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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Know your city: A chronicler traces more than 300 temples, over 400 deities across Pune telling tales from a forgotten past

Cybersecurity professional Sandeep Godbole documents old temples as a way to understand the faiths, folklore and history of Pune’s changing communities and its people

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: October 31, 2021 10:43:58 am
In Pune, we don't find structures that are 700-800 years old. Pataleshwar, which is a cave, and Nageshwar are among the oldest temples, but most other historical structures are fairly recent, around 350 years.

Did you know that the goddess at the Parvati temple, situated on Parvati Hill, was known to cure diseases? Kashibai, the wife of Peshwa Bajirao I, heard this local lore and offered prayers when she was suffering from an ailment of the leg. After being cured, Nana Saheb, her son who was then the Peshwa, built a temple complex there in 1749. The grand structure stands to this day. After the loss of the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, it was at Parvati that the heartbroken Nana Saheb breathed his last.

At another temple in Ganesh Peth, it is said that after the Panipat battle, the Hanuman idol shook a little in grief— hence its name, Dulya Maruti. “The visible history of Pune is evident in its temples through the stories and anecdotes that surround it. They let us peep through the window into the past. They stand with resilience when many other historical buildings have crumbled,” says Sandeep Godbole.

A cybersecurity professional, Godbole is also a chronicler of Pune. He is now documenting the temples of the city, especially from two old lists that he discovered during his research into Pune’s heritage. “The first list is of deities that were offered dakshina on the occasion of the birth of Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa in 1774,” he says, before stepping back to a time when the young Peshwa Narayan Rao was assassinated and his uncle Raghunath Rao’s (Raghoba) name came under the cloud for his role in this plot. Many commoners and noblemen were opposed to Raghoba succeeding as the Peshwa. To their good fortune, the widow of Narayan Rao, who was pregnant when the latter was assassinated, gave birth to a male heir. Madhav Rao II ( Sawai Madhav Rao), the infant heir, was made Peshwa. “When he was born, it was an occasion of joy and dakshina was given to more than 40 temples in Pune,” adds Godbole.

This list of temples is exceeded by a second one from 1810. When the extravagant Peshwa Baji Rao II was blessed with a son, he offered dakshina to more than 400 deities in the city. They included deities from big and small temples, those located along the road, some installed in ‘devlis’ and a few placed in sculpted hollows or ‘konadas’ in the walls. This list also included 12 dargahs and pirs. “There were 400 deities in the city of Pune whose population was a lakh. The more prominent deities were given dakshina of one gold coin, other deities were offered amounts of 25 paise, 50 paise or a rupee. The amount may seem trivial now but remember that gold cost Rs 14.50 per tola at that time,” says Godbole.

A cybersecurity professional, Sandeep Godbole is also a chronicler of Pune. (Express Photo by Ashish Kale)

He shares other anecdotes in an interview. Excerpts:

What kind of temples do we find in the old city of Pune?

We have to understand the history of Pune. It was not a city that enjoyed extended periods of peace and patronage. Till Baji Rao I came to Pune and started to build Shaniwar Wada in 1730, this region continued to change hands among different rulers. It was with the Yadavas and the early Hindu rulers till 1300 and then with Muslim rulers from the 14th century. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj spent his childhood in 1636 since Pune was Shahaji Raje’s Jagir. Later, Shaista Khan captured the city in 1660. Even as late as 1704, Aurangzeb had camped in Pune. So, in these turbulent times not many structures were built or survived. In Pune, therefore, we don’t find structures that are 700-800 years old. Pataleshwar, which is a cave, and Nageshwar, are among the oldest temples but most other historical structures are fairly recent, around 350 years old. Of the 400-odd deities in the list, 80 per cent of the temples were built between 1720s and 1820s. In Pune, there were temples or shrines dedicated to almost all the deities. We see a large number of Mahadev, Hanumant, Shri Ram/Vishnu/Vitthal, Devi and Ganpati Temples. In addition to the Puranic deities there were local or village deities, like Mhasoba, Mahadoba, Vadoba, Kanhoba and Bahiroba. Given the large number of temples, old Pune can be called the city of temples.

Why were you drawn to studying temples of the city?

I always had an interest in the city where I have spent most of my life and to which I owe a lot. As a young boy, I visited its nooks and corners on my cycle. I was close to my grandfather and elders who had experienced Pune since the early decades of the 20th century. Through their eyes and experiences, I saw a lot of things that had occured much before I was born. As I started reading about the history and heritage of the city, I came across references to many temples from historical times. It is the interplay between Pune city, its heritage, history and the temples that drew my interest to the temples. To give a few examples, the Omkareshwar Temple was commissioned by Chimaji Appa, the valiant younger brother of Baji Rao I. His samadhi is opposite the temple. The deity at Trishund Ganpati Temple is a Ganesh murti with three trunks. One of the wall carvings here depicts British soldiers and a rhinoceros. Rhinos are not native to Maharashtra. So, it is said that this temple probably depicts the British power after the Battle of Plassey. It is such historical narratives inherent to the heritage of the city that drew me towards studying the temples in Pune.

