Intriguing tales of heroism from times long gone lurk within the forts, shrines, and battle tanks of Ahmednagar, a secluded town tucked deep inside Maharashtra. Explore its chequered history. By Mukul & Shilpa Gupta
Hesitant and an itsy-bit resistant, we reach out for the prasad—unusually, a couple of lozenges and an eclair—forcing a polite smile of gratitude. The evening’s bilingual aarati (a Hindu ritual) is over, the crowd is beginning to disperse, and the toffee is about to be popped. We, however, still don’t know the godman whose photos we’ve been gazing at and the glory we’ve been hearing about. All we know is that the setting is soothing—sprawling manicured lawns and ornamental trees under a peachy-pink sky.
The man, we eventually learn, was featured more than once in the illustrious TIME magazine as the “long-haired, silky moustached seer.” Countless ditties were inspired by him, including the chart-topping rock opera Tommy by The Who, and Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy—the anthem of a legion. He, the self-proclaimed incarnate of God, was Meher Baba. And we, the ignorant ones, are feeling a tad lost in Meherabad, Baba’s picturesque ashram in Ahmednagar.
Tucked deep inside Maharashtra in the sugar-bowl district of the same name, Ahmednagar is an obscure town swaddled in 500 years of history. It bears the name of its founder, Malik Ahmad Nizam Shah I, who broke away from the Bahmani Sultanate to establish a new dynasty, the Nizam Shahi, along with a new city on the site of an ancient hamlet called Bhingar. Unfortunately, like the dynasty, the city too went asunder, as it was subsequently wrested by the Mughals, the Peshwas, the Marathas, and the British in a series of conquests.
Today, Ahmednagar is identified, if at all, as a town sustained by the Indian Military. However, owing to the relics of an opulent past—primarily the rich cache of heritage buildings that betray a Persian architectural influence—it deserves to come into its own. Begin your foray into the town with its most dated marvel, the Ahmednagar Fort, an imposing structure with 18-metre-high walls and 24 citadels. Built by Shah soon after
he took over, it is counted among the most impregnable forts of India, with a couple of nifty drawbridges and a deep moat.
In a major blow to Shah’s ego, his name is all that the fort bears today, as it is no longer synonymous with sieges, battles, or the Nizam Shahi, but with India’s freedom struggle. The fort had doubled up as a royal prison and gained prominence when the British incarcerated several freedom fighters following the Quit India Movement of 1942. This is where Jawaharlal Nehru wrote his epic, The Discovery of India, as a detainee.
The fort and the adjacent Kot Bagh Nizam, the ‘Garden of Victory’ built to mark Shah’s win over the Bahmani kings, signify the ascent of a new kingdom, while the Bagh Rauza marks the end of its founder. The black stone monument is Shah’s tomb, and though it’s in a pitiable state, the domes bear gold inscriptions, indicating the affluence of the time.
Easily the most stunning specimen of the town’s nuanced architecture is Faria Bagh (or Farah Baksh), the centrepiece of what is believed to be an ornate palatial complex. The lake and the garden that surrounded Faria Bagh have been consumed by time, but mercifully, the spectacular 16th-century palace continues to stand, though ravaged. Said to be the pleasure getaway of the second Nizam, Burhan Nizam Shah I, it is octagonal with four huge arches and several smaller arches, one above another. High ceilings and a domed roof with spectacular stucco work, make it worthy of its sobriquet of ‘pleasure palace’.
On the town’s periphery is a three-storey high octagonal structure, the Salabat Khan Tomb, reached via a wonderful drive along winding roads. Perched atop a hill called Shah Dungar, it rises 75 feet into the sky, making it the most prominent sight of Ahmednagar. Buried in its basement is Salabat Khan II, a minister of Murtaza Shah I, and his first wife.
Ahmednagar has a population of less than four lakh and boasts some quaint places of
worship. There’s Dargah Daira, the tomb of Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Sharif, and Alamgir Dargah, where Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s last rites were performed. However, it’s the
small, but spectacularly carved and etched, 16th-century Damdi Mosque that attracts attention. With a ceiling that exactly mirrors the floor design, fine inlay work, and calligraphic etchings from the Quran, the mosque is unique for its antecedents. It was built with money pooled from poor labourers constructing the Ahmednagar Fort. It came to be called Damdi after the lowest-denomination currency of the time, the only thing the labourers could afford.
St John’s Catholic Church was established in 1833, to satiate the spiritual quest of the many British soldiers and military units stationed in Ahmednagar at the time. Despite the intervening years, the church has not aged, courtesy the old red tiles that provide a protective covering. Anand Dham is the shrine of Jain saint Acharya Anandrishiji Maharaj, who propagated non-violence and tolerance among all faiths. There are several Hindu temples but none compares to the draw of the pilgrimage sites of Shirdi and Shani Shingnapur.
All the history notwithstanding, it’s a modern museum that has become Ahmednagar’s raison d’être. The Cavalry Tank Museum, established by the Armoured Corps Centre and School, is the only one of its kind in Asia and one of only two in the world. Set amidst lush greenery, it has al fresco displays of vintage armoured vehicles from around the world, including WWI’s British Mark I, nicknamed the Big Willie, and the Schmerer Panzersphah, adorned with a Nazi Swastik. The most prized exhibits are the trophy tanks from the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
Touched by the heroism of India’s war veterans and overawed by the history contained in the unique museum, we absorb the evolution of armoured vehicles in complete silence. Maybe we’ve been influenced by Meher Baba, the mystic who swore to complete silence for more than half his life in the conviction that “things that are real are given and received in silence.” Or maybe, it’s just the ghosts of Ahmednagar’s past who have stunned us into silence. Either way, we’re under the sway of an enchanting spell.
Connected by limited flights, Shirdi (85 km) is the nearest airport. Pune airport, which is 123 km from Ahmednagar, is well connected to most major Indian cities. There is an airport at Aurangabad (110 km) too.
Sustained mostly by Indian military personnel, the town doesn’t boast many hotels. However, there is enough reasonable accommodation offering a comfortable stay,
including Hotel Iris Premiere (starts from INR 3,000/ USD 44; irispremiere.in) and Hotel Raj Palace (starts from INR 2,700/ USD 40; hotelrajpalace.co).
June to September.
History seekers and nature lovers.
Visit the Historical Museum and Research Centre for its collection of rare coins and ancient manuscripts, including a 66m-long horoscope. Devotees of Sai Baba may want to take a short trip to the temple town of Shirdi (sai.org.in). Shani Shingnapur (40 km), known for the Shani Maharaj Temple, is a village where homes and shops have no front doors. Aurangabad (114 km) has the world-famous Ajanta-Ellora caves. Animal lovers will like Rehekuri, Maharashtra’s only blackbuck sanctuary (67 km). For trekkers, there is Mt Kalsubai (153 km), the state’s highest peak. Go on an excursion to Yeola (117 km) for Paithani saris, stoles, and dupattas. You can watch award-winning artisans designing and weaving these exquisite silk items.