The Shaniwar Wada fort in Pune (Photos: Pratham Gokhale)
FROM THE outside it looks like a well-renovated old house with its polished doors, wooden balconies, whitewashed walls and windows open to sunlight. It stands in the winding lanes of Budhwar Peth in Pune, an area that becomes the nucleus of the annual Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. When we enter the low ceilinged and wooden beamed room of this ‘house,’ we quickly realise it is more military than domestic, a site of subterfuge and not shelter. The main door has a secret locking system connected with chains. Cabinets have been cleverly carved into the walls near the doors to hold guns. Similarly, a concealed trapdoor in the ceiling of the ‘devgarh’, leads to a space used to hide weapons. A small door at eye level (when seated on the floor) allows those in the inside room to keep a watch on those who enter and exit. There is no kitchen here. No room for rest. No inner courtyard.
This is the creation of Shrimant Bhausaheb Lakshman Javale (popularly known as Bhausaheb Rangari), an Ayurvedic doctor by profession, a dyer of cloth by lineage, who dreamt of an independent India. Born in 1851, he built this wada (traditional mansion in Marathi) in 1883 to serve as a meeting place for revolutionaries.
Today a fifth-generation descendant of Bhausaheb Rangari, Prateek Javale acts as both guide and manager of this wada, which now serves as a well-appointed museum. As Javele says, “This was never a house. It was a space for activity for freedom fighters.” Today in glass cabinets numerous rifles, pistols, revolvers are mounted—some with silver filigree and gold leaf and even the initials of the owners—which originally belonged to officers of the East India Company. In 1878, the British had passed the Arms Act, which disallowed Indians from possessing any arms, as they did not want another 1857-like event on their hands. Given the restrictions, revolutionaries had little option but to appropriate these weapons.
Bhausaheb Rangari is a particularly interesting character as he adopted violent political methods and unifying social tools. At this wada he and his contemporaries decided to start a Ganesh procession. Today its genesis from a private prayer to a public festival is most often attributed to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, but its earliest roots allegedly lie with Bhausaheb Rangari. In 1892 Bhausaheb Rangari commissioned a Ganesh murti from papier-mâché, which shows the manyarmed elephant-headed god slaying a demon. One hand of the god is raised above his head as he clasps his broken tusk like a spear. This unusual warrior Ganesh, adorned with a silver crown, and bringing the devil to his knees, can be seen even today in a temple near the museum. It is said that the devil represents the colonisers, and the idol symbolises good over evil.
The creation of public Ganesh mandals and the processions were Bhausaheb Rangari’s attempt to bring together the Hindu and Muslim communities and to create a sense of unity against the British. Bhausaheb Rangari and and his contemporaries established the first three Ganesh pandals to host the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav in 1892. The wooden chariot that was used to transport Ganesh into the by lanes is also housed at the museum.
FROM THE WEDDING-CAKE like Aga Khan Palace with its Italian arches and spacious lawns, to the nondescript Jedhe Mansion with its dishevelled façade and crooked beams, to the recently renovated Bhausaheb Rangari Museum with its secret doors and mounted arsenal, to the renowned Yerwada Central Jail that is hidden from public eyes with its impossibly high and long walls—the city of Pune was an important location for India’s freedom struggle.
To travel the city is to encounter these various sites; it is to imagine the burning of foreign goods in blazing bonfires on the SM Joshi Bridge, to picture soldiers on horses chasing freedom fighters through the arms of the octagon-shaped Mahatma Phule Mandai, the biggest retail vegetable market in the city, and to hear gunfire on Ganesh Khind (now Senapati Bapat Road) where the Chapekar Brothers assassinated WC Rand, the British Plague Commissioner of Pune on June 22, 1897. While driving past the walls of the Yerawada Jail, which is now flanked by vada-pav stores, one can conjure up Mahatma Gandhi “fasting unto death” within its confines to protest the Communal Award. He ended the fast when he signed the Poona Pact with BR Ambedkar under the shade of a mango tree in the jail’s compound. During the Quit India movement of 1942 many freedom fighters—such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhas Bose—were also incarcerated at the Yerawada Jail.
Much of this history has been erased from public memory. And I get to access it with the help of Jui Tawade, co-convenor of the Pune chapter of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
Bhausaheb Rangari Museum is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to many of these locations, as here the upkeep is impeccable and the information accurate, thanks to the efforts of the family to preserve and showcase it. The Jedhe Mansion, on the other hand, teeters on the brink of ruin. While the house still stands, it remains inaccessible and neglected. It is like the Miss Havisham of buildings, where the clocks have stopped, and the finery of the past has all but disappeared.
Tawade points out how the architecture of the Jedhe Mansion differs from traditional wadas as there is no inward-facing courtyard, but rather an outward-facing balcony, complete with cast-iron railings, which was typical of the English style.
Keshavrao Jedhe (1896–1959) was an important leader of the non-Brahman freedom movement. He and his family belonged to the Satyashodhak Samaj (a social reform society founded by Jyotiba Phule to help Dalits and women) and played an active part in its activities. For leaders like Jedhe and Ambedkar, nationalism and anti-casteism needed to go hand in hand. A member of the Constituent Assembly, he was also the president of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee.
The Jedhe mansion, located in Shukrawar Peth, was an important site during the freedom struggle as it was the centre of many social reform movements and the meeting ground for non-Brahmin political leaders from the late 1920s to the 1950s. It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi also visited this house. Today the mansion reveals none of its storied past and keeps its secrets hidden. The only hint of its political association is the presence of a Congress office on the ground floor.
