“The present handsome Chhatri, a conical edifice of immense proportions, which attracts the attention of every visitor to Wanavdi, is the noble work of the high-minded Maratha prince of Gwalior whose reverence and regard for the memory of his ancestor are exemplary,” wrote D B Parasnis in his book Poona in Bygone Days.
Located on the left bank of the Bahiroba stream in Pune’s suburb of Wanowrie, the Shinde Chhatri was built in remembrance of Mahadji Shinde, the 18th-century Maratha military leader and statesman responsible for the “resurrection” of the Maratha’s power across India.
The Great Maratha Mahadji Shinde
“The name of Mahadji Sindia is famous in Maratha history. His father Ranoji, originally a Patil or headman of Kanherkhed, a village in the Satara district, rose to distinction in the Peshwa’s army… Mahadji, the younger son of Ranoji, was present in the disastrous battle of Panipat and narrowly escaped death. His character and his achievements are so remarkable and wonderful that he is considered to be the greatest Maratha statesman and warrior next to Shivaji, who attained a greater, if not more consolidated, power than any Indian prince since the death of Aurangzeb,” writes Parasnis.
Mahadji Shinde, later known as Mahadji Scindia, was born in AD 1727. Some historians debate over the correct year of birth. “…Mahadji was thirty at the time of the Battle of Panipat and was sixty when he returned to Pune from the campaigns in the North,” writes author N G Rathod in his book The Great Maratha Mahadaji Scindia (1994).
The sole objective of Madhavrao Peshwa was to establish the supremacy of the Marathas not only in the south but in the north and Scindia established his supremacy in the north after accompanying Shah Alam II to restore the Mughals in Delhi in 1771, after which he was awarded the title of Vakil-i-Mutalik, or chief minister, and his conquest over the Jats of Mathura.
“He is known as the great Maratha in Maratha history and for about two decades, he demonstrated his leadership in northern India. In India, till today, there has been no noble statesman than Mahadji Scindia. He was a military commander with the Marathas. At the same time he was given the title of Vakil-i-Mutlaq…he held both important chairs at the same time. That was his stature. Even the British were wary of him,” said historian Mohan Shete.
Scindia defeated the British in the First Anglo-Maratha War, the Battle of Wadgaon Maval in 1779 and introduced the European style of the military in India. “At a time when the British were well equipped with the then latest defence technology, Scindia was instrumental in bringing about change in the troops of India. He had inducted a Frenchman who could instill the method of order, command and discipline, which made him one the greatest military commanders,” said Shete.
Shete added that Mahadji Scindia was also known for his literary works In the forms of bhajans and the development of Ujjain and Gwalior was also under his administerial expertise.
The Shinde Chhatri
“…The Scindias belong to the Maratha jati, another Kshatriya sub-caste. However, from the late fifteenth century to the present, Kshatriya funerary art in north India has been informed by very similar social and political concerns…the Scindias, like other Maratha dynasties, modelled the practice of memorializing their ancestors with chatris and other funerary traditions after those popularized by the Rajputs,” writes Melia Belli Bose in her work Royal Umbrellas of Stone: Memory, Politics, and Public Identity in Rajput Funerary Art.
Mahadji Shinde was a Shiva devotee and decided to build a temple in 1794, in the current location of the Shinde Chhatri. “ The Peshwas gave the sardars who arrived from the north designated areas in old Poona for their stay. The sardars generally were accompanied by an army of ten to twenty thousand men, and for Mahadji Shinde it was the Wanowrie hamlet,” said Shete.
However, Mahadji Scindia did not live to see the structure and died in 1794. After his last rites, to mark the site of the funeral pyre, which is considered very sacred by Hindus, a Chhatri (tomb) was completed by Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior in 1965.
“This little hamlet came into existence after the death of Mahadji Sindia. His adopted son and heir, Dowlatrao Sindia, requested the Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao to grant him a piece of ground for the tomb of his father near the place and orders were accordingly issued on the 6th of September 1795; but it appears that Dowlatrao Sindia only commenced the building and left it unfinished…About in 1830 Maharaja Jankoji Sindia, the great-grandson of Mahadji, resumed the work of the monument, but he too died in 1842 leaving it unfinished,” writes Parasnis.
According to Shete, Chhatri is a vernacular term commonly used in north India for the samadhi (cenotaph) or smarak of a prominent individual. The exterior of the structure was completed in yellow sandstone in Anglo-Rajasthani style. The structure has a rectangular mandapa (pillared hall), almost the same height as that of the shikara (spire) of the temple. The interior has green and orange stuccos based on an ethereal Rajasthani style, while the floor has black and white stones arranged in a geometric style.
“The main building in the centre of a courtyard is open from all sides. The style of architecture is rather interesting. It consists of tiers of miniature Chhatris surrounding the principal one. The entrance to the courtyard is by way a gatehouse of novel construction, consisting of pavilions supported on the figureheads of elephants gaily painted. In the interior of the main temple, there is a dim-lighted cell, and in a recess is the sacred statue of Maharaja Mahadji Scindia, in whose honour this monument has been erected,” writes Parasnis.
The premises are bordered by a 15-feet wall and one can enter through the dindi darwaza (iron gate). Today, the Chhatri is a Grade I heritage site and is looked after by the descendants of Scindia, under the Scindia Devasthan Charitable Trust of Gwalior.