September 06, 2016

Vishrambaug Wada and Shaniwar Wada, Pune, Maharashtra

For Snehal


“I’ve watched the sun rise over mountains where no human being has ever trod and seen it go down over cities where every inch of space is filled with people, pushing and fighting each other for life. I’ve given birth. I’ve been in love. I’ve changed beyond expectation. I’ve seen people die in alleyways; seen others survive impossible odds; known happiness and darkness and grief, and the one thing I’m still sure about is that life is mystery; life is change; it’s what my mother called magic, and it’s capable of anything.”
– Joanne Harris, “Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure”

Blink-and-you-miss-it! - Vishrambaug Wada

This is not the first time I’m questioning my fidelity towards my beloved Delhi. I cannot leave her, and yet I cannot always love her either. But Pune, that subliminally resplendent green emerald encircled by towering hills, I fell in love with, and I fell in love in, sincerely and unconditionally, at first sight. Thoroughly drenched in ceaseless monsoon drizzle and enveloped in an impenetrable cloud of fascinating fragrances, delectable flavors and bedazzling sights, I excitedly tasted of the city’s multifarious offerings, never realizing what inescapable charm was it that eternally ensnared me – was it the fleeting handshake, the vividly breathtaking smile that has become imprinted on my retinas, or that simple serving of otherworldly delicious pasta for which remains unexpressed my humble, affectionate gratitude?

Traversing timelines

My fondest memory, which keeps returning to me as wisps of an enchanting half-remembered dream, is that of “Vishrambaug Wada” (literally, “Leisurely Garden-mansion”). Located on Thorale Bajirao Road immediately opposite the Bank of Maharashtra, the imaginatively embellished triple-storied wooden edifice was commissioned in AD 1807-08 by Peshwa Bajirao II (officiated AD 1796-1818) as his personal residence. Just a glimpse, and astonishingly hypnotic proves to be the subdued flamboyance of the faded red-tinted walls contrasting against the dark coffee overtones of the painstakingly chiseled wooden surfaces, the latter delectably overlaid with exquisite flower-patterned convolutions exaggeratedly slithering and throbbing, incorporating in their midst intermittent floral explosions and tiny alcoves for remarkably life-like parakeets and peacocks to roost in amidst sophisticated smatterings of vegetative arabesques and tender banana-blossom and cypress-tree motifs.

Mounting guard!

Flanked by richly sculpted, terribly vicious monkeys, the intricately detailed, massive wooden canopy (“Meghadambari”) crowning the entrance marvellously appears to be floating of its own volition, supported as it is on eye-catching ostentatious representations of eclectically conceived imaginary beings possessing the head of a dog, the body of a lion, the scales of a fish and the wings of an eagle, the entire abundantly encrusted over with sumptuous floral motifs and geometric bands. On the first floor, the two “Diwan-i-Khas” (“Halls of Royal Audience”), used individually for special state meetings and dance gatherings, have now been transformed into immense museums entitled “Punawadi te Punyanagari” delineating the history and evolution of Pune and its numerous thriving bazaars, thoroughly congested residential locations and invincible fortress-palaces. The luxuriously carved lotus-pillars and the sheer warmth and intimacy of the entire setting unfailingly prompts one to imagine the extravagant opulence of the inimitable halls when they were strewn with evocatively embroidered oriental rugs and further wreathed with magnificent chandeliers and enviable tapestries.

Imagination woven through architecture

Employed successively as a prison, a Sanskrit school, an engineering college and a municipal corporation office since its takeover by the avaricious British East India Co. following the Third Anglo-Maratha War (AD 1818), the ruinous ground floor still continues to accommodate a post office and a dejectedly rundown souvenir shop. Despite being the only royal residence of the Peshwas to have survived the vagaries of nature and the ravages of fires, the passionately ornamented palace has been wretchedly forgotten, even by those who regularly frequent the renowned Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale sweetshop across the road whose famed Bakarwadi (deep-fried spicy-sweet crispy flour rolls) compelled us to spend over an hour and a half in the queue!

