Located at the busy junction of Bajirao Road and RB Kumthekar Road in Pune, Vishrambaug Wada was the very first heritage building I visited in the city many years ago. I have always made a point of revisiting the Wada on each of my return visits to Pune, it’s a bit like seeing an old friend and with every visit there are always changes to be noted. For those with limited time in the city, Vishrambaug Wada is usually included in any Heritage Walk of Pune old city, which usually occur at weekends.
Built at a cost of Rs 200,000 in 1807, Vishrambaug Wada was the luxurious and preferred residence of Peshwa Bajirao II, the last Peshwa of the Maratha confederacy. With three large courtyards occupying a footprint in excess of 20,000 sq feet, his principle architects, Daji Suthar and Mansaram Laxman, certainly created an impressive space in which to live. Peshwa Bajirao II’s other main residence was the immense Shaniwar Wada which is located just 1km to the north of this Wada. I would imagine at Vishrambaug Wada he found a slightly quieter pace of life perhaps, and living quarters that were a little bit more intimate and comfortable.
The building of Wadas reached its zenith in the second half of the 18th century, where they came to be regarded as the typical residential structure of the Marathas. Arranged around a series of courtyards, the Wadas became larger and more lavish, with timber supports, wooden ceilings and brackets with rich and intricate carved designs. With a street front usually presenting nothing more than a stark blank wall (Vishrambaug is actually an exception to that), these Wadas gave little away as to the inner architecture of these beautiful and luxurious mansions.
There is no clear evidence as to how this Wada got its name, one story suggests it was named after Vishram, who was responsible for maintaining the beautiful gardens in and around the mansion and took great pride in his work.
Bajirao II stayed at Vishrambaug Wada with his wife and over 120 servants for eleven years until his defeat in the Third Anglo-Maratha War. After the war the British exiled him with a pension to Bithur near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. His wife, Varanasibai, continued to stay at the Wada for a while before joining him in Bithur.
In 1821, the new East India Company rulers of Pune started a ‘Hindoo College’ in the Wada to continue Sanskrit learning in the city (Sanskrit Pathshala). This college was the precursor to Poona College, which later became known as Deccan College. Vishrambaug High School also operated out of the mansion for a number of years.
In 1871 a huge fire broke out at the Wada which completely destroyed the eastern wing, the fire is said to have been an act of arson. The Wada was purchased by Poona municipality from the colonial Bombay Presidency government for the sum of Rs 100,000 in 1930, who ran several PMC department offices out of the Wada until 2003. Today the Wada houses a post office on the ground floor with a few other smaller offices, and a small Maratha museum on the first floor.
The most notable feature of Vishrambaug Wada has to be some wonderfully elaborate wooden carvings adorning the exterior and interior of this three-story mansion. The best example of this is the east-facing beautifully carved wooden canopy at the entrance to the mansion, still very much intact and facing out onto a world of sheer modern mayhem. The carved Makaras (sea dragons) are simply amazing, and be sure to look up to see some monkey-like gargoyles as well.
These carvings have certainly witnessed a lot of changes in the city over the last 214 years, and how great it is that they still survive. Many ancient buildings of old Pune contained some degree of elaborately carved woodwork, but sadly many of them are now starting to disappear as they are beyond saving. This is unfortunately an aspect of Pune’s heritage that has become all too apparent to me over the last 16 years.
More excellent carvings can be seen in the Darbar Hall, which also functions as a small Maratha museum. The arches and columns are all intricately carved, with pretty vintage lamps hanging above each of the shuttered windows. I’m not sure then these lamps were last used, but how wonderful it would be to stand in one of the courtyards at night with them all lit up, it would be a magical experience.
Vishrambaug Wada has been subjected to a number of rounds of conservation over the years, by 2004 in excess of $35,000 has been spent on restoration work, so one can imagine as of 2021 that figure will be significantly higher. On each visit here over the years I do see evidence of some restoration work having been carried out, but sadly this is also accompanied with clear signs of additional continued neglect. It feels like there’s an endless renovation cycle occurring here, with little in the way of a net improvement. From memory, I would say the best I ever saw this Wada was around 2015.
Entrance to the ground floor of Vishrambaug Wada appears to be free, with a nominal charge for entering the Darbar Hall and museum on the first floor. For sure my next visit to Pune will see me once again acquainted with this old friend. I’m also aware that other Wadas in Pune have been recently renovated, so I plan to document a few more hopefully in early 2022 (Covid permitting).
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