Excerpted from Raobahadur DB Parasnis's book 'Poona in bygone days'.
Parvati is a small hill situated to the south-west of the historic town of Poona. It is about 500 yards from the city limits and about 3| miles from the Poona Post Office. It has become famous on account of the temples which were built by the third Peshwa Balaji Bajirao (1740-1761). Before that, it had no importance and was included in a small hamlet called Parvati which was under Poona since the Nizamshahi kingdom. It is mentioned in an old document that it was given in inam to a Brahman named Mahadbhat bin Mudgalbhat Purandare and was continued to him by the celebrated Malik Ambar, as well as Shahaji and Shivaji. After the death of Dadaji Kondadev, in 1647, the title of the Brahman was questioned and he was stopped from enjoying the revenue of the village. Whereupon the Brahmin made a complaint to Shivaji, who, on inquiry, restored the village of Parvati to Purandare. It is well-known in Maratha history that the descendants of this Purandare family afterwards helped Balaji Vishwanath, the first Peshwa, in his early days of adversity, and subsequently carved out their own fortune along with him. In 1714 when Balaji Vishwanath was invested with the office of Peshwa, Ambaji Trimbak was made his Mutalik or Dewan and given a Saranjam of Us. 65,000. His descendants are still enjoying the Jahagir and are styled as first class Sardars of the Deccan. The grandson of Balaji Vishwanath took a fancy for the Parvati Hill, built some beautiful temples and buildings, and turned it into a picturesque and romantic place.
The story goes that Kashibai, mother of Balaji Bajirao Peshwa, suffered from sore-feet and came to reside in the Mastani Garden for change. All possible efforts were made to cure her but to no purpose. She then prayed to the hill goddess Parvatai (Bhawani) to restore her to health and her ailments immediately stopped. The image of the goddess was then in a neglected condition and the Peshwa's mother asked her dutiful son to build a temple in honour of the goddess Parvati and Balaji Bajirao complied with her wishes. The author of the Peshwa's Bakhar gives another tale. He says that Balaji Bajirao built a temple of Shiva in honour of Raja Shahu to perpetuate his memory. Whatever may be the true version, Parvati temples were built by the third Peshwa, Balaji Bajirao . whose name has been associated with the hill in a manner worthy of his illustrious fame. Balaji Bajirao selected a good site on the summit of the hill and commenced a building of stone work in 1748. From the authority of state records it is evident that the following idols were placed with religious ceremonies in the temple on the 11th April 1749:— 1. Devadeveshwar (Ban.) 2. Mahadeo of silver with two golden images — one Ganpati on its right lap and the other Parvati on its left lap. 3.Ganpati of stone. 4. Parvati—the original idol of the hill goddess which was already there. The religious ceremonies and the dinners in connection with them were celebrated continuously for four days from Friday 7th April to 10th April by the Peshwa and Rs. 4,320 were spent on that account. The silver idol of Mahadeo weighed 6, 737 and a half tolas rupees and the two golden images of Ganpati and Parvati weighed tolas 686 and 1,245 respectively.
The Peshwa Balaji regularly rode every morning to Parvati and spent hours in enjoying the scenery there, and in taking athletic exercises. Later on, he became so deeply devoted to the gods that on every Ekadashi day lie worshipped the idols himself. He also appointed several Brahmans to perform the religious worship of Devadeveshwar. In 1760 he guilded spires of the temples with gold weighing 1,020 tolas. In 1763 when the Moguls destroyed the town of Poona, the idols in the Parvati temples were removed elsewhere and they were again brought there and replaced with religious ceremonies. In the centre lies the chief temple which is dedicated to Devadeveshwar, another name for Shiva. It is a handsome building with imposing gateway built after Hindu style with a spire and guilt top. At every corner of the temple are small domed shrines dedicated to the Sun, Ganesh, Parvati, and Vishnu. In front of the chief God there is a carved stone bull covered by a stone canopy. In a separate enclosure to the west of the main temple are two more temples dedicated to Kartik-swami and Vishnu. The architecture of these temples is not particularly remarkable but the effect of grouping adds immensely to the general view. In 1755 the Peshwa Balaji Bajirao built on the hill private quarters for change and recreation and he often visited them. They are still known as the ' Wada ' or Palace. He was so much heart broken by( the crushing defeat of Panipat that hewas removed to Parvati by his ministers, Konher Trimbak Ekbote and Krishnarao Parasnis, for change where he died in 1761. His son, Madhavrao I, followed in his footsteps and showed great regard for his father's dearly loved hill. On the 21st February 1766 he established the Shivapanchayatan or the five smaller gods in the main temple of Devadeveshwar and continued all the grants to the temple. Nana Phadnavis prayed to the goddess Parvatai that if* a son was born to Narayanrao's widow Gangabai his thread ceremony would be performed on the Parvati hill. The goddess listened to his prayers and blessed the lady with a son, and Nana in order to fulfil his vow celebrated the thread ceremony of the young Peshwa on Parvati in 1779. On this occasion valuable presents were given to the temples and considerable charities were distributed at Parvati. The young Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao, too, like his grandfather, showed great liking for the hill and took frequent rides there ; his chief attraction being the menagerie which was located at the foot of the hill. Bajirao II, the last Peshwa, commenced to build a storeyed palace here, but his stars being unfavourable he left every thing in chaos and ruin. The palace begun by him was never finished and the completed parts of it were destroyed by lightning in 1816. In 1791 in the reign of Sawai Madhavrao, lightning had struck the temple of Kartik Swami which was considered a bad omen by Brahmans and a Shanti (propitiating) ceremony was performed to appease the God ! But in 1816 all the elements being enraged against the last Peshwa he could not win the blessings of Parvati. It is said that he witnessed the battle of Kirkee from a window in the northern wall in the main temple but he was terrified and ran away when he heard the thundering sounds of cannon.
The temples of Parvati are built at a height of 216 feet from the base, but being situated on a fortified eminence they present a most charming and magnificent view. The ascent is by a flight of very wide and long stone-steps numbering about a hundred. The steps are so built that elephants could ascend the hill easily. Palanquins and elephants were the usual conveyances for royalties in those days but the practice of utilising them has since disappeared. The last ascent that was made on an elephant was on the occasion of the visit of H. R. H. the Prince of Wales to Poona in 1877, when the huge animal slipped and nearly fell with the Prince. The view from the Nagarkhana is one of the most beautiful scenes that can possibly be presented to the eye. The spectator is bewildered, as it were, by the surrounding scenery. It bursts upon his sight so suddenly and so pleasingly, that he feels puzzled on which side to fix his attention. Beauty meets the eye from every point, green of every shade, brilliant and glittering. It was from this place that the Peshwa used to see the fire-works which were played in the tank below. Parvati is indeed an ornament to the Maratha capital and Poona is justly proud of her temples and their builders.
At the foot of the Parvati hill, a high enclosure of masonry was built by the Peshwa Balaji Bajirao for distributing alms in the month of Shrawan to Brahmans from all parts of the Deccan, Berar, Carnatic and Hindustan proper, according to the sanctity, moral character and learning of the individual. It was known as Ramana or gathering of Brahmans which was held annually like a religious fair at the Parvati hill. This institution was started by Bajirao I, in Poona after his victory over Trimbakrao Dabhade in 1731. In 1736 the total amount of Dakshina was Ks. 16,354 only, but it gradually rose to lacs. After the overthrow of the Peshwa's rule in 1818, the British Government discontinued the public distribution of Dakshina at Parvati, but appreciating the object of the charity in its true sense allotted a special allowance for the encouragement of learning.