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Long before my wife and I had ever met any Marathas, I had reason to wonder what kind of welcome to expect from a Maratha family. This was because of the story told of the welcome the great Maratha warrior Shivaji gave Afzal Khan, the general sent against him by the Sultan of Bijapur.  Shivaji and his brother had for some time needled the sultan with an ambush here, a raid there, in guerilla warfare against Sultan Ali Adil Shah II. Determined to end that kind of nonsense, the sultan sent Afzal Khan with 20,000 troops to teach the upstarts a lesson.

Feigning fear, Shivaji hinted at compromise and invited Afzal Khan to a meeting. Afzal Khan accepted and appeared at the appointed time with a dagger hidden in his coat. But Shivaji had anticipated him; for he had not only hidden a nasty little weapon called a wagh nakh (tiger claw) in his fist but had also slipped on armor under his clothes. When these two gentlemen closed for the embrace, Afzal Khan tried to score the first point by giving Shivaji the point of his dagger, but instead, got the wagh nakh in his stomach. Now something like that can spoil a man’s appetite, and Afzal Khan promptly lost his, so much so that he left without his dinner. As the saying goes, he no longer had the stomach for it. He staggered outside the tent whereupon one of Shivaji’s buddies lopped off his head. The poor fellow never got a chance to say either “Thank you” or “Goodnight” as his mother had no doubt taught him, but then he was under a bit of a strain having been cut short like that!

It all makes you wonder about Maratha hospitality.

As it turned out, we had no reason to fear. Our welcome proved to be everything a pair of guests could desire. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn comments, “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” but the converse is also true—“Human beings can be awful good to one another.” Both our host families in Pune proved this with warmth and affability, and a readiness to show us whatever we wished to see in the city of Pune and the state of Maharashtra.

Commander Manohar Paranjape (ret.) and his wife Kalpana, and Shankar and Shulaba Panday undertook to show us their city. And the two ladies even pulled their punches in the kitchen, toning down the fiery and corrosive nature of Indian cuisine to suit the faults and foibles of the western palate. No wagh nakh here, far from it. These two families in a far-off land, of a vastly different culture, proved once again what my wife Mary Ann and I have elsewhere learned. The sights one sees—the architectural monuments, the scenic grandeurs—are sources of much pleasure, but the traveler’s greatest delight comes from the people met and known, respected and admired.

The first thing we did in Pune was to pay our respects to Pune’s greatest son, Shivaji Maharaj, he of the cutting remarks. We did this because Shivaji was great not only by Indian standards but by any standard you may wish to apply. Alone among the people of his era anywhere in the world, he stood for unqualified religious tolerance, at least as far as I remember. True, he warred against a Muslim sultanate, but he did this not because the sultan was a Muslim and he a Hindu but because the sultan would not permit the Hindus to practice their own religion and live their own lives in peace. In this, he was at least a hundred years ahead of his time.

A major element in his rule over the land now called Maharashtra was the even-handed treatment before the law of all religious sects, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, or any other. In his policies toward other religions he was somewhat in advance even of Akbar and far in advance of the western world.

When Shivaji died in 1680, England, the country that soon would presume to “civilize” the Indians, was still wracked by the Protestant-Catholic conflict, a conflict that during Shivaji’s lifetime saw the Protestant Cromwell behead a king because the king was  Catholic. We must remember that the Pilgrims and Puritans who came to New England sought not religious tolerance, but freedom to practice their own religion. Neither of these two groups recognized the freedom of others to practice another religion. This intolerance caused the tension between the neighboring colonies Plymouth Plantation (Pilgrims) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Puritans). Even now, 420 years after Shivaji’s death, the world has still not fully learned the lesson this man taught.

As Shivaji’s cutting response to Afzal Khan illustrates, Marathas were (and still are) good with knives and other cutting tools. The proof of this is in what’s left of Vishram Bagh Wada, the residence of the Peshwas (the rulers of the Maratha kingdom) until the seat of government moved to Shaniwarwada in 1816. The Vishram gardens have long since disappeared, the area now choked with structures of little merit, and even the palace itself has to a great extent disappeared or fallen into ruin. But what remains—a magnificent entry façade (poorly preserved, but still impressive) and the darbar hall—shows clearly what Marathas could do with their knives. Marathas were and still are capable of achieving exquisite beauty in wood, capable of joining and molding and shaping wood as if it were a plastic material, instead of the recalcitrant stuff it really is. Even today the woodwork of the façade remains solid, un-splintered, unchecked, and despite the daily exposure to the elements and a lack of proper maintenance, the joinery is still tight, almost invisible.

