Pune youth at the 8th Century Pataleshwar Cave Temple celebrating Pune Heritage Week
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It took me three years to make the journey to Pune, a city nestled in the Sahyadri hills four hours by road and 149 kilometres away from Mumbai.
Every second person I have met in Mumbai has been somehow connected to Pune. It is either through their family or studies [when they were younger] or if nothing else a place they go to chill out. I figured this in itself warranted I see it with a local, and here I mean a Mumbaikar with one foot in Pune. And so I waited. And waited. Till my desire to explore the city out-weighed the comfort of a well-versed, impossible to pin down, human guide.
Clueless about the geography of the city, but armed with a smattering of facts, figures, and stories from poring over books and articles, I found myself one fine morning seated on a bus aptly named Shivneri. For the uninitiated, Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj was born in Shivneri Fort on the outskirts of Pune.
But more of that later on in the post. I was headed to Mumbai’s lesser known and lesser glamorous, yet historically and culturally [as I was soon to discover] richer neighbour. It also happened to be heritage week in Pune which turned out to be in my favour.
If there is one word which describes Pune, OK, two words, for me, it is “intellectually multifarious.” And they are both pretty awesome words.
Where do I start? The fact that Pune dates back to the 8th Century and was later the political seat of the Maratha Empire from 1732 to 1818, both historical epochs etched in stone and culture for posterity. Or that it wears a Victorian mantle remnant of the British Raj, and some of the Indian Independence Movement stalwarts were Punekars. Or that the city, post-Independence, has grown into a university town with hundreds of colleges, 12 universities, and scores of research centres. Or that today it is a mecca for organic and alternative lifestyles with the Osho International Meditation Centre and its red-robed inmates part of the city’s landscape.
What holds all these seemingly disparate parts, wherein each is equally alive and kicking, into one unified whole is the Punekars themselves. In their minds there is room for the past, present, and future. For the traditional and the unconventional. For academic knowledge and historical myths.
Here’s my 36 hours in Pune—done solo over a weekend, and proof that (1) solo travel weekend breaks in India rock, and (2) Pune with its veritable treasure trove of sights and stories is doable over a weekend. 🙂
Day 1: Morning: Revisiting the Maratha Empire: Shaniwar Wada, Lal Mahal, and Vishrambaug Wada
Shaniwar Wada, Pune’s iconic landmark. Top: The equestrian statue of Bajirao I in front of Dilli Darwaja; Bottom: Chimana Bag and its perfect symmetrical pools inside the fortification walls
Vishrambaug Wada on Bajirao Road, home of the last Peshwa Bajirao II
In 1760, at its peak, the Maratha Empire (1674 – 1818) covered 2.8 million square kilometres in area, from Attock to Cuttack, or two-thirds of what was later to become British India. It was ruled by a Hindu knight group from present-day Maharashtra on the principle of Hindu self-rule.
Though India’s Mughal-centric history has pushed the Maratha Empire to its periphery, it lives on, passionately and firmly embedded in Maharashtra and specifically, in Pune, through the stories of two men. These are Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj [1630 – 1680; founder of the Maratha Empire] and Peshwa Bajirao I [1700 – 1739; the Maratha Empire’s Prime Minister who moved the political seat to Pune].
Peshwa Bajirao I’s Shaniwar Wada is Pune’s most recognised landmark. The wada, a Maharashtrian home with rooms hemming a central courtyard was completed in 1732 at a cost of Rs. 16,110. Magnificent dwellings once stood within, encircled by gardens, fountains, and small courtyards. All that remains now are their ruins encased in fortification walls punctuated with nine bastions and five gateways, and a royal family’s saga of romance, passion, power, and conspiracy spanning 75 years and seven Peshwa regimes.
Lal Mahal, round the corner from the wada, was young Shivaji and his mother, Jijabai’s, home in Pune. It is also where he led one of his most strategic attacks against the Mughals. Often referred to as Rang Mahal, maybe because it was covered with wall paintings commonly found in the old Maratha wada walls, Lal Mahal has long disappeared. A recent reconstruction stands in its place today—the only similarities are the dimensions and both being painted red.
Completing the circuit is Vishrambaug Wada, a poetic mansion a couple of streets away painted rose-pink with an exquisitely carved entrance and wooden balcony jutting out on to the thoroughfare. Built in 1807, it was the home of Peshwa Bajirao II, the last Peshwa of the Maratha Empire who chose to live here with his entourage of 6,000 servants and wife, rather than at the ill-fated Shaniwar Wada.
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Pune heritage walk: Lal Mahal and Shaniwar Wada
Day 1: Lunch in the Old City
How about a simple low budget, low key bite in the lanes of the peths [boroughs] in the old city itself? I assure you, you will be spoilt for choice.
Day 1: Afternoon: Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune’s own little V&A Museum
If you like quirky and quaint museums the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum is a must visit. There are artefacts in here which would make both, the Victoria & Albert and British Museums in London go green with envy.
