Home | Asia | Things to do in Pune, India

Pune, the 8th largest city in India, is a sprawling metropolis of noise, pollution, history and natural beauty.

Located a 3-4 hour drive from Mumbai, at a height of 560 metres above sea level (and therefore a few degrees cooler than the state capital), Pune is home to about 6.25 million people.

It is choked by the traffic and pollution that is present in so many Indian cities. But it also has natural beauty and a rich history—it was here that the Peshwas ruled India during the 18th century and that Gandhi was imprisoned once his Quit India movement started gaining popularity.

Must-see attractions include the Aga Khan Palace (where Gandhi was held captive for two years), the Shaniwar Wada (a large fort that was the seat of the Peshwas until the early 19th century), Koregaon Park (Pune's wealthiest district, home to the Osho Meditation Resort) and Pune Zoo (a well maintained zoo and reptile park on the outskirts of town).

1. The Aga Khan Palace

The Aga Khan Palace is an important historical site: it was here that Ghandi was imprisoned between August 1942 and May 1944.  In addition, it offers splendid and tranquil gardens.

The Palace was built between 1892 and 1897 by the 3rd Aga Khan, Sultan Mohammad Shah Aga Khan.  It was commissioned to provide employment for famine-struck local villagers, with more than 1000 people being employed for the five-year period of its construction. The Palace was donated to the Indian state by Prince Karim Aga Khan in 1972. 

Gandhi’s imprisonment

The Palace is most important for being the place that Mahatma Ghandi, his wife Kasturba, and his secretary, Mahadev Desai, were imprisoned on 9 August 1942.  The British authorities took this step because of concerns about the popularity of Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ movement. 

Ghandi’s secretary had a fatal heart attack almost immediately, prompting a tense standoff between Gandhi and the authorities regarding his burial.  The British eventually relented and permitted Desai’s body to be cremated in a corner of the Palace's grounds.  Gandhi lit the pyre and said: ‘Mahadev has lived up to the ‘Do or Die’ mantra.  This sacrifice cannot but hasten the day of India’s deliverance.”

Other significant events that took place during Gandhi’s imprisonment included Gandhi hoisting the congress flag in January 1943 and January 1944 and the death of Gandhi’s wife on 22 February 1944.  Ghandi suffered a severe malaria attack six weeks later and was eventually released on 6 May 1944, on account of his failing health: the British thought that the nation would be enraged if he died in prison. 

It took a further three years before India gained independence on 15 August 1947.  Ghandi was later assassinated by a Hindu nationalist, who thought Gandhi unduly favoured Pakistan, in January 1948.  He was cremated and his ashes distributed to a number of locations, including the Aga Khan Palace. 

The palace and grounds

The Palace and its grounds occupy around 17 acres. The Palace itself has three stories, the ground floor occupying almost 2000 square metres (including a wide corridor that allows you to circumnavigate the building). 

The internal rooms now house exhibitions devoted to Gandhi’s work and a number of his personal items, including cooking utensils, clothes, slippers and a letter written by Gandhi on the death of his secretary. But don't expect a high standard of curatorship: translations are haphazard, the lighting is poor, and many of the photographs are faded.

The grounds, by contrast, are well-maintained and include a number of mature trees including the Tamarind and various palm varieties.  The grounds also house the Samadhis (tombs) of Gandhi’s wife and secretary and a monument holding some of Gandhi’s ashes. 

There is no shop on site, so be sure to bring ample food and water. 

where? Pune Nagar Road, Kalyani Nagar, Pune, Maharashtra 411014

when? 9.30 am to 5.30 pm. Closed Mondays.

£$€¥ 200 Rupees for foreigners; 15 Rupees for Indians.

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2. The Shaniwar Wada

The Shaniwar Wada is a large 18th century fort built close to Pune’s Mula Mutha river that has an interesting history, impressive fortifications and well-kept gardens.

The Shaniwar Wada (meaning Saturday Residence) was built between 1730 and 1732 at a cost of Rs16,120.  It was used as the principal residence of the Peshwa rulers of the Maratha Empire until 1818.  As the Peshwas ruled much of modern day India, the fort was home to their retinue of about 1000 people.  

The fort's history

In June 1818, the British East India Company seized control of the fort after the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Maratha War and the Peshwa abdicated his throne to Sir John Malcolm (becoming a political prisoner of the British Government).      

The fort was largely gutted by fire on 27 February 1828, meaning that visitors have to imagine what the Court Hall of Bajirao-l (the head of the Peshwas when the Shaiwar Wada was constructed), the Dancing Hall and the Old Mirror Hall looked like. 

Visiting the fort

But there’s still plenty to see.  Start with the impressive spiked Delhi Gates (also known as the Dilli Darwaza; you’ll have to pass through these to get in).  The 72 twelve inch spikes are there to stop elephants from breaking the gates down.  The other gates—the Mastani, Khidki, Ganesh and Narayan Darwaza—are no longer in use. 

Then take a look around the well-kept gardens that are enclosed by the fort’s outer walls.  A number of foundations and fountains remain, giving you an idea of the original structure.  But, again, the standard of curatorship is not high (though we enjoyed the description of the decidedly unimpressive Hazari Karanje fountain as the world’s second best water feature). 

