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On the night of every new moon (Amavasya) Peshwa Bajirao I ‘s fort in Pune, Shaniwarwada, becomes a place of horror. Local people often hear shrieks of a teenage boy screaming “KAKA MALA VACHWA” (uncle save me) The boy runs down the hallway howling in terror.

This is the story of Fort Shaniwarwada.

Peshwa Baji Rao I, prime minister to Chattrapati Shahu, king of the Maratha Empire, chose the site for his residence. As per a book written by Rao Bahadur and D.B.Parasnis, “while on a hunting expedition, the Peshwa saw, to his great astonishment, a rabbit chase a hound and felt that there was something very special about the land. He at once resolved to secure the site and build there a house for himself and his family. At that time, this piece of land was included in the ‘ Kasba ‘ or village of Poona which was enclosed by a mud wall. It contained only a few huts of fishermen and weavers, from whom Bajirao acquired five acres of land by exchanging with them suitable sites in Mangalwar Peith and commenced the building rapidly.”

He laid the ceremonial foundation of his residence on Saturday, January 10, 1730. It was named Shaniwarwada from the Marathi words shaniwar (Saturday) and wada(residence). Within an interval of two years, a two storeyed Palace with three quadrangles sprung up to be the focus and centre of all the life and movement of the Maratha power.

Shaniwarwada was built for a princely sum of INR. 16,110. Teak for the fort was imported from the jungles of Junnar, stone was brought from the nearby quarries of Chinchwad, and Lime was brought from the lime-belts of Jejuri. (Wikipedia)

It is said that the Shaniwarwada complex was seven stories high. On the top floor was the Meghadambari. It is said that the spire of Jñāneśvar temple at Alani, 17 km away, could be seen from there. (Wikipedia)

The main entrance to the Palace is known as Delhi Gate as it faces Delhi in the north. “It may be worthy of note here that the design of the entrance gate is exactly a copy of that of Indraprastha, the ancient Hindu capital of the Pandawas, in old Delhi. The Peshwas, being devoted Hindus, selected the design of the gate of Indraprastha, or Purana Killa, instead of imitating the magnificent gates of the Mogul capital.” (Rao Bahadur and D.B. Parasnis)

Peshwa Bajirao I had two sons with his first wife Kashibai, Nana Saheb and Raghunathrao or Raghoba. After the death of Peshwa Bajirao I, Nana Saheb took over as Peshwa and after the death of Peshwa Nana Saheb , Nana Saheb’s  sixteen-year-old son, Narayanrao, became Peshwa. Due to his young age his uncle Raghunathrao or Raghoba was appointed the regent and made in-charge of the affairs of the state on behalf of the young nephew.

However differences soon arose between uncle and nephew and Narayanrao confined uncle Raghunathrao to his house on charges of plotting to overthrow him. Raghunathrao’s wife Anandibai sought the help of the Gardi tribe to secure the release of her husband from house arrest.

Narayanrao had a bitter relationship with Gardis, the hunting tribe. Anandibai used this and sent a signed letter from Raghunathrao to the chief of Gardi. In the original letter Raghunathrao asked Gardi chief, Sumer Singh Gardi to capture Narayanrao (‘Dhara’ in Marathi that means to get hold) but his wife Anandibai intercepted the message and changed ‘Dhara’ into ‘Maara’ meaning kill. By a tiny stroke of the pen was the mighty Peshwa felled.

During the celebrations of the Ganesh Festival, on 30 August 1773, the last day of Ganesh Festival i.e. Anant Chaturdashi, several Gardi guards, led by their captain, Sumer Singh Gardi, entered the palace. They charged towards the sleeping Peshwa’s chambers, killing a clerk on the way. Narayanrao ran for his life screaming for help. The Gardis followed Narayanrao to his uncle’s chamber, where Sumer Singh Gardi hacked the Peshwa down, cutting up his body into tiny pieces and stuffing it in a pot. His corpse was cremated secretly.

The ghost of the young Peshwa still resides in the beautiful fort writhing in agony. Every new moon night he cries, “Kaka! Mala Wachva!!” or “Uncle save me.”

In it’s hey days Shaniwarwada used to be the center of Indian politics. After the death of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, kingmaker Marathas’ strategized, and planned to keep Delhi in control from here. In 1818, after the Anglo-Maratha War, it fell to the British.

The fort itself was largely destroyed in 1828 by an unexplained fire. The British were accused of letting the fire rage. The premises were used as a Mamledar Kacheriand later as a mental asylum and a prison.
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 Ritu Marwah has pursued theater, writing, marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu has a master’s degree in business and worked in London for the Tata group for ten years. Ritu is social media editor at India Currents.
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