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Sutradhara’s Tales: When young Peshwa enjoyed the company of fearsome animals : Shivpurinews.in

Sawai Madhavrao was the youngest member to be conferred Peshwa paraphernalia, at the age barely above a month. The trusteeship of running the Maratha affairs fell on the consortium of ministers led by finance minister, Nana Phadnis. Against the backdrop of Narayanrao’s (father of Sawai Madhavrao) murder and looming danger to his safety from enemies of the state and near home, Nana Phadnis was personally devoted to upbringing of the young Peshwa.

In order to entertain the young child and divert his attention from personal tragedy, Nana Phadnis introduced him to company of animals at a tender age. This collection of animals was unique of its kind in the Deccan and there was a regular department opened in Poona for its upkeep. Nana Phadnis once ordered an exotic ostrich for Madhavrao’s collection, but it died along the way. Unfamiliar with the nature of unseen bird, Nana Phadnis asks for a drawing of dead bird instead, in order to satisfy his curiosity!

In Sai Madhavrao’s times, the Shikarkhana (plot near Sarasbaug) extended to almost 45 acres and occupied land up to present day, Dattawadi. It was not a zoo of captive animals in cages, but more like a sanctuary of animals where it were free to roam, restricted only by ropes and log chains.

Peshwa chronicles provide a list of various animals and birds that were part of Sawai Madhavrao’s Shikarkhana — 700-750 rabbits, 200-250 deer, blackbucks, 11 cheetahs, 20 Royal Bengal tigers, lions, rhinoceros, various birds such as peacocks, partridges, mynas, parrots, water hens, ducks, pigeons and cranes were part of the royal collection. Exotic animals such as lynx, double humped Bacterian camel and alpine birds could be found in this eclectic menagerie; it contained finest specimens of brute creatures that existed.

Mahadaji Shinde gifted Sawai Madhavrao with rhinoceros procured from north India. Rhinoceros roamed on an open ground named ”Gendemal”.

Major Price who visited Pune in 1791 recollects his experience of visiting the Peshwa menagerie in following words:

“Next to the lion, and equally as accessible to the fresh air, was, also fastened in the same manner, the finest and most perfect model of a rhinoceros, that I have ever seen, either before or since. For, unlike the shapeless monster that we usually see exhibited, with his body enveloped in loose and flaccid folds of indurated hide, this stupendous animal was filled out to its utmost proportions; and its huge armour-like exterior being stretched almost to bursting, it was as round as a hogshead; and at the same time as lively, I was going to say, as any sucking pig. Indeed, when the keeper, by a slight touch with his wand made him rear up a little on his hind legs, while the alertness surprised me, I could not but compare him to a wine pipe, set a little on one end.

“At all events, the ponderous agility of the animal was astonishing. Its small, but prominent eye, appeared sparkling, and full of animation; and the horny mass upon its snout, though it did not yet seem to have attained to its full growth, by its backward turn and hook-like shape, furnished sufficient proof, that when applied by a momentum of such force, its effect must be tremendous; and renders less surprising the accounts we receive of its power to subdue the otherwise surpassing strength of the elephant.”

Around 7-8 acres was especially reserved for various deer species and blackbucks near Lotan baug. The antelopes had an ear for music and were trained to dance and swing for purpose of entertainment. Sir Charles Malet recalls event from 1792 where Sawai Madhavrao invited him to witness a special spectacle in deer park. All the dignitaries were conveniently seated on carpets in pitched tents along with young Peshwa.

He quotes “Four black buck antelopes, of noble vein and elegant form, made their appearance at some distance, moving gracefully before a party of cavalry, who forming a semi-circle, gently followed their pace, each horseman holding a long pole, with a red cloth at the end. On approaching the tent, a band of music struck up in loud notes, and three of the antelopes entered in a stately manner. Two swings, commonly used by the Indians, being suspended for the purpose, an antelope ascended on each swing, and couched in the most graceful altitude; the third reclined on the carpet in a similar posture.”

Malet was astonished to witness the blackbucks danced to musical tunes along with the female dancers and perform the most graceful dance! Sawai Madhavrao, later, informed Malet that training blackbuck to come to this degree of familiarity took seven months without holding them hostage in any way!

Sir James Wales was so inspired by the Peshwa menagerie that he ordered his accomplished trainee chitari, Gangaram Tambat to make clay models and paintings of various animals.

The base of Parvati hill housed the tigers in an enclosed yard. Two tigers were especially sent by Lord Malet from Calcutta presidency as a gift. One tiger named Shambhu was stark yellow in colour and most favourite.

His love for animals is evident from the fact that he refused to lend a blackbuck to Mahadji Shinde for fear of it getting killed. On being assured of its safety and use for breeding more blackbucks, Sawai Madhavrao gifted Mahadji Shinde with a blackbuck male.

Sawai Madhavrao was particularly fond of a cheeky macaque called “Kabu” which was notorious for its naughtiness and entertained the inhabitants of Shaniwarwada with its silly monkey play!

Sawai Madhavrao was so fond of his animals that he carried a small part of his Shikarkhana during the campaign of Kharda. His love for animals was so well known that bards have imagined various animals and birds crying insolently on hearing the unfortunate death of Sawai Madhavrao, in the Marathi Powadas (heroic eulogised poetry).

Upkeep of these animals was an elaborate affair. One finds curious mention of talking mynas and singing parrots trained in speaking Bengali language! They were fed with a luxuriously curated diet of musk mixed with spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, clove and saffron.

Bajirao II (son of Raghunathrao Peshwa), too, maintained a Shikarkhana near his Kothrud residence. It mainly consisted of diverse birds such as mynas, pigeons, parrots, ducks, and trained bird of prey such as Peregrine falcons. These were caged and used mainly for entertainment.

As the Maratha Empire came to an end in 1818, the hunting and gaming by royals continued but the menageries suffered heavy neglect. It was in 1953, the growing Pune city felt a need of zoo parks which led municipal corporation to establish “Peshwe Park” housing the wild animals and birds, at roughly the same location of Sawai Madhavrao’s Shikarkhana. Today, as most of the animals are shifted to bigger, better Katraj garden, the memories of young animal loving Sawai Madhavrao’s menagerie barely survive in fading existence of Peshwe Park!

Saili Palande-Datar is an indologist, environmentalist, history researcher and farmer. She can be reached @ sailikdatar@gmail.com

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