Exploring Pune’s Old City, India

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Shaniwar Wada

Pune’s Old City has a lot to offer travelers interested in history and culture. Temples, caves, forts, and museums fill this neighborhood that was the heart of life in Pune in the 18th century. And if you like experiencing culture through food, there are plenty of local restaurants along the route I’m going to show you. The food is cheap and delicious! Just be sure to ask for no spice if you like little spice and little spice if you like moderate spice.

Lassi
Lassi from a local restaurant

The Old City is congested and loud. You can take an auto rickshaw, but I recommend paying for a tour with a guide and driver the first time. I visited this area twice during the month I stayed in Maharashtra and the first time I had a guide and driver. The second time I went with a colleague in an auto rickshaw and it was still pretty overwhelming. I found out later that a more convenient option is to download Ola, the Indian version of Uber.

This itinerary includes a lot of temples, many of which have a heavy scent of incense. If you are sensitive to smell, you can get a face mask that is designed to block out scents so you don’t have to miss out on these gorgeous and historic sites.

Overview - we will go north to south
Map of my itinerary. I went north to south.

Pataleshwar Cave Temples

There are plenty of caves to see in and around Pune, some with carvings that date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. Many of the caves are outside of town, along the road to Mumbai, but you can explore the Pataleshwar Caves without leaving Pune.

Its carvings date back to the 8th century. So, not quite as ancient as others, but still fun to explore. The atmosphere inside was a stark and welcome contrast to the noise and chaos in the streets outside.

The Shiva cave temple is carved from one rock and is a nice place for meditation, as long as you are not bothered by the strong incense smell.

For those who like to go deep and explore in detail, there are plenty of temples and other places of interest near Pataleshwar Caves. Here is a short list of ideas.

  • Punya Ganesh Temple
  • Mahatma Phule Museum
  • Rokadoba Temple
  • Gorakshanath Temple
  • Saibaba Temple
  • Topkhana Masjid Mosque
Caves area map
Points of interest near Pataleshwar Cave.

Shaniwar Wada

I went to Shaniwar Wada twice because I didn’t get to go in the first time. It was worth making the trip back to explore the grounds.

The fort was built by the Peshwas in the 18th century as the capital of the Maratha Empire. Peshwa ruler Narayanro was murdered in the fort in 1773, on the order of his aunt and uncle, and local legend says that he still haunts the grounds. On the night of his murder, Narayanro ran to his uncle screaming “Kaka mala wachawa,” or “uncle save me.” Locals still report hearing someone moan “Kaka mala wachawa” in and around Shaniwar Wada.

The fort burned down in 1827, but the fortified wall, gates, and foundations survived. It’s easy to make out the shapes of the rooms that once stood there and figure out which rooms were bedrooms, baths, etc., which makes it fun to imagine the 1,000+ people who lived there so many years ago.

Benches and trees have been added to the grounds, so it’s a nice place for a picnic or to sit and read under a tree.

You can climb the stairs to the top of the ramparts and walk the perimeter to view the surrounding city. But the best views are of the grounds and fort wall.

Shaniwar wada grounds
Shaniwar Wada grounds

Unless you go in the evening for the light and sound show, you won’t learn much about the history by walking the grounds. If you go during the day like I did, either read about the history before you go, hire a knowledgeable guide to take you, or both.

There is an entrance fee, but it’s reasonable. Don’t be put off by the large difference between the Indian resident fee and the visitor fee. It may seem like a lot, but when you do the currency conversion, you will find it’s less than most of us pay for a cup of coffee.

Shaniwar Wada was initially my top pick for a relaxing Aspie spot, but in the end it comes in second to Aga Khan Palace, in large part because the challenging and chaotic surroundings you endure to get there. I still highly recommended visiting.

Exploring the area:

  • Omkareshwar Mandir
  • Lokmanya Tilak Museum
  • Lal Mahal
  • Tambat Aali
  • Shree Siddhivinayak Ganpati Mandir
  • Gavkos Maruti Mandir
  • Vitthalnathji Haveli
  • Shree Kasba Ganapati
Shaniwar Wada area map
Points of interest near Shaniwar Wada

Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati

Ganesh is my favorite, and this is my favorite temple. Ganesh is the god with the elephant head and is the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is a god of wisdom, success, and good luck, and there are many different stories about why Ganesh has an elephant head. Although some Hindu texts describe Ganesh as being born with the elephant head, the story I heard is that Shiva beheaded him in anger because he didn’t know Ganesh was his son. Shiva then replaced Ganesh’s head with an elephant head… I suppose I would have done the same thing in his place, wouldn’t you?

