A heritage tour of Savitribai Phule University| Pune university heritage walk

The exquisite Belgian crystals twinkled bright
Adding glamour - even when there was no light.
125 kilograms for 500 Sterling Pounds was its price
One that the authorities severely criticized. 

Discover the story of this epic chandelier that still hangs strong on this Pune university heritage walk.

Savitribai Phule Pune University, popularly referred to as the Pune University is considered among the top 10 universities in India. I had always known this fact. However, what I did not know were the stories of its heritage – and this is despite the innumerable times I have visited its main heritage building. So intense I was about my business that I completely missed its tell-tale marks of history. Thanks to my recent Pune university heritage tour I finally saw the place in a new light.

Savitribai Phule Pune University - a university with a rich heritage
Savitribai Phule Pune University – a university with a rich heritage

This Pune university heritage walk takes you through the illustrious history of the main building that goes back to the British era. This post will illustrate the magnificent Pune university history and also, showcase the stunning architecture of the main Pune university heritage building. I will also, share how you can embark on a similar Pune university heritage walk and give you the essential tips for planning it.

Savitribai Phule Pune University history

It wasn’t always a university. In fact, it was the Monsoon residence of the Governor of Bombay Presidency in the late 1800s. It remained under the British till independence and was finally converted to the University of Poona in 1949 by the first prime minister of India – Jawaharlal Nehru. The heritage building was left intact and converted to the offices of the Vice Chancellor of Pune University, the Dean and various other administrative functions. It is just one of the many buildings on a huge campus of 411 acres – which has several other renowned departments as well as colleges.

Statue of Savitribai Phule - one of the first teachers in Maharashtra to work on women education during the British Raj
Statue of Savitribai Phule – one of the first teachers in Maharashtra to work on women’s education during the British Raj

In 2014, Pune University has been renamed Savitribai Phule University – in honor of the lady who dedicated her life to teaching and uplifting women. In 1848, she was the first to establish a school for girls in Pune.

Pune University has been the Alma Mater of several renowned personalities including the former prime minister of India – VP Singh, the former president of India – Pratibha Patil and even the 2nd Prime Minister of Yemen – Khaled Bahah. And then there are many like me, who have been in Pune and have been frequent visitors of the university for various reasons – some that led me into the Pune university heritage building but missed telling me its story – until recently.

Mahabaleshwar View Point - Kate's Point

Mahabaleshwar – the summer capital of erstwhile Bombay Presidency

When the British established Bombay Presidency, they found the place quite hot. To beat the heat, they established two other capital – a monsoon one in Poona and a summer capital in the hill station of Mahabaleshwar. You can read more about Mahabaleshwar and its interesting attractions through this post.

The former British governor’s residence – the center point of the Pune University heritage walk

The Pune University heritage walk is centered around its main building which first served as the monsoon residence of the British governor and later as the administrative block of the Poona University. The building was constructed in the year 1864 by Sir Henry Bartle Frere – the then Governor of Bombay. The entire building took 7 years to complete and a whooping sum of 1.75 lakhs Sterling Pounds was spent on its construction. The amount was six times the sale of his previous residence and was so lavish that it drew tremendous criticism from the British Parliament.

The main Pune university heritage building - former residence of the Governors of Bombay Presidency
The main Pune university heritage building – former residence of the Governors of Bombay Presidency

Not to be outdone, his successor, William Vesey-FitzGerald added to the interiors of the building and landed up spending another fortune of 500 Sterling Pounds on one single item that is now the pride of the ballroom. I shall share more about that soon but for those curious readers, the clue lies in my opening verse. :D.

While William Vesey-FitzGerald was also, berated for this extravaganza, the building continued to be used right till the end of the British Raj. Though it was converted to officers after it was deemed as the Pune university, its original structure was left intact. In 2008, restoration work on the building began to preserve its legacy and today, while the offices of the Dean and the Vice Chancellor are still there, the lower floors, its secret tunnel and its tower serve as attractions of the new Pune University heritage walk.

The architecture of Pune University heritage building

Typical Gothic arches, balustrades and gargoyles seen on the Pune university heritage walk
Typical Gothic arches, balustrades and gargoyles seen on the Pune university heritage walk

Designed by the British architect James Trubshaw, this heritage building is said to have been inspired by the Osborne House – one of the many castles of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It has typical Gothic architecture and includes a tall Italian-styled bell tower. Constructed using basalt rock, the erstwhile Governor’s residence sports the tell-tale Gothic arches, balustrades, gargoyles and pointed towers. The building includes a large entrance hall, several porches, a huge banquet hall and a ballroom, sitting areas with fireplaces and bedrooms.

Close-up of one of the gargoyles that you can see on the facade of the block during your Pune university heritage tour
Close-up of one of the gargoyles that you can see on the facade of the block during your Pune university heritage tour

The main building also, had typical British-styled terraced gardens and around it were supporting buildings used for various purposes like the staff quarters, the stables etc. It even had an underground passage that led to a central kitchen- 400 m away from the main building – more on that coming up.

Coat of Arms on the facade

Coat of arms inscribed on the Pune university heritage building
Coat of arms inscribed on the Pune university heritage building

One of the things to watch out for in this Pune University heritage walk is the British coat of arms on the left-hand side (that is if you are facing the main entrance of the building). There are in fact, two of them. The first one from the left reads Bahun Willincoon of Ratton and is the emblem of Freeman Freeman-Thomas – a Governer from 1913 to 1918.

