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India’s Oldest Ganeshotsav Was Set Up by a Freedom Fighter in 1892

A royal physician and freedom fighter, Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari inspired Lokmanya Tilak to turn Ganeshotsav into a festival that instilled nationalistic fervour among Indians to fight the British.

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The narrow maze-like alleys and streets of Pune hide millions of stories lost in the annals of history, and the iconic Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari Ganpati Trust—located in a heritage wada—is one such story worth telling.

Tucked away in a quiet corner behind the mighty Shaniwar Wada lies a historical marvel symbolic of India’s relentless struggle for independence. This 129-year-old wada, which breathes with a silent dignity almost throughout the year, comes alive in all colours during the festivities of Ganeshotsav. It is said to be the oldest and a pioneer in establishing the Ganesh festival as a symbol of national pride and harmony, against the backdrop of the freedom struggle.

The Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari Ganpati Trust is in fact the first Sarvajanik or public Ganeshotsav started in 1892 by a freedom fighter named Bhausaheb Laxman Javale, aka Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari.

Building a National Symbol of Unity

Source: The 129-YO wada (L); The unique Ganesha idol of Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari Trust (R)

Ganesh Chaturthi in its current form was introduced in 1892, when a Pune resident named Krishnajipant Khasgiwale visited Maratha-ruled Gwalior, where he witnessed the traditional public celebration and brought it to the attention of his friends, Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari and Balasaheb Natu back home in Pune.

Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari, who was also a famous royal physician and a freedom fighter, saw potential in this festival and installed the first ‘sarvajanik’ or public Ganesha idol in his home or ‘wada’ located in an area called Shalukar Bol.

He then installed a unique idol of Ganesha that depicted the deity killing a demon. Made of wood and bran, the imagery was far from the usual calm and composed demeanor of Lord Ganesh, as it was symbolic of the victory of good over evil. The Ganesha represented India as a nation fighting for its freedom against the colonialists.

This move by Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari soon gained national traction when freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak praised his efforts in an article in the iconic newspaper Kesari on 26 September 1893. Tilak even went ahead to install a Ganesha idol in the news publication’s office in 1894 as a symbol of national pride and unity.

Thanks to Rangari and Tilak, the Ganeshotsav eventually became a nationwide festival where people from all castes and communities came together to celebrate their national identity through intellectual discourses, concerts, folk dance and music, plays, poetry recitals, etc.

The Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari Ganpati Trust continues to worship the same 129-year-old idol to this day.

A Fort-like Safehouse

Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari, in addition to being a physician, was famous across the country for his many skills. He was involved in knitting and cloth dyeing work that was traditionally done by his community.

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This work also earned him the moniker ‘Rangari’.

But his ‘wada’ housed more than decades of colourful tradition or life-saving medicines. It was a safehouse and a meeting hub for revolutionaries to discuss strategies against the British Indian government.

For a traditional structure, it was ahead of its time in design, with unique locks and latches that ensured secrecy and security of the freedom fighters hiding there. The unusual lock allowed persons with clearance to open the doors through a tiny hidden grove, even when it was latched from the inside.

Additionally, it also had a centralised locking system that allowed three of its main doors to lock instantly with the help of tiny pulleys attached to it, in case of an emergency. With hidden chambers to hide weapons and a secret escape route leading to the riverbed, this wada served as a fort in disguise against the imperial forces.

Be it the fierce Ganesha idol, the festival, or the ‘wada’ that housed it and protected hundreds of revolutionaries — Bhausaheb Rangari’s immense contribution to India’s freedom struggle might be lesser known, but will never be forgotten.

The historical edifice situation in old Pune city continues to stand as a reminder of the exemplary work of these freedom fighters.

While it was Tilak’s vision to popularise Ganesh Chaturthi as a national festival that could bridge the gap between castes and statuses and instil a nationistic fervour to oppose the colonial rule; it was Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari who first lit this fire of change.

Featured image: Bhausaheb Laxman Javale, aka Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari (L); The iconic ganesha idol (R)

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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