Dagdusheth Temple features a 7.5 foot Ganesh idol adorned in gold. Ganesh can easily be seen from the street if you don’t want to wait in the long line to get into the temple. It is a popular temple visited by thousands each year and is usually crowded. It is worth going just to see Ganesh from the street. It is the most beautiful Ganesh I’ve seen and I returned to this temple a second time, as well.

If you aren’t that into elephant-headed gods, it’s still worth a trip to this area to get modak. The sweet modaks that are typically made for Ganesh Chaturthi, the 10-day Ganesh festival in September, are for sale along the street alongside the temple. You can buy them from Shri Ganesh Ice Creame Parlour or Shree Krupa Milk Shop. These are my favorite Indian sweets (okay, second to gulab jamun!) and I like them even more now that I know they are a special treat to honor my favorite Hindu god.

Modak candies
Delicious Modak (and one laddu) from Shri Ganesh Ice Creame Parlour

Exploring the area (if the idea of exploring abroad is scary, take small steps by starting closer to home. If you need encouragement, I can help!):

  • Vishnu Temple, Belbaag
  • Guruji Talim Ganpati
  • Vishram Baug Wada mansion and museum
  • Tulsi Baug Ganpati
  • Swanand Thakur Tipru Makers museum
  • Someshwar Mandir
Dagdusheth area map
Points of interest near Dagdusheth Temple

Mahatma Phule Market & Akhil Mandai Mandal

The market is a lot for me, so I didn’t stay long. It’s a whirlwind of color, scents, and sounds. It’s a great stop for fresh produce at the best prices, but that’s not the only reason to stop here. The market is housed in a gothic-style building with an 80-foot octagonal tower at its center. In addition to its more than 500 produce stalls, you will find the Akhil Mandai Ganapati. The Ganesh idol includes Goddess Sharada sitting with Ganesh. It’s one of the oldest Ganesh idols in Maharashtra and Indians come from all over the region to see it during the Ganesh festival.

Exploring the area:

  • Akra Maruti Chowk Ganesh Mandir
  • Ganpati Mandir
  • Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum
  • Bharat Itihaas Sanshodhak Mandel
  • Lakshmi Narsinha Mandir
Market area map
Points of interest near Mahatma Phule Market

Saras Baug Gardens, Ganesh Temple

The Sarasbaug Temple holds the Shree Siddhivinayak idol, the god who makes wishes come true, and receives an average of 10,000 visitors a day. So… not a great place for quiet solitude, but beautiful and worth visiting. Just don’t go during Ganesh Chaturthi or other big holidays when the temple gets upwards of 80,000 visitors a day!

The Sarasbaug Garden is a great place for a peaceful walk (when it’s not crowded). The garden is full of lush greenery and peaceful ponds full to the brim with water lilies.

Exploring the area:

  • Peshwe Energy Park
  • Shree Jain Shwetamber Dadawadi Temple
  • Shri Swami Samarth Temple
  • Shri Dnyaneshwari Prasarak Mandal
Sarasbaug area map
Points of interest near Sarasbaug

Parvati Hill

This is a bit of a hike up a lot of stairs. I made the mistake of saving this stop until the afternoon so that I was hiking up to the highest spot in Pune at 2 pm, when the sun was most powerful. I almost got sick, which impacted my enjoyment. Be sure to stop here in the morning!

After hiking a pretty steep set of uneven (and sometimes slippery) stone steps, you will be rewarded with the best view of Pune, a museum, and a variety of temples. On a clear day you may be able to spot Sinhagad Fort in the distance.

There is a fee to enter the Peshwe Museum and it features a lot of artifacts showing the rich history of the Peshwars of the Maratha Empire. I regret skipping this because I was feeling sick from the climb.

I counted six temples around the top of Parvati Hill:

  • Mahalaxmi Mandir
  • Parvati Temple
  • Parvati Dershan
  • Shri Vitthal Rakhumai Temple
  • Shree Kartikeya Swami Temple
  • Vishnu Temple

It’s possible there are more than six. I wasn’t always sure if I was seeing something new or the same temples I already saw.

The view point near Vishnu Temple offers the most spectacular views and this is where you might be able to see Sinhagad Fort. East of the view point is Parvati Cave, an old Buddhist Temple. I missed this, and it sounds like the caves have been closed to visitors, although you can still look at them from the outside.

Parvati Hill view from google maps
Google Maps view of Parvati Hill and temples

There are a lot of different neighborhoods to explore in Pune, but the Old City has the most to offer in terms of learning the culture and history of Pune. Next time I’m in Pune, I’ll use Ola to go into Old Town by myself to meditate at the temples and enjoy more local cuisine.

For more on India, check out these posts about my volunteer experience with Deep Griha Society and my day in Mumbai with Asha Handicrafts

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