Straddling Heritage and Modernity

Straddling Heritage and Modernity
Pune, as seen from a vantage point in the city, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Relics of a regal past and the bustle of a modern metropolis, here's how to explore Pune like a Punekar

Shweta K., Lasya Nadimpally & Arundhti Bhanot
September 23 , 2021
13 Min Read

It’s a city of many monikers – epicentre of the Maratha Empire, seat of the Peshwai, Oxford of the East, pensioner’s paradise, IT hub, industrial zone, military cantonment, and soon, Smart City. But Pune has been all this, and much more. 

Across the expressway from ‘the city that never sleeps’, Mumbai’s smaller cousin has always had the reputation of respecting its siestas slightly more, projected mainly through the afternoon languor that traditionally descended over it in post-prandial hours. Today, however, as it grows into a burgeoning metro, an influx of residents and commerce has ensured that the city no longer has that somnolent air over it during certain hours of the day – for the most part at least.

Pune is blessed with a centre at the confluence of two rivers (the Mula and Mutha), a number of ‘tekdis’ (small hills) peppered across the landscape, and a climate once considered exceptionally salubrious, of which glimpses still shine through. Its natural gifts co-exist – not always seamlessly – with fast-rising demographics, catapulting Pune to one amongst the top 10 most populous cities of India.

As a result, it continues to be an important political pivot – and this same designation has also left it with numerous heritage landmarks imbued with historic heft. Over the ages, the city has played host to a number of leaders, warriors, refor-mers, cultural icons, academicians, freedom fighters, intellectuals, spiritualists, artists, sportspersons, business magnates, and modern-day celebrities, too, all of whom have left their indelible mark on this unique urban topography.

Nestled in the leeward side of the biodiversity-rich Sahyadri mountain ranges, amongst the earliest evidence of Pune’s status are archaeological artefacts that point to it being an obvious agricultural settlement. Centuries later, it first came to be of historic note as the location where Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was brought up and instructed – leaving, perhaps, an academic legacy that has continued in the origin and establishment of innumerable educational institutions today, many of which enjoy excellent, wide-ranging repute.

This same inheritance also reflects in the cultural terrain, playing home to luminaries like Mahatma Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Maharishi Karve, Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde, who brought about numerous reforms for women’s rights, universal education and caste abolition. In the course of the Indian Freedom Struggle, a number of unforgettable events also took place here – the assassination of British officer WC Rand by the Chaphekar brothers for violent excesses towards plague containment; the strident voice of Lokmanya Tilak that boomed for Swaraj and made sure that the Sarvajanik Ganeshostav defied laws banning large gatherings; and the internment of Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba at Aga Khan Palace, to count a few.

Pune’s heritage significance also shines forth from irreplaceable architecture. Besides British-era bungalows and the cantonment’s garden city-like layout, the wada (large buildings with open courtyards, typical of Maratha architecture) culture of the ‘Peths’ (old city areas forming a cultural nucleus) is a prominent attraction. These distinctive, wood and stone buildings stand crumbling even today, set amidst modern infrastructure and shopping districts, forming a new battleground between inheriting descendants and age-old tenants.

This tussle between the old and the new is mirrored in the macro-cosm, as rapid urbanisation sparks real estate forays into far suburbs – Pune today is flaring her skirts into earlier uninhabited areas to weave them in, alongside exciting new avenues of entertainment and sustenance. What remains in the wake is a small world that straddles a futuristic outlook, coupled with the tapestry of an undeniably rich past.

ORIENTATION

Pune has plenty of autorickshaws, which are the primary mode of transportation within the city. Most autorickshaws have an electronic metre, however, keep in mind that some drivers may refuse to ply by that fare. It’s not worth trying to get around in local buses. Though the network is extensive, buses can get extremely crowded. Private cabs can be hired for sightseeing. Pune Railway Station is centrally located while the airport is about 8km northeast of the station. The interstate bus station is attached to the railway station.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Shaniwar Wada

A well-manicured garden inside Shaniwar Wada

One of Pune’s top tourist draws, this sprawling fort-palace was the seat of the Maratha Empire in the Peshwai era. Its remnants are thronged by thousands each year, and its façade is an iconic cultural backdrop, forming a foil for well-attended sound and light shows. With a structure built out of teak and stone, its gateways are quite famous, including the towering, spiked Dilli Darwaza (once large enough to admit elephants with howdahs atop), and the Mastani Darwaza, said to have been used by Bajirao I’s second wife, whose beauty has been celebrated in literature, art and film. Large gardens and jharokhas are amongst the attractions, as is the tale of the wada being ‘haunted’ by Peshwa Narayan Rao, whose cries of ‘Kaka, mala vachva! (Uncle, save me!)’ allegedly echo through the corridors at night. 

*Entry Rs 50 Timings 9am– 5.30pm

Vishrambaug Wada 

Tucked away in the Peths, this wada is a slice of history embedded in a citified borough. Its carved balustrades ensconce a mansion that was once home to Peshwa Bajirao II – today, the spot is a landmark for heritage walks, and also houses a few offices, besides a small museum. Restoration work has currently been initiated here, with hopes high to revive some of its crumbled glory.

Nana Wada

Built by Nana Phadnavis, the Peshwas’ chief administrative officer, this building has towering domes, arches, ornate pillars and wall paintings that are now fading, though restoration work has been undertaken here. A beautiful example of wada architecture, the building also has an interesting escape stairwell hidden in a wall.

Kesari Wada and Deccan College

Earlier known as Gaikwad Wada, this building later housed offices of the newspapers Kesari and Mahratta, run by eminent national leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak during the Indian Freedom Struggle. Attractive carvings, an open ground that once hosted massive gatherings, a library with the works of several well-hailed intellectuals, and a museum dedicated to Tilak are the main attractions.

