I believe the most important thing for kings when they built their forts in ancient times was that the fort should remain standing for centuries, as a sign of their power and rule over the region. They designed the walls to withstand any attack and keep the royal family and people of the kingdom safe. In most of the cases, these forts served their purpose. Now after all the kings and queens are long gone, what now remains is pretty much these strong and silent walls of several forts all over our country. There is no king’s rule left anymore but these forts still remind people of the king who built them. However the purpose of safekeeping was never really served by any fort. There is an entire history of Royal families getting butchered right inside these walls, the one they made to protect themselves.
One such fort located in the heart of Pune is the Shaniwar Wada fort, also written as Shaniwarwada fort. It served as the ruling seat of the Maratha Empire until 1818 when the Peshwas were defeated and surrendered to the British. This fort in a way stands as a symbol of the rise and fall of Maratha Empire. Construction of Shaniwar Wada began on January 10th, 1730 when Peshwa Balaji Rao, Prime minister to King Chattrapati Shahu laid foundation to it. That day happened to be a Saturday and that is where this fort got its name from, Shaniwar meaning Saturday and Wada meaning residence in Marathi. Even the opening ceremony of the fort took place on a Saturday, on January 22, 1732. The construction was finally completed in 1745 at a total cost of Rs. 16,110 which was a hefty sum in those days. Within next 30 years, by 1760, at least a thousand people were living inside the fort. For almost 70 years, this fort remained home to the ruling Peshwas until the Maratha Army was defeated by John Malcolm of the British East India Company. In June 1818, then king Bajirao II, abdicated his throne to John Malcolm and went into political exile at Bithoor, near Kanpur in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India. After the British took over the region, fort became of residence of British officers for a decade until 1828 when a major fire broke within the fort. What caused this fire is still unknown but the entire fort was destroyed in it. The fire burnt for seven long days and after it was extinguished, only the huge walls and gates remained, everything else was destroyed. The fort was abandoned after the fire and no one has lived here ever since.
What happened in these 70 years from construction to destruction of Shaniwar Wada however is a very interesting tale portraying a perfect picture of how the Royal families did not hesitate to kill even their loved ones to seize throne. Somewhere in the history and story of Shaniwar Wada fort, one can also see the reason of why India eventually fell to the British rule and was invaded by foreign armies several times for centuries before that. At the time when Shaniwar Wada fort was built, the Maratha Empire was at its zenith. Mughals were busy fighting each other for the throne after death of Aurangzeb and it was a perfect opportunity for the Marathas to take control of the entire India which they did but could not hold for long. This was also the time when English came to our country and started to take over while all the kings of small kingdoms were trying to kill each other. Chhatrapatis, the Maratha kings, were only the titular rulers and the Maratha Empire was mostly controlled by the Peshwas, the prime ministers of Chhatrapatis.
Foundation of Shaniwar Wada was laid by Peshwa Baji Rao 1 who was succeeded by his son Peshwa Balaji Bajirao, fondly known as Nanasaheb Peshwa. Nanasaheb Peshwa had 3 sons, Vishwasrao, Madhavrao and Narayanrao. His eldest son Vishwasrao perished during the third battle of Panipat against Afghan armies and hence after Nanasaheb, Madhavrao succeeded as the 4th Peshwa of the Maratha Empire which he remained until his death in 1772.
After death of Madhavrao, Narayanrao, the youngest of Nanasaheb’s son, took over as the 5th Peshwa. He was only 17 years old at the time of his brother Madhavrao’s death and became the youngest Peshwa ruler ever.
This succession however was highly challenged by his own Uncle, Raghunathrao, brother of Nanasaheb. It is said that Raghunathrao had been fighting for power ever since and even tried to take over the throne himself rather than letting Nanasaheb succeed. His hunger for the throne saw an opportunity when a young Narayanrao was declared Peshwa in 1772. Even Narayanrao disliked his Uncle very much as he believed Raghunathrao responsible for assassination attempts on his elder brother, Madhavrao’s life. However, it was decided between Narayanrao & Raghunathrao to work together but Narayanrao’s arrogant, immature and impulsive behavior led to differences between them. These differences soon reached their peak and Narayanrao finally ordered a house-arrest for Raghunathrao. This move proved disastrous and finally led to Narayanrao’s death.
Raghunathrao’s wife Anandibai, furious over her husband’s arrest, seeked help of the Gardis, highly trained assassins for hire. Gardis were originally the Bheels of central India, a hunting tribe. On the last day of Ganesh Festival on 30 August 1773, several Gardi guards, led by their captain, Sumer Singh Gardi, entered the palace and started creating a commotion. They then charged towards the sleeping Peshwa’s chambers, killing a clerk on the way. Narayanrao, seeing the Gardis and sensing trouble, ran out of his chambers towards his Uncle’s quarters, screaming “Kaka! Mala Vachva!!” or “Uncle! Save me!”. The Gardis followed Narayanrao to his uncle’s chamber and a menial pulled him while Sumer Singh Gardi cut him down. Narayanrao’s corpse was cremated secretly by the river at midnight.
It is believed that Raghunathrao never wanted to kill his nephew and only asked Gardis for help in order to get out of captivity. According to popular legend, Raghunathrao had sent a message to Sumer Singh Gardi to capture Narayanrao. His message read “Narayanrao la dhara” where dhara means to capture. This message was intercepted by his wife Anandibai who changed the letter dhara to make it read as maaraa or ‘kill’ . The miscommunication led the Gardis to chase Narayanrao and finally kill him. Rumor has it that Narayanrao’s body was hacked into so many pieces that they had to carry the pieces in a pot.
Raghunathrao succeeded to the throne after Narayanrao but even his reign lasted no more than a year.
This fort is definitely one of the most popular tourist destinations in Pune, especially for couples looking for a secluded spot to spend some quality time together. There are many reasons people visit here but one of the most common reason is to go see a place that is known as the most haunted of Pune. As per the legend, on a full moon night, one can still hear the young Peshwa screaming “Kaka! Mala Vachva”, looking for a help that never came.
I have never been to Shaniwarwada fort so cannot really say whether it’s true or not but to find out is definitely on my TO-DO list.