Sawai Madhavrao was the youngest member to receive the peshwa paraphernalia, aged just over a month. The tutelage of the management of Maratha’s affairs fell on the consortium of ministers headed by the Minister of Finance, Nana Phadnis. In the context of the murder of Narayanrao (father of Sawai Madhavrao) and the imminent danger to his safety from enemies of the state and near his home, Nana Phadnis has personally dedicated herself to the education of the young Peshwa.
In order to entertain the young child and divert his attention from personal tragedy, Nana Phadnis introduced him to the company of animals from an early age. This collection of animals was one of a kind in the Deccan and a regular department was open in Poona for its maintenance. Nana Phadnis once ordered an exotic ostrich for Madhavrao’s collection, but died along the way. Unfamiliar with the nature of the invisible bird, Nana Phadnis instead asks for a drawing of a dead bird, in order to satisfy her curiosity!
In Sai Madhavrao’s time, the Shikarkhana (land near Sarasbaug) spanned almost 45 acres and occupied land until the present day, Dattawadi. It was not a zoo of captive animals in cages, but rather an animal sanctuary where he was free to roam, limited only by ropes and log chains.
The 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, rhinos, various birds such as peacocks, partridges, mynas, parrots, moorhens, ducks, pigeons and cranes were part of the royal collection. Exotic animals such as the lynx, the bacterial double-humped camel, and alpine birds can be found in this eclectic menagerie; it contained the finest specimens of crude creatures that existed.
Mahadaji Shinde gave Sawai Madhavrao rhinos from northern India. The rhino wandered over an open area called “Gendemal”.
Major Price who visited Pune in 1791 recalls his experience of visiting the Peshwa Menagerie in these terms:
“Beside the lion, and just as accessible to the fresh air, was also attached in the same way, the most beautiful and the most perfect model of rhino that I have ever seen, either before or since. For, unlike the shapeless monster that we usually see exhibited, with its body enveloped in loose, flabby folds of hardened skin, this prodigious animal was filled in its greatest proportions; and with its enormous armor-like exterior stretched almost to shattering, it was as round as a barrel; and at the same time lively, I was going to say, like any suckling pig. In fact, when the keeper, with a light wave of his wand, made him rear up a little on his hind legs, while vigilance surprised me, I could not help comparing him to a wine pipe, a little placed on one end.
“Either way, the animal’s heavy agility was amazing. His small but prominent eye appeared sparkling and animated; and the horny mass on its muzzle, although it does not yet appear to have attained full growth, by its backsliding and hook shape, has provided sufficient evidence, that when applied by a moose of such a force, its effect must be enormous; and makes less surprising the accounts we receive of his power to subdue the elephant’s otherwise surpassing strength.
About 7-8 acres were specially set aside for various species of deer and blackbucks near Lotan Baug. Antelopes had a musical ear and were trained to dance and swing for the purpose of entertainment. Sir Charles Malet remembers an event in 1792 when Sawai Madhavrao invited him to attend a special show in a deer park. All the dignitaries were conveniently seated on carpets in tents pitched with the Peshwa youth.
He quotes “Four black goat antelopes, of noble vein and elegant form, made their appearance at some distance, moving gracefully in front of a group of cavalry, which forming a semicircle, followed gently in their footsteps, each rider holding a long pole. , with a red sheet at the end. Approaching the tent, a band of music blared aloud, and three of the antelopes entered in a majestic manner. Two swings, commonly used by Indians, being suspended for this purpose, an antelope climbed on each swing and lay down at the most graceful altitude; the third lay down on the mat in a similar posture.
Malet was amazed to see the blackbucks dancing to musical tunes with the dancers and performing the most graceful dance! Sawai Madhavrao later informed Malet that training Blackbuck to come to this level 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 Chitari apprentice, Gangaram Tambat, to make clay models and paintings of various animals.
The base of Parvati Hill housed the tigers in an enclosed courtyard. Two tigers were specially sent by Lord Malet of the Calcutta presidency as a gift. A tiger named Shambhu was bright yellow in color and most preferred.
His love for animals is evident in the fact that he refused to lend Mahadji Shinde a blackbuck for fear that he would be killed. After being assured of its safety and use to breed more blackbucks, Sawai Madhavrao gifted Mahadji Shinde a blackbuck male.
Sawai Madhavrao especially loved a cheeky macaque called “Kabu” who was known for his nastiness and entertained the people of Shaniwarwada with his silly monkey game!
Sawai Madhavrao loved his animals so much that he took a small part of his Shikarkhana with him during the Kharda campaign. His love for animals was so well known that the bards imagined various animals and birds weeping insolently upon hearing the unfortunate death of Sawai Madhavrao, in the Marathi Powadas (heroic poetry praising).
Caring for these animals was a complicated business. There is a curious mention of speaking mynas and song parrots trained to speak the Bengali language! They were fed a luxurious diet of musk mixed with spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and saffron.
Bajirao II (son of Raghunathrao Peshwa), too, maintained a Shikarkhana near his Kothrud residence. It consisted mainly of various birds such as mynas, pigeons, parrots, ducks and trained birds of prey such as peregrine falcons. These were caged and used primarily for entertainment.
With the end of the Maratha Empire in 1818, hunting and gambling by the royal family continued, but the menageries were seriously neglected. It was in 1953 that the growing city of Pune saw the need for zoos, which led the municipal corporation to establish a ‘Peshwe Park’ home to wild animals and birds in roughly the century. same place as Sawai Madhavrao’s Shikarkhana. Today, as most of the animals are moved to a bigger and better Katraj Garden, the memories of the Sawai Madhavrao menagerie who love young animals barely survive in the discolored existence of Peshwe Park!
Saili Palande-Datar is an indologist, environmentalist, history researcher and farmer. She can be reached @ [email protected]