Located 170 kms to the south of Mumbai in India is Pune. Pune as Poona is now known, is known as ‘the Queen of the Deccan’ on account of its old historical associations, its picturesque surroundings, and its importance as a great cultural, social and political centre in the Deccan. And Pune has been for long the capital of Maharashtra and is 2500 metres above the sea level surrounded by hills, valleys and historic forts.
I love the hills and dales, forts, temples and palaces and knowing that Pune is surrounded by them, one fine day I stuffed in my sports bag a change of clothing and drove down there along the good old Mumbai Pune National Highway 4 (NH4)… Gasp! I held my breath! Here was the view of the new Mumbai Pune Expressway. A viaduct which is a long and winding road carved across the ghat expanse by a giant hand! It struck me that this Mumbai Pune Expressway will herald changes in the relationship between Pune and Mumbai. On the Expressway are breathtaking images from vantagepoints, which thrilled me.
First let me brief you on Pune\’s historical landmark. The old city of Poona is situated to the south of the Mutha River and is divided into 18 wards. The wards are also called peths. The eastern peths lying between the streams called Manik and Nagzari Nala. West of the Nagzari Nala is the city proper, the city of the early Mohammedan and Maratha days, with its centre and original starting point at the temple of Punesvar on the banks of the Mutha, about a thousand yards above the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers, converted into the Shaikh Salla mosque after an early Muslim conquest. West of the old city are the comparatively new colonies founded in the later days of Peshwa rule, the Narayan and Sadasiv peths. The peths of even more recent origin are Shivajinagar, Yerandavane and Parvati.
I realized during the drive that Poona is mainly a residential town. I learnt that it has for many years been one of the best known educational centres in India. There are within its confines 31 high schools, four arts and science colleges, and a college each for law, medicine, commerce, engineering, and agriculture, apart from numerous other educational institutions. It was the home of the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, the first women’s university in India, founded and nurtured by Dr. D. K. Karve, before it was shifted to Bombay. It is now the home of another university, the Poona University, which was chartered in 1948 and is located in the ample and beautiful premises of the old Government House at Ganeshkhind.
Roads radiate from Poona to Bombay, Satara, Sholapur, and Ahmednagar. The total length of roads, including lanes, in the present Poona Corporation limits, is 105 miles. Most of them are now asphalted. There are approximately 600 narrow lanes in the city. Most of the streets are lighted by electric lights and large and important squares are lighted with mercury vapour lamps.
Pune is the monsoon capital of the Maharashtra State in India, and is a very important administrative centre. Many heads of departments of the Government of Bombay have their offices and headquarters here. It is also an important centre of communications and is also the terminus of the meter gauge railway system of the Southern Railway as well as one of the most important stations of the Central Railway. Most of the traffic between the eastern and southern part of the Deccan to Bombay passes through Poona.
I read somewhere that Pune is eminently suited as a military centre by virtue of its situation, terrain and climate. And that I could see as I drove on. Pune rests within the lap of the Western Ghat not very far from Bombay, with which city it is connected by a number of fast-moving trains. Being a junction of the Central and Southern Railways, Poona is within easy reach of the whole of South India, which is the jurisdiction of the Southern Command. The airfield at Poona provides the requisite air link with the outer world. A good motorable road between Bombay and Poona affords the added facility of vehicular traffic between these two cities. The telephone and telegraph systems add to these vital links of communication.
I reached Pune in less than 4 hours. I found myself a comfortable hotel and relaxed for few hours. I decided to do some sightseeing in the city and study each place in depth. I started first with the history of Pune. I decided to start with alphabet ‘a’ and pat came up Aga Khan Palace as first in my list. It was Aga Khan Palace then and I started with great enthusiasm. As I was new to the place I took an autorickshaw – a three wheeler. Away from the busy crowded streets of Pune City, and 6 km away from Pune Railway Station on the Nagar Road, is the Aga Khan palace. It is one of the famous historical landmark in Poona. Across the river in Yerwada is this Aga Khan Palace also known as Kasturba Gandhi Memorial or Kasturba Samadhi. This palace was built in 1892 by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III and was donated to India in 1969 by Aga Khan IV. It was here that Kasturba Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi\’s long time aide Mahadeobhai Desai passed away.
During the 1942 Quit India Movement, the Britishers interned Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba Gandhi in the Aga Khan Palace along with other leaders of the Indian National Congress who were imprisoned in here. The Aga Khan palace served as quarters for imprisonment of Gandhi and Kasturba towards the tail end of the British rule in India. I took a tour of the place. The palace is a gracious building with Italianate arches, a gracious building having salons and suites standing amidst well-laid out gardens and spacious lawns and is more than just a palace.
It was the Aga Khan’s Palace until 1956 after which it became a school. The Aga Khan Palace is a combination of Muslim and French architecture. It is built on 19 acres of land. The palace and the surrounding seven-acre land were donated to the Gandhi Smarka Nidhi in 1969 in the Gandhi Centenary year by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.
The Gandhi National Memorial at the Aga Khan Palace, on the outskirts of Pune, encompasses within its mute walls, memories of tryst – the collective will and determination of men and women who brought down the British Empire. In 1942, the failure of the Cripps Mission, instituted by the British to garner India’s co-operation in its war effort, led to widespread discontent. Mahatma Gandhi was also apprehensive of the rapidly advancing Japanese forces, which had easily conquered Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Philippines and Indonesia.
The Congress Working Committee met in Wardh early July and demanded immediate transfer of power from the British. An AICC meeting at Bombay on August 7, 1942 passed the ‘Quit India’ resolution. Gandhi gave his call of ‘Do or Die’ at the Gowalia Tank maidan. The empire struck back with a speed that left the nation stunned. Late night, on August 8, Gandhi and all CWC members were arrested and taken by special train to the Aga Khan Palace.