Unfortunately, a colonnade about the interior court that  impressed 19th century British visitors has long since disappeared.

Inside and up one flight of stairs is the Darbar (audience) hall, the only remaining room of a once majestic palace, a room of noble proportions in length and width. The first impression you get as you step in from the stairway is of high drama, for the room is entirely of blackened teak with white lace curtains draped between the columns and rows of glittering crystal chandeliers running front to back. The contrast is startling, highly dramatic, and you can easily imagine the gathering here of the counselors who built the Maratha Empire.

But, although the ceiling is low enough to make you feel a bit cramped, the artistry in wood is again impressive. To the eye the room presents a veritable forest of elaborately carved wood columns. These support the massive beams that keep the superstructure from crashing down on the visitor’s head. You wonder how those sitting in the back managed to keep track of what went on up front, where the Peshwa sat on his imposing gaddi(throne).

The ceiling disappoints, for it is nothing but blackened and polished teak planks with no decoration other than the chandeliers pendant from it. In this, the hall differs from that of the new palace. What remains of  Shaniwarwada sits north of Vishram Bagh Wada about half a mile distant, a palace renowned for its Darbar hall. Called the Ganapati Rang Mahal, this hall was once a huge room capable of holding a hundred guests or more with enough room left for dancers and musicians. It featured, according to contemporary descriptions, a ceiling elaborately carved with intertwined vines and blossoms, the forms highlighted with gilt. Reputedly a masterpiece of the woodcarver’s art, it, and the rest of the interior of the palace, burned in 1827.
Speaking of this ceiling after his visit in 1817, George A.F. Fitzclarence, 1st Earl of Munster, saw in its intricacies the representation of Peshwa Baji Rao II’s intrigues which had, so his lordship believed, “forced” the British to overthrow him and send him into exile. For a long time, even up to and after Partition and Independence, the British made it their business to denigrate the Marathas and the Maratha Empire, and to insist that the British were the legitimate successors of the Mughals. They conveniently forget that at the time the British won ascendency in India, the Mughals were tributaries of the Peshwa and had no real right to grant anyone anything. That is to say, the British wrested supremacy in the subcontinent not from the Mughal Empire but from the Maratha Empire.

One wonders how Indian history would have been rewritten had Peshwa
Baji Rao II been as adept as Shivaji with the wagh nakh when he first faced Mountstuart Elphinstone, the East India Company’s representative in Pune, and the architect of Baji Rao’s fall.

Baji Rao II struggled to break the British stranglehold on him and the Marathas in what the British called the Third Maratha War. To salute this, we visited one of Baji Rao’s descendants, His Excellency Pratap Singh Vishwanath Rao Peshwa. Here, too, we enjoyed a warm reception, and I gained valuable information for a novel I was planning on the events of 1817 at the outbreak of the Third Maratha War (later published under the title When the Fight Was Done).

We wanted to salute another great Maratha in India’s march toward independence, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who studied here in the city sometimes called the Oxford of the East. He imbibed here the heady wine of free thought, and imparted it to others in the struggle against the Raj. If Gandhiji was the great soul of the independence movement, Tilakji was surely its great intellect, a true tilak on India’s forehead.

All in all, as a descendant of forebears who figured in the rebellion of the American colonies against British rule, I found a great deal to admire in the city of Pune and its people and regretted that our visit had to be so short, but we had to hasten on to complete our visit to two of the worlds most renowned sites, Ajanta and Ellora. When we left Pune, we did so while acutely conscious of how much we had missed, how much more we should have seen. Ah well, who’s complaining? No one ever cut us short either, and we still had the stomach for much more of India!

An internationally distinguished scholar and literary critic, Frank Rogers is the author of ten books both fiction and non-fiction and numerous articles.