How do the historical temples still influence beliefs and customs of the people?

It is a tradition in Pune that whenever there is a marriage in the family, the first invitation is offered to the gram daivat Kasba Ganpati and Tambdi Jogeshwari, who is the gram devata. After the marriage ceremony, as a tradition, the newlywed couple visit these deities before they enter home. In another case, during the early years of Ganesh Utsav, the question came up as to which Ganpati Mandal would lead the Ganesh visarjan procession. Lokmanya Tilak resolved the issue and stated that since Kasba Ganpati is the gram devata, it should get the privilege of leading the procession. To this day, the traditional deities enjoy a place of respect and prominence among residents. Mondays in Shravan and Mahashivratri draw crowds to old temples like Omkareshwar. The Ram Navami at the Tulshibaug Temple still attracts a large number of devotees. On Ashadhi Ekadashi, the heritage Vitthal Temples in the city still draw crowds. The fair at Chatuhshrungi used to be a big event till a few years ago. So, people are still drawn to the customs and beliefs that have been followed by their forefathers.

Do you find temples represent a kind of history that is rarely studied?

Kasba Ganpati Temple is said to have been commissioned or renovated by Jijabai, the mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. These are pointers to the sociocultural makeup of the historical era, so the study becomes essential. Sadashiv Peth has a temple called Khunya Murlidhar, built by Dada Gadre, a banker close to Nana Phadnis. It has beautiful idols of Radha and Krishna. Khunya Murlidhar Temple was built towards the end of Peshwa rule, when there were Americans, Englishmen and other mercenaries in Pune. On April 12, 1797, when the idols were being consecrated in the temple, two militia, one led by an American named Boyd and the other a contingent of Arabs, came face to face in the small lane outside the temple leading to a violent skirmish. Many among them lost their lives. The name Khunya Murlidhar stuck as a reflection of that unfortunate event. There is another temple not far from Khunya Murlidhar, the Laxmi-Narasimha temple, where Vasudev Balwant Phadke, one of the first people who conducted an armed revolt against the British, resided for a few years. The Belbaug Temple also is a reminder of the influence wielded by Nana Phadnis during his day. The temples atop Parvati had some of the costliest idols made of gold and silver when the complex was established. After the assassination of Rand, it is said that the code message delivered to Lokmanya Tilak was that the Ganpati at the Khind (Ganesh Khind) has bestowed his grace…So many of the old temples have a lot of history and interesting historical anecdotes associated with it. The temples thus represent a confluence of the political and social dimensions of the society of the bygone era.

Apart from reading, how do you research the history of temples?

Nothing beats reading documented evidence in the form of reference books, of course. But there is a lot of information that can be obtained from locals who have been associated with these temples for generations. Many of the pujaris have been rendering hereditary services over generations and they have a lot that they have learned from their families about temple heritage. My experience has been that if people are convinced of your genuine intent, they are more than willing to share information. At Kal Bhairav temple in Kasba Peth, for instance, there are silver plates called Taak in Marathi that have been worshipped for centuries. There was also a tradition of ‘Bagad’ at this temple in earlier times. At the Omkareshwar Temple, many decades ago since it was a deity at the cremation grounds, the ‘bhasma’ from the pyres was used during the puja. All this is not documented, however and has to be discovered from the traditional custodians of the temples.

Have the temples been maintained well over the ages?

Well the answer is both yes and no. There are some that have been maintained well while others are not is a good state. The temples at Parvati, The Sarasbaug Temple, Tulshbaug, Balbaug, Someshwar and some others have been maintained quite well. Temples that have managed to have good upkeep are really worth visiting and attract visitors. However, some temples like Khunya Muralidhar and Amruteshwar need urgent attention and probably even voluntary participation. We also see examples of how people have attempted to strike a balance between their modern lifestyle and the traditional temples. At Sadashiv Peth for instance, there are at least three places where modern buildings are seen from outside, however these modern structures envelope the heritage temples as well. It could be because people value the family tradition or maybe they want the divine grace to continue. So today, it is largely the well maintained temples that remain markers of the city’s distinct history and heritage. If they had not been there, Pune would have been yet another concrete jungle.

Will temples continue to be important as religious scepticism and the scientific temperament increase?

The Indian psyche is inherently faithful and religious. Even a few among the most brilliant scientific minds are deeply spiritual if not religious. Till such time there is a bond between religiosity and spirituality, temples will retain their importance. For many people, both religion and scientific temper can co-exist in a balanced manner. In future, the importance of certain rituals may decrease, religions will be challenged by rational arguments, too. But temples are likely to maintain their own importance. The other reason for temples to retain relevance is that beyond religion, they are associated with community living and collective conscience of the city. Activities at temples are as much a social activity as they are religious activities. Over the last few years, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in history, heritage and temple architecture.

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