Don’t miss the opportunity to climb the steep stone stairs that lead to the top of the fort’s perimeter.  A lap of the wall probably takes about 10 minutes, and is not for the feint-hearted (there are no handrails and there are plenty of children whizzing around).  Make sure you climb to the Nagarkhana hall on the top of the Delhi Gate. 

where? Shaniwar Peth, Pune, Maharashtra 411030

when? 9.30am to 5.30pm, seven days a week.

£$€¥ Foreign tourists: Rs200; Indian tourists: Rs15.

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3. Koregaon Park

Koregaon Park is Pune's elite district: it is here that many of its top hotels are found, together with plush 'bungalows' owned by the rich and famous.

Located on the south bank of the Mula Mutha River, Koregaon Park's two major roads—the unimaginatively named North and South Main Roads—are connected by a number of lanes (numbered 1 to 9).

The Bungalows

Lanes 1 to 3 have the most impressive 'bungalows', palatial detached houses with sumptuous grounds that are owned by the likes of Bombay film stars, Delhi politicians and European industrialists. The effect is completed by the Banyan trees that line the lanes. The houses around Poonawala Crescent are particularly impressive.

We suggest that you have a walk around the neighbourhood or take a rickshaw ride and stop at the best villas to take photos. But be warned: security guards may well blow their whistles at you!

The Osho Meditation Resort

Osho (or, to use his full name, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) is a spiritual leader who lived between 1931 and 1990.  He was a controversial figure, on account of his liberal attitudes towards sex (some of his lectures were published under the title From Sex to Superconsciousness).  He has been variously described as one of the 1000 makers of the 20th century and “the most dangerous man since Jesus Christ”.

Osho established an ashram in Pune, with the assistance of funds donated by a Greek shipping heiress.  It continues to draw those seeking enlightenment from around the world.  Facilities include the Basho Spa, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis courts (for playing Zen tennis), a mini-mall and the 12-acre Osho Teerth Park. 

A day-pass costs Rs1800 (you must pass an on-the-spot HIV test and wear maroon robes). 

4. Empress Gardens

Pune’s Empress Gardens are a good bet if you want to get away from the noise and pollution of central Pune.

Covering 39 acres, the gardens are split into a number of different areas: woodland, with mature trees and some of the largest bamboo the writer has ever seen; a nursery growing a wide selection of regional plants; a central children’s play area and funfair; and a number of shops selling hot drinks and light meals. 

A lap of the Gardens is about 1 kilometre in length and takes around 20 minutes.  Other attractions include ‘lover’s lane’ (a collection of benches on the west of the park where teenage couples go to smooch), a tranquil stream running through the grounds, and a number of impressive and rare animals and birds (including the Indian giant squirrel, the oriental dwarf kingfisher and the scarlet minivet).

The Empress Gardens, named in honour of Queen Victoria, have a distinguished history: originally a soldier’s garden, they passed into government hands in 1838 and were then taken over by General Sir Charles Napier.  In 1892, control was handed over to Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India, which continues to manage the Gardens. 

This is a good place to spend an hour or so, but don’t come expecting Hyde Park.  Some of the grounds are really no more than dried earth; and other parts are heavily littered. 

where? Near Race-Course, Pune- 411 001

when? 9.30am to 6.30pm, seven days a week.

£$€¥ Rs 15 per person (under 3s go free).

5. Pune Zoo

The 130-acre Pune Zoo, located in Katraj on the outskirts of the city, is home to a wide variety of interesting specimens—such as the white tiger.  They are housed in spacious enclosures surrounding the large and pretty Katraj Lake.

Pune Zoo, or to give it its full title the Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park, is divided into three facilities: the Zoo itself, a snake house, and an animal rescue centre.  It is home to 362 animals in all, about half of which are endangered or critically endangered.  They consume 115 kgs of beef and 80 kgs of chicken a day!

Katraj is about 45 minutes to an hour from the city centre, depending on traffic.  When you arrive you will find a hive of activity outside the Zoo’s entrance gates: there are numerous small cafes here (where you can pick up a restorative Chai for Rs10), together with vendors selling toys and souveniers.  The ticket queue is found to the left of the main gates (foreigners pay Rs100).  Be sure to get here early: the Zoo gets very busy after about 11am/midday.

At the centre of the Zoo is found the 42-acre Katraj Lake.   The large enclosures are set out around the lake, connected by a road and footpath.  There’s quite a lot of walking to do to see everything (probably about 5 kilometres in total), though golf carts are laid on.  The road and footpaths are well shaded. 

We were impressed with the leopards, white tigers, Indian elephants and Indian water buffalo.  Other inhabitants include blackbucks, sloth bears, Indian muntjac (or barking) deer, Indian crocodiles and monkeys. 

The highlight of the snake enclosure is the 13-foot long king cobra.  There are 25 species in all, including the Russell’s viper and the Indian cobra. 

The Zoo gets mixed reviews, largely on account of animals hiding in their spacious enclosures.  Other grumbles include dirty toilets and long queues.  But we think this is one of Pune’s best tourist activities.  Just make sure you arrive early, when it will be less hot and crowded, and before the animals curl up for their lunchtime snoozes.