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Shaniwar Wada: grandeur and decline

The once-majestic fort area now has bottles strewn across the ramparts and lawns, stench of urine emanating from the courtyards and graffiti on the walls of the five great gates—Photos: The Hindu Archives and dattatreya Adhalge  

Unlike Shivaji’s rugged 17th century mountain hill-fortresses atop the Western Ghats, Shaniwar Wada — an opulent ‘urban’ fortification constructed in 1732 by Bajirao I — reverberates with political intrigue, sinister palace plots and a gory, infamous late medieval murder that has been cemented in the canon of ghostly myth.

The hoary tales of the 18-year old Peshwa, Narayan Rao’s grisly murder by the Gardi guards in 1773 at the behest of his grasping aunt Anandi Bai, right down to the mysterious fire of 1828 that destroyed the fort, Shaniwar Wada’s walls resound with the faded grandeur of the Maratha empire that passed into the hands of the British East India Company following Peshwa Bajirao II’s defeat in the third Anglo-Maratha war of 1817-18.

The only ‘love story’ to be played out within these walls — the romance between Bajirao I and his second wife Mastani — is more ‘palace intrigue’ riven by realpolitik and familial factionalism.

With director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical soap pageant ‘Bajirao Mastani’ — starring three Bollywood youth icons — set for release next week, this pivotal legacy of the Peshwas and Maharashtra’s political history suddenly finds itself in the spotlight.

While the film has attracted critical scrutiny from the Peshwa’s descendants and history buffs who have heaped censure on its “gross factual inaccuracies”, a fog of apathy enshrouds the imperceptibly decaying monument.

‘Pune’s Pride’ (as Shaniwar Wada has been grandiosely nicknamed) has fallen prey to the depredations of urban decay; its restoration largely a chimera.

The fort, a Grade I protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is now a bland, neglected leftover, not of the grand days of Maratha empire at its zenith in the second half of the 18th century, but of the fire which gutted it in 1828 and the subsequent indifference of the British.

The desolations of urban squalor are ever more visible across the once-majestic fort area spread across 6.25 acres and studded with palaces — bottles strewn across the ramparts and lawns, the stench of urine emanating from the courtyards, graffiti on the walls of the five great gates.

But more disturbingly, the sheer lack of detailed information about the fort and its history has put off many a tourist and history-aficionado, who lament the steady degradation of the grand structure, now used by couples who cannot find private spaces elsewhere.

The sound and light show, the highlight of a visit to the fort, was discontinued in 2009 for want of state-of-art technology. “The show used to run to packed audiences throughout the year. It was glorious,” recounts Sadhana Kulkarni, a retired lecturer and frequent visitor to the fort. However, the Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) announcement last month that it would resurrect the show has raised flagging spirits of history buffs and students.

The show’s script, reworked by late historian Ninad Bedekar, packs an exciting narrative featuring Bajirao I, the great military commander Chimaji Appa and recounts with fervour the intrigues surrounding Narayanrao’s murder and his uncle, Raghunathrao ‘Raghoba’ Peshwa’s bid for the Maratha throne.

“The equipment we were using earlier, such as halogen lights that consumed over 1,000W, was outdated,” says Mahendra Shinde, engineer, PMC, who is associated with the project. “Now we have new technology, so we can scale up the show with better lights and sound effects.”

Even then, the resurrection of the show, pegged at Rs 4.4 crore with a January 2016 deadline, is not without its problems. The newly installed LED lamp posts are rusting, while some are bereft of bulbs.

Visitors cite the failure and collective apathy of the PMC and ASI, and hold them responsible for the sorry state of affairs. Besides, the absence of staff to enforce vigilance has hurt conservation. Of the 120-odd full-time posts, only half have been filled, coupled with a shortage of security personnel.

According to ASI, a sum of Rs 55 lakh was spent on its upkeep between 2007 and 2009, with nearly Rs 19 lakh spent on the restoration of fortifications. Six years later, ASI’s efforts and claims fail to pass muster as broken walls and cisterns, empty wells and missing bricks from the ramparts have become a fixture during a visit to ‘Pune’s Pride’, with many even pointing out this derelict state to the integral ruins of the fort.

“The place has become a garbage dump,” says Pune resident and history buff Amit Paranjape. “Even public gardens are better maintained than the ones inside the fort.”

The shoddy state of Shaniwar Wada — the veritable hotbed of Maratha and Indian politics through much of the 18{+t}{+h}century — is in stark contrast to the condition of other forts in India such as the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh or the Golden Fort in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

“The fort is in a pitiable condition,”says Mahendra, a descendant of Bajirao I. “The forts in Delhi and Rajasthan are infinitely better maintained than Shaniwar Wada. There is no visible improvement despite a donation of Rs 50 lakh by Girish Bapat, a minister in the Maharashtra cabinet.”

He urges the State government to restore historical vitality to the monument by developing a museum showcasing Maratha history.

“Few are aware of the structure’s political importance. ASI or the State government has made no effort to transform Shaniwar Wada into an educative force. It is only the myths of Narayanrao’s ghost crying ‘Kaka Mala Vachwa’ (“Uncle, save me”) or Mastani’s spirit that have gained currency among every generation of youngsters,” a student said.

As the 21-foot Delhi Darwaza and the equestrian statue of Bajirao I in front of it stand ever-impassive to the ravages of time, it is imperative the ASI and civic bodies pay heed to the ghost of Shaniwar Wada, clamouring mutely to be rescued from its decrepitude.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 10:10:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/news/shaniwar-wada-grandeur-and-decline/article7982841.ece

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