Vis-à-vis Vishrambaug Wada, Shaniwar Wada (“Saturday Residence”), the heavily fortified official fortress-palace of the Peshwas, proves to be a disappointment – little else apart from the ruinous foundations of some of the edifices and the awe-inspiringly majestic “Dilli Darwaza” (“Delhi Gate”) was spared by an unexplained fire that continued unchallenged to devastate the wooden palace for a fortnight on February 27, 1828. Nonetheless, the mighty gateway's colossal buttresses and immaculate flanking bastions still continue to arouse disbelief while at the same time conveying stately illustriousness.

Shaniwar Wada - Bajirao Ballal's imposing stronghold

Commissioned in AD 1732 by Peshwa “Thorale” Bajirao Ballal I (officiated AD 1720-40), the original fortress-palace is said to have been seven-storied, though defensive and decorative additions continued to be incorporated by his numerous successors. A highly exaggerated version of the same was depicted in the recently released Bollywood flick “Bajirao Mastani”, though one can glimpse vestiges of the beautiful religious paintings that might have inspired the movie along the interiors of the massive hall surmounting the Dilli Darwaza.

Where not pockmarked by foundation remains (enveloped by wooden railings!), the entire expanse has been transformed into a charming garden complex interspersed intermittently by information plaques. The peripheries of course are dominated by the various substantial gateways including Narayana Darwaza (aka Jambhul Darwaza), Mastani Darwaza (aka Ali Bahadur Darwaza) and Ganesha Darwaza. In its celebrated heydays, the imposing fortress-palace unbelievably accommodated over a thousand inhabitants within its crenelated defenses – why the devastating fires of 1828 were not doused thus naturally begets both incredulous surprise and misgivings of mischief/incompetence.

“Nothing beside remains!”

Not surprisingly, the impressive stronghold is regarded as being haunted on every full moon night by agonizingly grief-stricken cries of “Kaka! Mala vachva” (“Save me, Uncle!”) uttered by the restlessly despondent soul of Peshwa Narayanrao (officiated AD 1772-73), the grandson of Peshwa Bajirao Ballal I, who was barbarically murdered and mutilated upon the orders of his own uncle “Raghoba” Raghunathrao (officiated as Peshwa, AD 1773-74). Spooky! And yet people would undoubtedly always only associate the engrossing citadel with the Kashibai-Bajirao-Mastani love triangle – and why not? Didn’t I too circumbulate the immense peripheries seeking the seductive fragrance of the beloved – only to run into a group of boisterously rowdy school students smoking hastily improvised joints immediately adjacent the spectacularly dominating equestrian statue ostensibly commemorating Peshwa Bajirao I but only in fact succeeding in bringing about reminiscences of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”!

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Forgotten corners!

Which, all in all, of course makes me wonder if the Peshwas, two of whom so delicately embellished this spellbinding city, ever spent their hours ruminating philosophies and reminiscing memories while traversing new cities? Did they too realize, like now I do, that often in life one unknowingly embarks on certain journeys only to eventually apprehend that no matter how frantically one tries, some people, notwithstanding how dearest, one will probably never see again, and some places, notwithstanding how mesmerizing, would never be visited again.

And yet, one also realizes that memories, those ruthless pinpricks stabbing at our hearts in stolen moments of solace, would never let us forget the ones we loved so desperately, even if we wanted to. That we would never want to, of course, somehow always remains unsaid and unappreciated!

Peshwa Bajirao Ballal - The Indian Ozymandias

Location: Shaniwar Wada is located barely 2 kilometers away from Shivajinagar in the heart of the city. Vishrambaug Wada is less than 1 kilometer away on Thorale Sreemant Peshwa Bajirao Road.
Open: All days, 8 am - 5.30 pm
Entrance fees: Vishrambaug Wada: Nil; Shaniwar Wada: Indians: Rs 5, Foreigners: Rs 125
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Vishrambaug Wada: 1 hr; Shaniwar Wada: 2 hr
Suggestion: Don't forget to purchase the mouthwatering Bakarwadi from Chitale bandhu sweetshop just across the road from Vishrambaug Wada!
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