The traditional Maharashtrian wada or mansion is vestige of a lifestyle long gone and these structures are very hard to come by today. Rarer still are ‘Rajwadas’ or ‘royal palaces’ that once towered over the political landscape in the state.
While the vagaries of time have obliterated the Rajwada at Raigad, headquarters of Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji, as well as Shaniwarwada of the Peshwas in Pune, there is a traditional palace in pristine condition in the middle of rural Maharashtra.
What’s more, it is one of the finest examples of a Maratha Rajwada and it stands proud in the small town of Phaltan. Adding to its allure is its pedigree, for this Rajwada is the maternal home of Shivaji’s first wife, Maharani Saibai.
The Phaltan Rajwada is formally called the ‘Madhoji Manmohan Rajwada’ after the ruler who built it. Located around 60 km from Satara and 100 km from Pune, this is its story:
From the 13th century CE till 1947, the town of Phaltan was ruled by the Naik Nimbalkar dynasty, which was founded by an adventurer from North India, named Nimbra. A scion of the influential Parmar Rajput clan from Malwa in Central India, Nimbra arrived in the Deccan in 1270 CE and founded a principality at the foot of the Bhambhumahadev mountain range, an offshoot of the Sahyadris.
He finally settled at Nimblak, a village about 15 km to the east of Phaltan, from which the ruling family acquired the surname ‘Nimbalkar’. In 1327 CE, his grandson, Nimbraj II, as a mark of appreciation for his father’s heroic martyrdom in a hard-fought battle on behalf of Emperor Muhammad Bin Tughlak, received from the Sultan a jagir (land grant) along with the title ‘Naik’. But it is the family’s connection with the Marathas that makes them well known. In 1640 CE, Saibai, a princess of Phaltan, married Shivajiraje Bhosale, who later became Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Phaltan: A Princely State
Till 1849, Phaltan was a feudatory to the Chhatrapatis of Satara and, following the annexation of Satara by the British, it became a princely state under the Crown. Major Shrimat Malojirao Naik Nimbalkar was the last ruling Raja of Phaltan, before the state acceded to the Indian Union in 1947. Post-independence, the family has played an important role in Maharashtra’s politics. This has meant that the Phaltan Rajwada has remained the centre of power in Satara to this day.
The Phaltan Rajwada was built between 1861 and 1911, in two parts, and is an amalgamation of Western architecture with Jain and Hindu styles. This represents the change ushered in by the rulers of Phaltan when they entered the modern era. The architectural style of the palace is Indo-Saracenic, with a Gothic touch.
Construction of the first part of the palace started in 1861 and was completed in 1875. A second portion was added and its construction was completed in 1911. Before this palace was built, the royal family lived in a wada or traditional Maharashtrian-style mansion, on the same land. The new palace was named ‘Madhoji Manmohan Palace’ after the ruler of the Phaltan State, from 1860 to 1916.
The Grand Tour
The palace consists of the main residence and two temples dedicated to Ram and Datta. The main residence is a two-story structure. The ground floor consists of courtyards, the first-floor halls, and the bedrooms of the royal family on the second floor.
The temples remain open to the public for worship but the rest of the property is largely out of bounds. The palace is painted blue and white. It has circular domes and pillars and a balcony above the entrance. At the entrance to the main residence are the figures of two lions symbolically guarding it. Just above the entrance is a balcony for the King to address his subjects. It looks impressive and bears the Royal Coat of Arms of the Phaltan Estate. Next to the palace is the administrative wing of the Phaltan State along with the Hathi Khana (elephant stables).
The residential section of the palace consists of the Darbar Hall, Surucha Hall, Hirva Hall, Badami Hall, Saatkhani Laxmi Terrace and Gulabi Hall. The palace has six spacious courtyards, which bear wall paintings of members of the Naik Nimbalkar clan including Maharani Saibai. Inside the halls of the royal residence are paintings from different eras depicting warriors, rulers and important women from the family.
The palace boasts the kind of exquisite woodwork that Maratha wadas were famous for. Beautifully maintained, there are impressive columns and beams carved in exquisite detail, including motifs of parrots, peacocks and lions. Large chandeliers of colored glass add to the beauty of this stunning palace, which is also replete with souvenirs from hunting expeditions in the form of mounted animal heads and carpets made of animal hide.
A Peculiar Procession
The Phaltan Rajwada has seen many grand processions and events but one of the most peculiar ones is linked to the coronation of King George V of England. When George V became the monarch of the British Empire in 1911, a grand coronation was held in Westminster Abbey in London. This was followed by a grand Durbar in Delhi. But Phaltan, in rural Maharashtra, too held a celebration of its own!
The Phaltan State Administrative Report of 1910-12 describes the celebration held on 12th December 1911, in vivid detail. The morning opened with a salute of a hundred and one guns in Phaltan. A grand procession starting at the palace passed through the town. It was headed by a richly caparisoned elephant carrying a garlanded portrait of King George V and Queen Mary of Teck, in a fully decorated Ambari with the Prince in the rear and followed by all the State Manakaris (nobles), officials, merchants and townsmen, the garrison, the Sowars and a long line of carriages. On the return of the procession to the palace, a majestic durbar was held in the Shri Rama Temple, where the portrait of King George V and Queen Mary was seated on a raised dais, and blessings were received by the Imperial couple’s portrait from Lord Rama.
Somewhere down the line, the Rajwada Palace was donated to the Naik Nimbalkar Devasthan, a religious and charitable trust run by the royal family of Phaltan. It is the trustees of the Naik Nimbalkar Devasthan who manage the palace today.
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