While being imprisoned at the palace between 1942-44, Mahatma Gandhi lost two of his closest allies – his wife and his private secretary. Within a week of his imprisonment, on August 15, 1942, Gandhi lost one of his dearest friends and pillar of support – his private secretary for 35 years, Mahadeobhai Desai, who died at the palace. A distraught Gandhi willed his friend to open his eyes, “If only he opens his eyes and looks at me once, he won’t go”. Gandhi insisted on either handing the body to friends outside jail or performing the last rites himself. The Government gave in and a sorrowing Gandhi bathed and anointed his secretary’s body. “Mahadeo, I thought you would do this for me. Now I have to do it for you,” Gandhi sobbed. He then consigned the body of his beloved friend to flames. Gandhi suffered a second bereavement when his wife, Kasturba, died on February 22, 1944 on a Mahashivratri day.
I saw the special cenotaph that honours Kasturba who died here. Mahatma Gandhi, with his own hands built the ‘samadhis’ or tombs for his two staunchest allies. The ‘samadhis’ he built for them repose under the ancient tamarind trees in the palace grounds. Let’s take a peek into the grounds of Aga Khan Mahal. The grounds of this site houses the ‘samadhi’ of Kasturba Gandhi, so the Aga Khan Palace is also known as the Kasturba Gandhi Smriti Mandir as it was the final resting-place of Kasturba. Here is also the ‘samadhi’ of Mahadev Desai. The ‘samadhis’ of Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai were erected at the rear side of the palace and their ashes are kept here in the gardens. A marble memorial has been erected of Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadeobhai Desai. After his death, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were also laid next to these ‘samadhis’. It is now marked by a marble ‘tulsi vrindavan’.
I took a stroll round the Aga Khan palace and saw that it is surrounded by a beautiful and well-laid garden. This campus at the Aga Khan Palace is known all over the world as a national memorial of ‘Ba’ and ‘Bapu’. It is also a place of pilgrimage for national and international tourists. Kasturba Smriti Mandir, a spacious hall, is built near the ‘samadhis’, which is used for holding meetings and seminars throughout the year. There is a fruit orchard near the ‘samadhis’, which beautifies the entire site. Fruits and vegetables are grown on the farm adjoining the orchard.
The Gandhi National Memorial society does work for the upliftment of weaker section of society, especially women. The palace houses one of the most comprehensive research and reference libraries on Gandhian philosophy. Today the campus is always busy with meetings, seminars and conferences. The use of the premises is extended for activities promoting the message of National Integration and Social Development of women and children. All the activities on the campus spread the Gandhian message of Truth and Non-Violence making it a Living Memorial.
The palace houses a Picture Gallery Museum. Here is an exhibition in five rooms of the palace, which give glimpses into Gandhi’s life and depicts events during the Freedom Movement. I went round and saw the exhibits. It has photographs, posters and some important personal belongings of Gandhi, Kasturba and Mahadev Desai. I saw the room where Kasturba spent her last days. I also saw the chair on which Mahadeo breathed his last. A photographic exhibition gives highlights of Gandhi’s long career, but it is the simple personal effects and the personal tragedies of the Mahatma during this period that leave the deepest impression.
There is the Mahadev Printing Press as a mark of respect to Late Shri Mahadev Desai. This press was started in 1983. The principle objective is to provide training cum occupation to needy women. Believe it or not, there is a nursery school too named Madhurika, which was established in 1982 in memory of late Mira Ben whose real name is Miss Slaid. She was the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. Today Madhurika is a full-fledged nursery school and is divided into Junior and Senior nursery classes.
There is the Rural Social Worker’s training here as Gandhi had wished that this campus should work for the training and development of women. To bring this into reality a National Institute for Women was established in 1980. The main purpose is to train and prepare a cadre of young women social workers who will be willing to undertake work in community services as rural, constructive and social workers. Until now, about 500 young girls are working in the rural areas of the country spreading the Gandhian thought.
There is also the Khadi Gramodyug Vidyalaya for women, which is recognized and financed by the Khadi & Village Industries Commission. The training is for a period of 10 months. Here 35 women from all over the country are admitted every year. This is the only institution to train women khadi workers. A shop attached sells khadi or cotton handloom garments and textiles.
Not to mention is the Masala Training Unit to train the women in spice making so that they become self-sufficient. And there is also the training for Tailoring, Embroidery and Readymade Garments. Training is conducted here for women. There is also the Training in Fruits and Vegetables processing and preservation. House Helpers Training is given to provide intensive training in house keeping work to needy women. The training helps destitute women seeking shelter and employment. It also helps personality development. Specialized training is provided in childcare, old age and catering services. In here is also the Refugee Guidance Centre – a small cell that has been established at the campus in 1997 for helping the United Nation registered refugees living in Pune. Guidance, Counseling, Rehabilitation and other humanitarian services are offered to refugee families for social integration.
And what more you may ask. There is the Energy Park where the use of solar energy is demonstrated by installing solar cookers, heaters, streetlights, and fountains. This park was established with the help of Ministry of Renewable Energy, New Delhi. There are also the local, national and international level seminars and workshops on various issues relating to women. I was really amazed on seeing them all and wondered how the palace has been put to advantages.
Getting here is easy with every rickshaw driver willing to drop you here and that’s how I got here, in this three wheeler. The palace is open daily from 09.00 to 18.00 hours and lunch break is from 12.30 to 13.30 hours. Entry fee is Rs.5 for adults and Rs.2 for children and the palace is closed on Sundays. One can spend the entire day here going through this interesting palace and getting to know what was. I am sure you would see history before you!