Why can you hear the screams of a young boy in Shaniwar Wada?

·3 min read

The Shaniwar Wada is perhaps the most iconic building in Pune. For a greater part of the Peshwai – or the rule of the Peshwas – the Shaniwar Wada served as the seat of power of the Maratha Empire. Even though the Peshwas were prime ministers to the empire, whose kings were from the Bhosle dynasty, they became the de facto rulers of the empire over the years as the influence of Shivaji’s descendants reduced considerably with each passing generation.

However, by the time Peshwa Narayan Rao ascended the throne of in Pune, the Peshwai itself had been considerably weakened. The Third Battle of Panipat between the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Durrani was the beginning of the end. It was also the battle that cost Balaji Bajirao, the ruling Peshwa at the time, his firstborn son: Vishwasrao.

Shaniwar Wada
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Under Creative Commons License

The grief of losing his eldest in battle was too much to bear for the Peshwa who passed away himself shortly thereafter. His second son, Madhavrao succeeded Balaji Bajirao. Though a brilliant war tactician and ruler, Madhavrao’s rule was short-lived due to his premature death by tuberculosis and marred by constant battles with his uncle, Raghunathrao.

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Despite Raghunathrao’s constant attempts to overthrow his nephew, which would’ve attracted the death penalty in most kingdoms, his punishment was never more severe than house arrest. When Madhavrao died, Raghunathrao was under arrest inside the palatial Shaniwar Wada.

Indien, Pune, Shaniwar Wada Palace
Indien, Pune, Shaniwar Wada Palace

Young Narayanrao succeeded his brother and ascended to the throne and was subject to the same relentless opposition of his crafty and ambitious uncle. By some accounts Raghunathrao’s ambitions were also fanned by his wife, Anandibai, the Lady Macbeth of the Maratha Empire if you may.

Chimney - Ruins of Shaniwarwada Fort is a landmark site in Pune, Maharashtra, India
Chimney - Ruins of Shaniwarwada Fort is a landmark site in Pune, Maharashtra, India

The thing you need to know about Raghunathrao is that he always managed to find his way back into the good books of his nephews. After Madhavrao’s untimely death, he managed to get out of house arrest and continued to serve as regent to Narayanrao who was just 17 when he became Peswha. His past misdeeds notwithstanding, Raghunathrao continued to plot against his master and the machinations came to a head on the night of August 30, 1773.

According to the legend, Raghunathrao’s trusted soldiers attacked Narayanrao in the middle of the night. The defenceless young Peshwa ran through the corridors of the palace that was his home, begging his uncle to protect him. All his cries for mercy were met with deaf ears as he was hacked to death right before Raghunathrao’s eyes. Some believe Raghunathrao had merely ordered that his nephew be arrested but his wife Anandibai altered the message by changing a single letter that turned it into a kill order.

Bajirao Peshwa statue at Shaniwar Wada, Pune, India.
Bajirao Peshwa statue at Shaniwar Wada, Pune, India.

Raghunathrao’s dream of becoming a Peshwa remained unfulfilled, for most part, due to the brilliance and the loyalty of the empire’s courtiers. In two more generations the empire itself would crumble and fall to the British, under the watch of Bajirao II, son of Raghunathrao, the man who tried his entire life to be king.

However even two-and-a-half centuries later, on dark moonless nights, the cries of a young boy running across the corridors begging his uncle for help haunt the Shaniwar Wada.

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