Hidden away in the heart of Budhwar Peth, Tulshibaug and the impressive Shree Ram Mandir is one of Pune’s great hidden secrets that I always find myself gravitating back to on each and every visit I make to the city. During the last 15 years I have seen many positive changes here in terms of restoration and conservation, and I always look forward to returning and witnessing what improvements have occurred in the intervening 12 months. For a long time now I have been meaning to write at least something about this place, and with COVID-19 preventing me from traveling this year the time has finally come to do this.
The origins of Budhwar Peth date back to 1703, when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb camped here in a jujube (also known as red or Chinese date) garden, then south of the city. During the time of the fourth Peshwa, Madhav Rao I (1761 – 1772), the peth was significantly redeveloped by Govind Shivram Khasgiwale who encouraged the establishment of shops and widened the roads. The peth became an important commercial area and once contained a government mansion, Budhwar Wada, that was burnt down in 1879.
After the battle of Panipat in 1761 a nobleman in the Peshwa court, Naro Appaji Khire (later to be known as Tulshibagwale b.1700 d.1775), started the construction of Tulshibaug to boost the morale of the people of Pune. Work commenced on the one acre site in 1763 and was finally completed 32 years later in 1795 at a reputed cost of Rs.136,667
Tulshibaug appears to be one of the few places in Pune to have survived almost intact over the centuries. Although many would regard Pune as a city that is constantly changing and evolving, it’s heartening to experience somewhere that feels as if time has stood still. Despite how being situated in the very heart of the noisiest and busiest part of the city, here you are completely shielded from all of that, and a sense of calmness will almost certainly overcome you. The only other place in the city that gives me a true sense of this is the Nageshwar Temple in Nagesh Peth. I’m sure there are more places, it’s my quest to seek them out over the forthcoming years.
Aside from a few pots containing the plant, there is nothing left now of the basil (tulsi) plants that must once have been abundant here and gave this place its name. Baug means garden, so I can only conclude that these basil plants were specifically grown here rather than naturally occurring. One of the common offerings to Lord Rama is tulsi, which perhaps gives us a few clues as to why the main temple here is dedicated to Lord Rama.
The east-facing Tulshibaug Ram Mandir was also built by Naro Appaji Khire (Tulshibagwale), under the orders of Balaji Baji Rao (b.1720, d.1761), who was also known as Nana Saheb. During his rule Pune became adorned with numerous temples, ghats, wadas and new peths. Old temples that were falling into decay were also renovated and enlarged.
The original structure is built of teak, with a large congregation hall giving a great sense of open space with carved columns and arches. The craftsmanship and attention to detail with how the hall openings have been created is simply wonderful, and in some instances very reminiscent of “art nouveau”, an ornamental style of art that flourished for a short period between 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe. Only here we are in Asia, and admiring work that was accomplished over 150 years earlier.
The sanctum is made of stone and probably a later alteration, housing deities of Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman. Other deities such as Vishnu and Garuda sit nearby, with Hanuman located opposite in a separate shrine. There are also a number of smaller subsidiary shrines surrounding the Ram Mandir in the Tulshibaug courtyard.
The 22.2m high shikhara, once reputed to be the tallest in Maharashtra, was also a later addition and was completed in 1884 by Nandram Naik at a cost of approx Rs 30,000. It is typical of the Maratha style, with storeys arranged in an elegant pyramid. Many sources claim the shikhara scales to a height of over 40m (140 feet), but this is clearly an inaccuracy that has persisted across numerous sources. The sheer dexterity in the use of lime stucco plaster is impressive, but it is also quite hard to admire fully the images of saints and important persons from the city at ground level.
Over the many years I have visited Tulshibaug I have witnessed a significant amount of conservation and restoration here, and I applaud all these efforts which have made a significant difference both to the space in general and to the integrity of the heritage structures. These initiatives include :
- Repairing traditional 18th century woodwork in the temple loft. Excess timbers were also removed to retain the essential features of the historic woodwork.
- The basalt stone floor that was damaged due to bad repairs with cement was replaced with new stonework in the traditional style.
- Wooden column bases that had been eaten by termites were replaced with stone basalt bases, carved with an identical profile.
- Enamel paint was removed from the entire teak woodwork, revealing a rich texture of the traditional fabric of the building.
- Restoring parts of the temple shikhara using lime mixed with pigments.
- Repairing the tiled roof of the congregation hall with traditional materials.
- Restoring the shikhara of the Ganesh Temple.
- Restoring the lime stucco and stonework of the Hanuman Temple.
- Construction of a new covered wooden stairway to the upper levels by the north entrance.
Since the middle of the 18th century Tulshibaug and the Shree Ram Mandir have become one of the landmarks of Pune. With shrines, halls, music galleries and rest rooms set within a courtyard, it has grown over the years into an important complex now in the heart of the city.
Today the courtyard is also lined with interesting brass and copperware shops, ensuring that it continues to be a thriving center. Very few spaces and buildings of the Peshwa era survive in Pune today, so I’m very much looking forward to returning here once again just as soon as I can.
A short distance away from Tulshibaug is Mahathma Jyotiba Phule Mandai, Pune’s largest vegetable market, which is also well worth exploring.
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