The 2nd one says Sandhurst and might have belonged to William Mansfield – popularly referred to as Lord Sandhurst. He was the governor of Bombay from 1895 to 1900.

The Italian Bell Tower

The Italian bell tower attached to the Pune university heritage block
The Italian bell tower attached to the Pune university heritage block

The 80 feet high bell tower is said to have been designed after Giotto’s Bell Tower – one of the key attractions of Florence, Italy. The tower was used more like a flag tower and currently, the flag of Pune University is hoisted on it. While on the Pune university heritage tour, you can only glimpse the same from the outside.

Close up of the Italian bell tower
Close up of the Italian bell tower

The ballroom inside the Pune University heritage block

The entrance to the Ballroom of the erstwhile residence of the British governor.
The entrance to the Ballroom of the erstwhile residence of the British governor.

Past the statues of Adam and Eve, you will enter the huge ballroom, now called the Dnyaneshwar hall. It is here that you will find that stunning piece of interior that got the William Vesey-FitzGerald his share of rebuke. A 125 kg chandelier with Belgian cut diamonds forms the centerpiece of this paneled hall. The ornate gold and white ceiling feel more of a background against this shiny light fixture.

The extravagant 125 kg chandelier of the ballroom - now Gnyaneshwar hall
The extravagant 125 kg chandelier of the ballroom – now Gnyaneshwar hall
The ballroom of the former British  Governor's residence
The ballroom of the former British Governor’s residence

A smaller seating area connects to this ballroom, where you will see the classic Victorian-styled Burma wood paneling and the earthy fireplace. It is pretty easy to imagine an evening of drinks and conversation between the men in this chamber while outside there might have been a live orchestra and couples dancing to their tunes.

The sitting chamber of the ballroom
The sitting chamber of the ballroom
The former dining room that is now a conference room in Pune university heritage building
The former dining room that is now a conference room in Pune university heritage building

A dining area, now converted to a meeting room, is attached to the sitting room. The decor follows the same white and gold theme with brown wood panels on the wall. It is this dining room that is connected to an underground tunnel that leads to the main kitchen.

The underground tunnel – a highlight of the Pune university heritage walk

The tunnel runs below this section of the Pune university block
The tunnel runs below this section of the Pune university block

Sadly, on the day I visited, the tunnel was not open for a visit but if you are on the Pune University heritage tour, you will most likely start at the tunnel and end up at the ballroom. The tunnel has been renovated and is 300 feet long. It ends at the kitchen which has now been converted into the Board of student welfare (Potdar Sankul). The tunnel was mainly used to transport food from the kitchen to the main building, and while doing so, protect it from being spoilt by external elements. Also, as the story goes, the governors’ had a philosophy that the servants have to serve and not be seen.

Before emerging into the main building, there is a butler’s chamber where there were provisions to heat the food and store the silverware. It was also, the residence of the main butler.

The museum at Pune University

The other place that was not open for a visit during my Pune university heritage walk is the museum that has been curated with exhibits from history, geology and anthropology. I am told that there is a display of weapons that belonged to the Marathas and date back to the 19th century. In addition to that, one can see some rare scrolls and gemstones that belong to Shivaji in this Pune University Museum.

The center of the Pune university heritage walk
The center of the Pune university heritage walk

There is also, a new section that has been added in 2022. This is the Museum of cartoon art, which includes originals and replicas of cartoons dating back to the British era. Donated by Suraj Sriram Eskay, this set of work also includes the work of all the famous Indian cartoonists including RK Laxman.

Ah well, that concludes my guide to the Pune university heritage walk. I am pretty sure that now if you ever visit Pune University, you will be in awe of its heritage. As to how you can do this Pune university heritage tour, check out the FAQs section and plan your visit soon.

The front facade of Constantia at La Martiniere Lucknow

La Martiniere College in Lucknow – a heritage attraction and a live school

Another epic college that you must take a heritage tour of is the La Martiniere College Lucknow. Built as a mansion by a French officer in the Nawab’s court, it was later converted to a college and also, so a fair bit of freedom movement activities during the British era. The college has a grave and a cannon and even an obelisk. Take a peek

Common FAQs about the Pune university heritage tour

Which is the best way to reach Pune University?

Pune is a mini metro and is very well connected by road, air and rail. You will find direct flights not just from anywhere in India but plenty across the world. Pune University is located towards the Northern side of Pune and is a landmark in itself. You will find plenty of public buses that take you straight to the main gate of the University. However, note that these buses rarely ply inside the campus, which by itself is huge.

It is better to take a cab or an auto straight to the main Pune university heritage block.

When does the Pune University heritage walk take place?

Pune University heritage walk is generally conducted by the University itself on the last Saturday of every month. It starts at 11.30 am at the Potdar Sankul and is open to public. There is no prior booking required. The exact dates are announced on the Pune University website.

Is the Pune University Heritage walk free?

Yes, at the moment, there is no charge for the Pune University heritage walk

Can we do a heritage tour of Pune university on our own?

While you can walk around the campus, the main Pune university heritage building can only be viewed from the outside. You cannot enter the building unless it is on the designated heritage walk day.

How old is the Pune university heritage building?

Built in 1864, the main block of Pune university is over 150 years old.

Before you go, pin this

Pune University heritage walk
Pune University heritage tour
Savitribai phule pune university heritage walk

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