Bhuvan is where you want to head to after having your fill of vada pavs. An amrutalya so typical of Pune it serves a killer sweet concoction of a chaha. Nothing like a hot cup of chaha and I’m sure the Shaniwar Pethis who throng to Narmadeshwar Bhuvan for their chaha fix would agree.

Shaniwar Peth, with its eclectic mix of old and new, of temples and businesses, of wadas packed with history and chaotic streets packed with vehicles, is so Puneri in character and the essence of the Peshwas still lingers in its lanes.

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