Kaka, as Dr. Dinkar G. Kelkar (1896 – 1990), the founder of the museum was fondly known, was an optician by profession, poet at heart, and collector by nature. He was driven by a dream to give Indian arts and crafts the recognition it deserved and travelled across the country in his pursuit, single-handedly amassing his exorbitant collection. The result is 2,500 pieces of a 21,000 objet d’art collection displayed over three floors and 42 sections of what was once his home in Shukrawar Peth in the old city.
Mainly dated around the Mughal and Maratha periods the artefacts in stone, wood, metal, ivory, fabric and clay stand as testimony to the richness of India’s creative and cultural spirit. No two vajris of the 150 piece bevy are alike. Each leather shadow puppet in the 3,000 piece compendium is unique.
Pièces de résistance include the original Mastani Mahal brought in from Kothrud, carefully dismantled and reassembled in the Kelkar home, assorted items once used by royalty such as “erotic nut-crackers” and betel boxes, and an 18th Century miniature painting of Bajirao I. To be further charmed, you can drool on effigies of the Hindu pantheon, carved palace doors, dowry boxes, armoury made of fish scales and crocodile skin, and 200-year-old jewellery.
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Kelkar Museum: One man’s collection of 21,000 objets d’art
Day 1: Late Afternoon and Evening: Temple-hopping in the Old City
Top: The 8th Century Pataleshwar Cave Temple dedicated to Shiva was built during the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. Pune back then was called Punya-Vishaya meaning “sacred news;” Bottom: Temple offerings at Sarasbaug Ganpati
Lokmanya Tilak, the Indian nationalist leader got his brainwave to have an 11 day Ganeshotsav at the Dagdusheth Ganpati temple
One learning from my travels has been that if you want to know a place and its people visit their museums and places of worship. It is here one gets to see local cultures at their most authentic self—through the art and objects they create to express themselves, and the prayers and icons they weave to still the demons and questions within.
To peek into the latter I visited four temples in the old city from its horde of dozens, each offering a unique insight into Pune’s heritage. May I suggest you do too?
A good place to start with is the 8th Century Pataleshwar Cave Temple dedicated to Pataleshwar—Lord of the Underground and one of the many names of Shiva—and Nandi, Shiva’s mount. Built during the Rashtrakuta period, the temple is housed in a series of cave temples carved out of a single basalt rock. It was left incomplete possibly because of a fault line in the rear rock surface. The highlight is the circular Nandi mandapa.
Throughout much of history, from aristocracy to traders to domesticity—Ganesh or Ganpati, Shiva and his consort Parvati’s son, has been Maharashtra’s most beloved god, and by default Pune’s too. The next stop is, hence, Sarasbaug Ganpati with the idol of Shree Siddhivinayak [God who makes wishes come true].
Sarasbaug Ganpati built in 1784 at the foothill of Parvati Hill by Peshwa Madhavrao II [Prime Minister during the Maratha Empire] draws 10,000 visitors daily from all over the country. During festivals, the number goes up to a whopping 80,000 visitors.
Next is Dagdusheth Ganpati in Budhvar Peth. The effigy here is a wealthy sweetmeat seller’s gift to the city and birthplace of the annual Ganeshotsav [Ganesh festival]. Completed in 1893, the evening aarti [prayers] is a theatrical spectacle replete with chants and ringing bells whilst generous offerings are made to the benign deity dressed in 8 kilograms of gold.
As night falls, find your way down the road to Kasba Ganpati in Kasba Peth—the oldest residential locality in Pune established in the 5th Century. The orange painted Ganpati within is the presiding deity or gram devta of Pune. Jijabai, Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s mother, commissioned the temple in the 17th Century.
In contrast to Dagdusheth Ganpati, Kasba is intimate and homespun. Punekars stream into the temple on their way back home from work whilst a group of elderly women, seated cross-legged in the dimly lit courtyard, sing bhajans in lilting sweet voices punctuated with giggles and bashful smiles. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself still here well past dusk.
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Global travel shot: A sweetmeat shop-owner’s gift to Pune
Day 2: Morning: Church-hopping in Pune Camp
Top: The distinctive powder-blue bell tower and pipe organ of St. Mary’s Church in Camp, the oldest Anglican church in the Deccan dating back to 1825; Bottom: St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built in 1850 for the Irish Catholic soldiers in the British Indian Army
Sunday morning, and why not, like countless others have been doing over the past couple of centuries in Pune’s Cantonment or Camp area, go to Church?
Cantonment, meaning a permanent military station in British India, was set up in Pune in 1817 to accommodate the British Indian Army troops. Churches to serve the then Poona’s British Raj gentry were built soon after.
