• By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • August 28 2018
  • @MulaMutha
Ghashiram Kotwal home in Pune. Pic by Uday S Kulkarni
  • It is two hundred and twenty-seven years to the day, when a most violent public execution of a police chief was carried out at the hands of an enraged mob in Pune, the capital of the Maratha Empire then at its peak. Indeed, the eighteenth century was quite unlike the times we live in. Then again, perhaps it was not. We find cruelty in medieval times, yet we see enough of it in our own days. Corruption, nepotism, and lawlessness with rioting is fairly commonplace even today. With the Maratha power seemingly invincible and Pune as its capital at the peak of its days of glory, the times of Ghashiram kotwal hold a mirror to the ills of absolutism, the abuse of power, the power of a riotous mob and public anger  - at all times and in all nations. The entire Ghashiram episode occurred between 29 and 31st Aug 1791.

Pune was built bit by bit under the two-decade rule of Nanasaheb Peshwa, and then shortly after his death in 1761, there was an outbreak of war with the Nizam. While the Peshwa attacked Bhaganagar (Hyderabad), the Nizam descended on the city of Pune and burnt nearly two third of it, besides looting it and desecrating the temples of Parvati. Eventually, in a seminal battle in August 1763, Madhav rao Peshwa dealt Nizam Ali a crushing defeat near Aurangabad. The young Peshwa then began to rebuild the lost Empire, taking the Maratha Empire from Kumaon to Srirangapatnam in the next seven years. And in order to enforce discipline and establish law and order, Madhav rao instituted the office of the Kotwal in Pune in 1764.

The Kotwal had to preserve the peace and apprehend offenders, towards which a police force and an intelligence network was established; the responsibility of which was given to the Peshwa’s confidante Nana Phadnis. Nana performed this task impeccably and the security of the people of Pune was ensured as a consequence. However, on Madhav rao’s death in 1772, and his brother Narayan rao’s assassination in August 1773, the task of the Kotwal became even more important. The Anglo-Maratha war, the incidents of betrayal among close associates like Sakharam Bapu, pushed Nana to give greater leeway to the Kotwal to use all means to crush opposition, employ an elaborate spy network and enforce order.

Sometime in 1777, with the Anglo Maratha war in full flow, a Gaud Brahmin man from Aurangabad named Ghashiram Savaldas had come to Pune and showed that he had the skills to police the city. He was appointed as kotwal by Nana Phadnis. Ghashiram grew in power with every passing year. Rumours about his ability to hold the Nana in his thrall was attributed to his daughter who supposedly had amorous links with the minister. Although the first references to this alliance – if there was one – were written in a couple of narratives almost six decades after Nana died, they have remained in public memory. It is almost impossible to determine the truth of the matter, given that no contemporary papers mention any such incident.

Ghashiram took his task seriously initially and inspired the confidence of his master. Law and order in the city improved. There was a night curfew in Pune in those days and thefts, lawlessness as well as crimes against women were severely punished. Gradually, the police force itself began to indulge in criminal excesses and became a powerful body subject to few checks. Even when brought to the notice of Nana Phadnis, in the interest of keeping a check on the populace, he was loathe to openly act against the police chief or his men.

The period that Ghashiram was kotwal was a period when the English power was initially at war with the Marathas, then at peace and finally in alliance against Tipu Sultan. During this time, ‘nazarbaaz’ or detectives were recruited in the police force, which was divided in five stations with a manpower of over a hundred. Their jurisdiction extended over citizens only and the ruling ministers were outside their purview. The people of Pune are said to have lived in fear during the decade of Ghashiram’s rule, however his patron Nana Phadnis is said to have been pleased with his work. Ghashiram built his house in present day Pune Cantonment and parts of the house still remain. He laid gardens and built a lake around that part which was named after him.

By 1791, the young Peshwa Sawai Madhav rao was growing to adulthood when Ghashiram’s term as the police chief was at its zenith. The Regency of Nana Phadnis had protected the infant Peshwa from the attempts of Raghunath rao Peshwa to grab the Peshwa musnad. Raghunath rao was implicated in the murder of the former Peshwa Narayan rao and his alliance with the English led to the prolonged Anglo Maratha war from 1775 to 1783. By 1783, Nana was widely accepted as the de facto ruler of the Maratha state. However, the situation began to change when Sawai Madhav rao began to assert his own power and position.

The annual Shravan month (usually in August) was a time when a very large number of Brahmins came to Pune to seek recognition for their learning and obtain the dakshina that was distributed in the Ramana, a building at the foot of the Parvati hill temple. Regulating the surging crowd and ensuring orderly behaviour was the task of the kotwal. In 1791, the strict regulations including a night curfew was enforced in the Shravan month as usual. However, this time there was a flare up that led to a revolt.

A Marathi letter of 2nd September 1791 describes the sequence of events.

