Aga Khan Palace was made famous and is now a pilgrimage site because Mahatma Gandhi and his close associates were imprisoned here from August 10th 1942 to May 6th 1944.
Our visit early on a weekday morning we perfect to enjoy the serenity of this site all to ourselves.
The palace and its 19 acre grounds are an oasis of calm and tranquility in an area that has become part of the thriving Pune metropolis.
Aga Khan Palace’s history
The Aga Khan Palace was built by the fourth Aga Khan (Imam Sultan Shah Karim Aga Khan IV) with the goal to provide employment to the impoverished famine ridden locals. It was built for Rs 12 lakh, with generous wages for 100 thousand workers over a five year construction period.
He, like many others, used the palace for summer holidays. Until recently, Pune was known as a city for students, government offices and retired pensioners. With its perfect weather year round with no need for fans, air conditioners or heaters, it was the ideal place to escape the summer heat of Mumbai and enjoy the pleasures of theater, art, food, nature and lovely weather.
In 1942, the palace was converted as a prison for Gandhiji’s(aka Bapu) house arrest, along with wife Kasturba Gandhi, Mahadev Desai, Sarojini Naidu, Mera ben and his top leadership.
Between 1953-72, the palace was a residential co-ed school. Our guide, Lila Mahajan was a student in this school. She knows every bit of the building and grounds and all the stories of the past and present. She speaks excellent English, Hindi and Marathi. She is writing a book about the history of the palace. Her father was the vice principal of the school, so they spent entire years on campus, even when all other students left for summer break.
In 1969 Agha Khan donated the palace and surrounding land to the government of India to be converted to a memorial for Gandhiji.
In 1972 the school was converted to an air force base and training center.
Later Gandhi National Memorial Society was formed to transform the property to a monument in Gandhiji’s memory. It is not their national headquarters.
Today the property is a protected historic site and pilgrimage to Gandhiji. The building is managed by the Archeological society of India. The rest of the site is managed by the Gandhi National Memorial Society. It is set up as museum to pay homage to the people that brought India freedom. It houses many paintings by renowned artists and the few possessions of Gandhiji and Ba. But, sadly it’s too apparent that little is being done in the name of conservation.
There have been movies shooting here like Gandhi, Gandhi my father and many more.
Famous People of Aga Khan Palace
Ba was Gandhiji’s wife and companion for the ups and downs of their long life together.
It is said that Gandhiji was shy and had low self confidence. It is she who inspired him and fostered the confidence in him, which was instrumental in him reaching his destiny. While he did not appreciate her for much of their life, in the end he said she was his life long teacher, mentor and friend. He felt her passing away deeply.
On the morning of Feb 22nd, 1944, Ba was feeling somewhat better, so Bapu went for his walk(an exercise he religiously practiced). During his walk Ba’s condition deteriorated. Miraben quickly rushed to bring him back.
Bapu returned immediately and sat with Ba. He had her rest her head on his lap for comfort, until she took her last breath and uttered her last worlds of Om and Hey Ram.
It was very sad day for everyone, in particular for Bapu as he lost his best friend and companion of ??60 years.
Gandhiji build her samadhi at the back of the palace along side their beloved Mahadev Desai.
Mahadev Desai was Bapu’s secretary of 35years and like a son to Bapu and Ba.
He knew Gandhiji so well, he could finish his thoughts. One time Bapu was interrupted while dictating an important document(or speech). Mahadevbhai completed the document. When Gandhiji retuned to finish the dictation, the document was complete already! He got to review the finished product – exactly as he would have dictated.
Within a couple of months of being imprisoned, Mahadev Desai passed away. To Gandhiji and Kasturba it was like losing their son. Gandhiji gave him the last bath, even though he was expecting to have received it from Mahadev.
Mira ben(originally Madeline Lane) was the daughter of a British admiral, born and raised in London. As a child she was not interested in school but more interested in nature and art. She once encouraged Gandhiji’s writings and was so influenced by him that she traveled to India to meet him. Even more influenced by Bapu in person, she became devoted follower and student for life. She came to Aga Khan palace while she was sick and was imprisoned with Bapu for the entire time.
Sarojini Naidu was a renowned Bengali poet and very close to Gandhiji and Kasturba. She was imprisoned at Aga Khan palace for about seven months. When she became very ill, she was released on March 19, 1943.
Prince Aga Khan
Growing up we’ve always heard of the Aga Khans as the wealthy, generous and kind spiritual leaders. The Aga Khans built many hospitals and schools. My brother was born in one such hospital.
Art in Aga Khan Palace
The Aga Khan Palace is setup as a museum on the ground floor. The rooms display art and stories relating to the Gandhiji, the palace, struggle for freedom and his vision for the nation. Many of the rooms are locked, apparently with exotic antique furniture dumped as trash.
While it is disheartening to see that none of the art pieces show the name of the artist or the time it was made, there is a name to most of the pieces and Lila (our guide) knew a lot about each art and each artist.
I was in Paris last month and what a contrast! The mind blowing care in curation, preservation and display in Paris versus the extremely basic display here! The important thing is to look beyond the work of the curators (and corrupt officers) and focus on the work of Gandhiji, his team and the artists that pay homage through their talents.
A wedding gift like none other
1992 Gandhi’s ashes were donated and placed here. This is the only confirmed place where his ashes are kept.