The area is a maze of tree-lined streets dotted with sumptuous villas, iconic schools, and Parsi eateries. In addition to the churches there are a couple of agiaries and a Jewish synagogue, both of which I was turned away from for my faith. Thus, unless you are a Parsi or a Jew, you will, like me have to do with church-hopping, which instead welcomed me with open arms. 🙂
Three churches stand out historically, as well as aesthetically.
My favourite is St. Mary’s Church, a powder-blue concoction with a 103 feet high bell tower topped with a spire, 200-year-old stained glass windows and a pipe organ imported all the way from England in 1869. Referred to as “the Mother Church of the Deccan,” the church was built in the early-1820s and consecrated on 3 July, 1825. It is the oldest surviving Anglican church in mid-Western India and seats 1,000 worshippers. The highlight? Contemporary Service held at 10:30 am on Sundays. The historical setting and 21st Century musical notes make for an eclectic mix.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral meanwhile is a snow-white neo-Gothic sumptuous edifice straight out of a fairytale. It was built in 1850 to cater to the Irish soldiers and other Catholics settled in Pune Camp. Much of the original structure has been renovated over the years resulting in modern stained glass windows inside a heritage front.
Lastly, a must dekko is Pune’s oldest Catholic church: Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church or City Church. Peshwa Madhavrao II of the Maratha Empire gifted the land for building a church to serve the Catholic Goan, British, and Portuguese soldiers in the Maratha army. The first Mass was held on Christmas Day, 1792, and the first structure made in 1794. The present edifice dates back to 1852.
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St. Mary’s Church in Camp, the oldest Anglican church in the Deccan
Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Agiary in Camp (1935), which I could not enter or was allowed to take a picture of. 😛 Ain’t it pretty! Parsis, followers of Zoroaster, moved from Iran to India—mainly to Mumbai, Surat, and Pune—in the 7th Century fearing a Muslim invasion.
Day 2: Lunch: Parsi fare in Pune Camp
So what if entry to the agiaries is banned. Pune’s Parsi eateries more than make up for it. Cheese omelette, buttered toast, and chai at Cafe Yezdan or mutton chops and Ardeshir’s raspberry soda [since 1884] at Dorabjee and Sons. Or why not just have both?
Day 2: Afternoon: Shinde Chhatri and Aga Khan Palace, a Tryst with Aristocracy
Oh, what a find. The Shinde Chhatri will take your breath away, as it did mine!
An amalgamation of Rajasthani and European architectural styles, the towering memorial stands behind 15 feet high walls in a deserted street in the outskirts of south-east Pune, in a suburb called Wanowrie. It is dedicated to Mahadaji Shinde, Commander-in-Chief of the Maratha army from 1760 to 1780.
The Shiva temple in the complex was set up Mahadaji Shinde himself in 1794. Soon after, the same year, his last rites were carried out in it. In 1965, his descendant, Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia [read Shinde] of Gwalior built the chhatri [metaphorically an umbrella to protect his ashes] at the site.
The edifice inside is a spectacular blend of coloured window panes, painted ceilings and carved pillars lined with framed pictures of the Scindia family. Outside it is even more splendid with a crown of spires in black stone topped with golden pots or kalash rising from the temple roof, and statues of saints edging the yellow stoned chhatri.
Across the Mula Mutha River, on the other side of Pune is the graceful, sprawling Aga Khan Palace built in 1892 by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III. He was the 48th Imam of the Nizari Shi’a Isma’ili Muslims.
The palace’s main claim to fame, however, is the role it played in the Quit India Movement. Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, and secretary Mahadevbhai Desai were imprisoned in its rooms from 9 August, 1942 to 6 May, 1944. Both Kasturba and Desai passed away whilst in captivity. Their samadhis stand in the palace lawns.
Personal belongings of Gandhi, including his slippers, clothes, utensils, and furniture together with personal letters and photographs of key events in the freedom struggle line the rooms the three occupied. The palace was donated to the Indian government by Aga Khan IV in 1969 as a token of respect for Gandhi and his beliefs.
Day 2: Evening: A stroll through Koregaon Park
Before you leave, take an evening stroll through the leafy avenues of Koregaon Park, past the new age Osho International Meditation Resort which requires an HIV test upon entry, and the fancy mansions of India’s celebrated business families. A peek into Cyrus Mistry’s (of Tata fame) bungalow reveals perfectly manicured gardens and a Grecian facade. Red-robed Osho devotees saunter through the lanes, arm-in-arm.
A light dinner at the German Bakery, where Pune’s hip and happening hang out, completes 36 hours in Pune at the right note; that is if you manage to get a table preferably outside, but hey, if not a takeaway will do too. ❤
- Getting to Pune from Mumbai and back: Shivneri [Volvo AC bus] from Dadar Station to Pune Station; Leaves every half hour; Ticket: Rs. 446 one way; Travel time: 4 hours including a pit stop.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws are both plentiful and cheap in Pune.
- Staying there: I stayed at Park Central, Koregaon Park, near German Bakery, through OYO Rooms premium range.