A group of Brahmins from Telanga had come to Pune for the dakshina and indulged in several incidents of irregular behaviour that disturbed the peace. They disobeyed the regulations and indulged in theft and rioting. On 29 August that year, thirty-five (thirty-four in some places) Telanga Brahmins were apprehended by a police officer on duty and shut up in a room in the chowky at Bhavani peth. Ghashiram personally did not visit the prison cell, which was in the form of a tunnel with poor ventilation. The prisoners remained in the cell for an entire day and a night and on the third morning, (an eminent chief named) Manaji Phakde (a cousin of Mahadji Sindia) was passing that way, when he heard noises. He personally went to the cell and broke open the locks to find that twenty-one of the Telinga Brahmins had died. He promptly informed Nana and the Peshwa of the tragedy.

Nana sent four soldiers with a karkun (clerk) to enquire of the incident. Just then, Ghashiram reached his house and said they had consumed opium, were indulging in thefts in the town and died of an opium overdose. Nana said we will await a report from the karkun. Later Ghashiram met Nana again and sought permission to cremate the bodies. Just then, the Peshwa summoned Nana to the palace and asked him that since Ghashiram had caused the death of the Brahmins, what punishment was being awarded to him.

As news spread, over a thousand Brahmins gathered outside Nana’s house and demanded that Ghashiram be punished. Nana sent (the chief judge) Ayya Shastri to meet them, but he was assaulted and his clothes torn off. A crisis seemed to be brewing in the Maratha capital and the cause of the citizens’ ire was Ghashiram and his long record of tyranny. Seeing this, Nana ordered the arrest of the kotwal

The Telanga Brahmins however, were not appeased. Ghashiram was arrested and placed on an elephant facing backwards, with his hands tied and paraded round the city under a strict guard of Gardi infantrymen. Some Brahmins threw stones at the kotwal. He was then taken to the Ramana near Parvati hill, shackled and confined.

By the 31st of August, the mood in the city was extremely agitated. The Brahmins sought justice and asked for the death penalty for Ghashiram. The Peshwa ordered that the kotwal was culpable and death would be a just punishment for him. Two chiefs were sent to the Ramana, his shackles removed and he was tied and mounted on a camel, seated facing its tail. He was brought to the main kotwali and here his head was shaved drawing five lines with a razor, and then filled in with red lead before he was once again placed on the camel and paraded across all the eight peths of Pune. He was then taken to Garpir (an open space at the time on the outskirts of Pune city). Here, he was let loose. The guards were withdrawn and the Brahmins following the procession were told to forgive or punish him as they pleased.

The news of the entire incident was reported by the English Resident Sir Charles Malet in one of his dispatches to James Forbes,

‘The day following (the death in custody), the clamour grew more violent being encouraged by many persons desirous of mortifying the ruling minister, through the ignominy of his Kotwal, his dependent. The unhappy man was tied backward on a camel and in that disgraceful manner reconducted into the city, amidst the reproaches of the people; here he was made to alight, and his head having been publicly shaved, he was again placed in the same manner on the camel and having been carried through the principal streets of Poonah, escorted by a strong guard, he was for the last time led to a spot about a mile from the city, and there ordered to dismount: one of his hands was then strongly fastened to the end of a turban between twenty and thirty feet long, and the other end committed to some Hallalcores, the lowest outcastes of the Hindoo tribes, who contaminate all other castes by their touch. It was then made known to the Telinga Brahmins that the Kotwal was delivered up entirely to their disposal either as a sacrifice to their vengeance, or an object for their mercy…’

The Brahmins, angered by a decade of tyranny and the recent deaths of the Telanga Brahmins did not grant Ghashiram any mercy. Picking up stones they began a barrage on the former kotwal, until he died. Charles Malet describes the final act,

'Twelve Brahmins of that tribe, in the most savage manner, immediately attacked the fallen magistrate with large stones. The hallalcores who held the turban, by straightening it, kept him to full length, by repeated blows on the head and breast, brought him to the ground, and there, with an eagerness disgraceful to humanity, though merciful to the prostrate object of their cruelty, these Brahminical murderers despatched him by a succession of large stones thrown violently on his head and breast’.

Nobody was permitted to cremate the dead body and all his property was confiscated by the Government.

A letter from Nana Phadnis a month later mentions the entire episode,

‘..the kotwal’s crimes had crossed all limits, hence he was punished. If anybody has written anything to the contrary, it is false. People are known to start rumours. That is the way of the people of Pune…’.

Ghashiram’s rise and sudden fall is echoed in the ends of so many dictators in our own time. Despite appearances, neither humans nor their nature has changed. Two hundred and twenty-seven years later, Ghashiram is remembered for Nana Phadnis’ patronage, for his tyrannical policing of the city of Pune for over a decade, his involvement in the death of the Telanga Brahmins and the sanction for his violent execution at the hands of ordinary men who exacted a terrible revenge for the actions of his officers.

To read all articles by the Author

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1 Nanasaheb Peshwa – The Architect of an Empire and a City

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