PUNE WAS THE city of the Peshwas in the 18th century as it was the headquarters of the Maratha Empire, which was the second largest empire besides the British in India. It then became an important military city under the British. Jaymala Diddee and Samita Gupta write in Pune: Queen of Deccan, how Pune became the monsoon capital in the 1830s as even the Bombay governors got bogged down by the torrential Bombay rain and preferred the drizzles of Pune. In the 1860s Pune was even briefly considered as permanent capital for the government—replacing Calcutta— the authors write, but this proposal fell through as its location was not considered central.
From the nondescript Jedhe Mansion with its dishevelled façade, to the recently renovated Bhausaheb Rangari Museum with its mounted arsenal, to the renowned Yerwada Central Jail with its impossibly high and long walls—the city of Pune was an important location for India’s freedom struggle
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The two most significant historical landmarks in Pune today are still the Shaniwar Wada and the Aga Khan Palace. The Shaniwar Wada palace, built in 1730 by Peshwa Bajirao I, was destroyed in a fire in 1828, and personifies the architecture of the Peshwa period with its basalt stone façade, wooden interiors, and intricate carvings. Tawade recounts that in a bid to “de-glorify the Marathas,” the British used the glorious Shaniwar Wada as army barracks.
The freedom fighters, to reclaim Shaniwar Wada, embraced its vast grounds and the imposing exterior as a backdrop for several important political events. Today, Shaniwar Wada is seldom connected with the freedom struggle, instead it continues to be celebrated as a seat of Maratha power and pride.
In 1890, the Age of Consent Bill — a legislation proposed by the British to raise the age of consent for sexual intercourse for all girls, from 10 to 12 years — was a hotly contested issue, with social reformers pitted against the conservatives. MG Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and other members of the Deccan Education Society were in favour of the bill. Opponents of the Age of Consent Bill held a large meeting at Shaniwar Wada on 8 February, 1891, denouncing it. One of the main leaders against the bill was Tilak who helmed the meeting at Shaniwar Wada, as he believed that a foreign government should not try to “regulate our social customs or ways of living”. He felt education and not legislation should be used for reform.
Tilak, one of the strongest and most radical advocates of Swaraj (self-rule) is an essential figure to Pune’s history. He graduated in Mathematics from Deccan College of Pune in 1877, started teaching Math at a school here, but then quit and became a journalist. He played a vital role in setting up a few of the premier educational institutions of the city, including Fergusson College.
Located in Narayan Peth, the Kesari Wada, which Tilak purchased in 1905, is today a museum dedicated to “the father of Indian unrest” (anointed by the British). The museum contains many of Tilak’s papers, books, mementos and the first Indian national flag unfurled by Bhikaiji Rustom Cama. It was from here that Tilak published the Kesari (in Marathi) and Maratha (in English) newspapers. The original printing press, which Tilak bought from London in 1886— now laden with dust and squatting below a stairwell—is still housed here.
Today the Aga Khan Palace is the Mahatma Gandhi Museum, where one can sense the breadth of history. It is here that Sarojini Naidu was incarcerated, it was here that Gandhi and Kasturba lived for nearly two years and where Kasturba died on 22 February, 1944
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WHILE THE WADAS are in the congested gullies of old Pune, the Aga Khan Palace is spread over 19 acres. To enter it is to walk into an oasis of green lawns, pruned trees and blooming flowers. It was built in 1892 by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III to provide employment to villagers during a devastating famine.
On August 9, 1942, Gandhi and hundreds of Congress workers were arrested and the newspapers were muzzled. He, his wife Kasturba and secretary Mahadev Desai were kept under arrest in the capacious grounds on the Ahmednagar Road, for 21 months. Within a week of his detention at the Aga Khan Palace, Desai passed away on 15 August 1942.
Today the Aga Khan Palace is the Mahatma Gandhi Museum. It is here that Sarojini Naidu was incarcerated, it was here that Gandhi and Kasturba lived for nearly two years and where Kasturba died on 22 February, 1944. It was here that Gandhi wrote many important papers, on topics like health and freedom. A few of Gandhi’s personal belongings, such as his slippers and utensils, have been preserved behind vitrines.
The grounds of the Aga Khan Palace stretch endlessly into monsoon greens. But the vastness of the space does not dilute its significance. Instead, it highlights it. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, dozens of visitors huddle under umbrellas to pause at the samadhis of Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai. The memorials are only simple marble platforms from which tulsi plants grow towards the sky. A single red rose graces a short marble pillar that reads, “Here rest the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi.” In the simplicity of the memorial lies its beauty.
The Aga Khan Palace is a befitting place to conclude a freedom tour of Pune. In its silence and immensity one can see the city as a site of political and social upheaval. Pune has been a witness to both the violent and non-violent aspects of the freedom struggle. Here foreign goods were cast into flames to assert self-reliance. Here hundreds gathered to listen to speeches by freedom fighters. Here the reform movement created an atmosphere of intellectual turmoil between the conservatives and the reformers. Here the press became a weapon. And religion was used to harness a sense of community. Here radical acts were planned and carried out. Here two British officials (WC Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst, his military escort) were assassinated as they were seen as betraying the city’s population during the ravages of the plague of 1896. Here the tallest leaders were imprisoned. To travel through the city is to sense the echo of “Swaraj is my birth right.”