Sutradhara’s Tales: A basil garden gives root to Pune’s first shopping plaza
The growing metropolis of Pune has engulfed most historical spaces, but the lively character of some places has survived, thrived and readapted to new demands and changing times in seamless manner.
Tulshibaug in Budhwar peth is a perfect case in point. Tulshibaug doesn’t merely represent a garden or a roadside bazaar. It has, over centuries, evolved into an interesting mix of sacred precinct, cultural platform, shopping complexes and trade activities.
It would be hard to believe that 250 years ago this space lay on the borders of the settlement of Pune and was known as kale vivar (black hole!).
The area from present day Laxmi road towards the south was occupied by Kotwal chavadi, Chakle baug, Khajagiwale baug, Haripant Phadke’s baug and Ramshwar temple. Naro Appaji Khire (1700CE), who hailed from Padali village in Satara region worked as a small-time clerk under sardar Khajagiwale who handled the Peshwa families’ Pune affairs.
His bright intellect was noticed by Nanasaheb Peshwa and he was quickly promoted to the post of Sar Subhedar in 1750s. Naro Appaji’s administration of Pune was appreciated by the next Peshwa, Madhavrao I, who was known to be strict, disciplined and an able administrator. Madhavrao was especially impressed by the fine diplomacy exhibited by Naro Appaji during the Nizam’s attack on Pune, as a result of which further damage was averted.
Naro Appaji served four Peshwas, upto Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa. With the aim to raise a fine temple, Naro Appaji bought a corner of Khajagiwale’s garden measuring about an acre and started construction in the 1760s.
The garden primarily consisted of basil plant beds which became its identity and was known as “Tulshi - baug”- basil garden. The association was so inseparable that Sarsubhedar Naro Appaji “Khire” came to be known as “Naro Appaji “Tulshibagwale” and the family surname continues to present times.
The entire temple complex was well planned and reflected evolved choices of Maratha art and architectural design. The principal idols of Ram, Laxman and Sita in Rajasthan marble were sculpted by Uamajibuwa Pandharpurkar in 1765 and are probably the best in Pune.
As per oral history quoted by Nanasaheb Tulshibaugwale, another set of idols of Ram and Sita were presented to Naro Appaji by an ascetic during his pilgrimage to Trambakeshwar and the original idols were replaced by these. Later, to complete the triad, famous Rajasthani sculptor Bakhatram was asked to make the Laxman idol. The present idols at the Ram temple in Tulshibaug are carved with weapons and old style costumes.
The campus hosts temples of Trambakeshwar Mahadev, Siddhi Ganesha, Vitthal-Rukmini (also known as Anand Swami math due the presence of his samadhi) and shrines of Sheshshayin Vishnu, Das Maruti. The Trambakeshwar Mahadev temple consists of a shivlinga and baan (hygroscopic stone which captures and releases moisture from the air). Keeping with the Puneri tradition of eccentric names, the shrine behind the main temple housing Maruti is sarcastically known as “Kharkatya maruti” (leftover food), after the scraps left over by visiting pilgrims. The temple complex also houses smaller shrines of goddess Shitaladevi, Savatsa-Dhenu and minor deities.
The shikhara of Tulshibaug is the tallest in Pune city measuring 140 feet in height.
It has a square base topped by a narrow and sharp cone with horizontal layers of vaulted roof miniature shikaras or “maratha kutas”, giving an impression of a multi-storeyed divine abode.
The construction is in brick and lime stucco and is white-washed with lime.
The niches in miniature shikharas consist of sculptures of various deities and human figures dressed in pagdis (medieval headgear). The four corners of the square base of the shikhara are adorned with almost life-like monkeys.
The temple has a magnificent wooden sabha-mandapa in front, with decorated ceiling and sloping aisles on both sides built in 1884 by Nandram Naik.
The Ram temple at Tulshibaug acted as a social gathering platform and would host numerous devotional functions.
The main festival of the temple is “Ram-navami” (birth of lord Ram).
The main temple complex has entrances from three sides, one opening south towards Mahatma Phule Mandai, one on the east which is closed at present and one in the north, from the bustling lanes of Tulshibaug shopping area.
The entrance from the north is the main entrance called “Sangit Darwaja” and consists of a nagarkhana (drum house).
Madhavrao I started the tradition of “Naubati Chaughada”, drum beating, to mark festivals, auspicious occasions and the Maratha conquests. The construction of the temple complex continued in phases till 1795 and the total cost came to ₹1,36,667.
In the olden days, area was occupied by sadhus, gosavis, ascetics, mendicants, ganpatyas, fakirs and so on. They would burn their dhunis (sacred fires), cover the body with ashes, perform penance, hang on trees and some even exploited naïve worshippers.
Artisans from far places would display their art in form of terrcotta and utensils in the bazaar. The crowds of men and women would fill the campus of temple during the chhabina procession. Movement would difficult and the crowd had to be managed. Ladies would find it difficult to participate in the festivals due to lack of space.
Bohri Ali was area was only market available for household items which orthodox Brahmins of the Peshwa period viewed as unsafe for women.
Naro Appaji and his descendants encouraged development of Tulshibaug as a safe shopping experience by controlling the male crowds and promoting the retail market in the vicinity of the Ram temple.
The “Tulshibaug sansthan” established by Naro Appaji managed the temple and annual festivals.
Today, the temple is flocked to by women. It also serves a leisure spot to escape the hectic buying experience in the bylanes and offers great refreshment and peace.
Over time, the maintenance and upkeep of the properties around temple became an overwhelming task and were leased out as residences and commercial spaces.
Over the years, Tulshibaug evolved as a safe an affordable shopping space for women.
It became well known for every small, minor household and fashion item.
In fact, one of the early wig stores was opened in the precincts of Ram temple!
It has been granted Grade A Heritage status in Pune’s heritage list and has been recently restored by conservation architect Kiran Kalamdani to its original glory.
The Ram Temple complex retains its peaceful existence carrying on the legacy of Naro Appaji’s Tulshibaug in this dense commercial space in Pune’s heartland.
Saili Palande-Datar is an indologist, environmentalist, history researcher and farmer. She can be reached @ email@example.com