Across the river at the Deccan College, where students gather to study archaeology and linguistics, a small lock greets you at an old door and a marble inscription above tells you that this was Tilak’s room between 1873 and 1875. The New English School started by Agarkar and Tilak continues to this day.

Aga Khan Palace

The historical Aga Khan Palace surrounded by pretty gardens

This palace was built by Aga Khan III, Imam of the Ismaili branch amongst the Shias. The calm, green premises echo a past with a non-violent icon. Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned here as was his wife Kasturba, associate Mahadev Desai and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu. In fact, Kasturba and Desai passed away peacefully at this spot while in captivity. The building houses their samadhis, a memorial for Gandhi, and rooms converted into museums, full of items from their internment. With manicured gardens and attractive Italian architecture imbued with Islamic influences, the building has been denoted a national monument. The palace was exten-sively used as a location for the film Gandhi. 

*Entry Indians Rs 15; Foreigners Rs 200 Timings 9am–5.30pm ASI Tel 020-25535941

Pataleshwar Cave Temple

If ancient history is more your thing, the Pataleshwar Cave Temple should satisfy the craving. Declared a protected monument, its location is inconspicuous, adjacent to the bustling Jangli Maharaj Road. What may transfix you is that this basalt rock-cut structure was reportedly carved in the Rashtrakuta period of the 8th century CE, making it more than 1,300 years old. Passageways, shrines and sanctums are hewed into rock here – worth a visit for an unexpected stumbled into the past.

*Entry Free Timings 9am– 5.30pm

Shinde Chattri

Another look-see into the Peshwa legacy is Shinde Chhatri, a relatively lesser known destination – and a better-maintained one. Associated with Maratha army commander-in-chief Mahadji Shinde, the complex is today taken care of by his royal descendants, Gwalior’s Scindia family. Adorned in rich geometry and yellow sandstone studded with coloured stuccos, the Chhatri also houses a Shiva Mandir built by Shinde just before he passed away. His samadhi, too, rests at this spot. 

*Entry Rs 2 

Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum

The Mastani Mahal exhibit at Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum

What began as a hobby for Dr Dinkar Kelkar transformed into this museum, dedicated to his son Raja – today, it calls out to history aficionados with thousands of collectibles, including an incredible textile wing charting fashion over the centuries, a formidable collection of heritage weaponry, a compendium of unusual musical instruments, and objet d’arts owned by royalty of bygone eras. Another attraction is a recreation of Queen Mastani’s Mahal, containing rich upholstery, chandeliers and a veritable glimpse into her luxurious living room.

*Location Off Bajirao Road, Raja Kelkar Sangrahalay Road, Shukrawar Peth Entry Adults Rs 50; Foreigners Rs 200 Timings 10am–5.30pm Mobile Photography Rs 100 Tel 24482101, 24461556

Dagdusheth Ganpati

The well-lit Dagdusheth Ganpati Temple

For anyone interested in temple tourism, the Dagdusheth Halwai Sarvajanik Ganpati is a must-visit. Located in Budhwar Peth, the temple houses a beautiful Ganpati statue. Devotees from all over the state flock to the temple and offer their prayers to Lord Ganesha.

The temple was built by a rich businessman named Dagdusheth Halwai in 1893. It came into the limelight as the spot where Bal Gangadhar Tilak first thought about organising a public Ganesh festival. Eventually this festival became instrumental in uniting people from different walks of life during the struggle for independence. 

This famous temple still hosts grand celebrations during Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav. This festival is also celebrated on a large scale across Pune and other parts of Maharashtra. 

Deccan Gymkhana

With umpteen cultural centres such as the Balgandharva Drama Theatre and legendary eating joints and restaurants, the Deccan area is a favourite amongst old timers and visitors who wish to experience some of Pune’s original charm. Although a lot of new joints and restaurant chains have opened up in the area, the older and more popular restaurants such as Vaishali, Rupali and Wadeshwar on Fergusson College Road continue to attract loyal patrons.

Palkhi Processions

Come June, Pune gears up to receive a sea of devotees who are part of the Pandharpur Palkhi processions. The warkaris (pilgrims) who follow the Bhakti spiritual tradition of Hinduism take the journey from Alandi to Pandharpur, on foot, to worship Lord Vitthal (also known as Vithoba), the resident deity of Pandharpur. Lord Vithoba, a form of Krishna, stands for humanity, simplicity and equality. Pilgrims associate themselves with different palkhis (groups of warkaris who follow various saints such as Tukaram, Dhyaneshwar, etc.) and carry out this 11-day procession during the Ashadha month of the lunar calendar. 

Clad in saffron, the warkaris can be seen in huge numbers passing through the city over three days. During this transit period, parts of Pune, where the palkhis set up their camps, turn into fairs, with opportunistic vendors trying to take advantage of the deluge of new visitors. Many families and houses in Pune have a tradition of hosting these palkhis during the three days. The city also witnesses major traffic jams and diversions during this time. However, the palkhis are a sight to behold for anyone who is willing to be exposed to a different culture.

FAST FACTS 

When to go Winters, from November to early February, are the best. The monsoon has its own charm. March to June, a dry heat singes the city, so avoid these months.

GETTING THERE

Air

Nearest airport: Lohegaon Airport. Serviced by Jet Airways, Air India and Indigo. 

Rail

Nearest railhead: Pune Junction 

Road From Mumbai, the Mumbai-Pune Expressway makes driving the best option for getting to Pune Bus MSRTCs Asiad and Shivneri bus services have ordinary, AC and Volvo, Mercedes AC seater/ sleeper coaches daily, from 5am to 2.30am. Neeta Tours & Travels, Purple Travels and others run run Volvo, Mercedes coaches daily. 


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