The Land of Braj: a virtual exploration through the SOAS archive

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In a dingy room with pale blue walls, housed inside the Satbhuj Mahaprabhu Temple are stacks of old religious manuscripts, safely stored in colourful bundled up cloths. 

Close by, in the Nari-Semmari Devī Mandir, a group of men beat the temple walls with thick wooden sticks to encourage the goddess to return with them to their neighbouring village. 

Sometime later, a few actors prepare for the annual Ram Lila; an elaborate play based on the Hindu epic, Ramayana, performed for a few days leading up to the festival of Dussehra. As the actors dress up in ornamented costumes, on-lookers gaze in amazement.

These scenes can all be found in the SOAS Digital Archive, ‘From The Land Of Braj’. The home of the Hindu deity, Krishna, the Land of Braj is an important pilgrimage area in Northern India, and a region rich in Hindu religious literature.

From the Land of Braj SOAS archive
Sādhu sitting by the wayside during Mathura-Vrīndaban ekādaśī parikramā with a display of pictures

Found in Northern India, the Land of Braj is located along the banks of the Yamuna river, with its centre being the towns of Mathura and Vrindavan situated in Uttar Pradesh. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Krishna was born in Mathura, but his playground, as identified by the Bengali saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was Vrindavan; which is now a sacred space of Vaishnavism and considered a holy town for Hindus. The area of Braj, especially the towns of Mathura-Vrindavan are important centres of the ‘Krishna circuit of Hindu Pilgrimage’ and contain several sites associated with Krishna’s life. 

Much of the city’s character and spirit and is rooted in the devotion to this Hindu deity. Be it the town’s motif architecture or religious iconography; the writers and poets reinterpreting and re-telling the stories of Krishna in the verses penned in Braj Bhasa, a dialect of Hindi; the splendid aartis every morning and evening on the ghats of the Yamuna; the ancient temples with learned priests at every corner—experts in the reading of religious scriptures that have been found in Braj and preserved over centuries. Here, the cultural aspects of religion seamlessly merge into everyday life such that it’s easy to feel the presence of Krishna around.

Capturing this ‘great renaissance of devotional Hinduism’ that Braj has been since the 16th century; the SOAS Archive titled ‘From the land of Braj’ is an important and a unique source of a sort of visual anthropology of religion and culture in India. It consists of over 4500 photographs taken between January 1976 and March 1978 as part of a SOAS-led project with the International Association of the Vrindaban Research Institute (IAVRI). 

From the Land of Braj SOAS archive
In the studio of artist Kanhai Lal: sticking decorative stones onto a finished painting

It was Ram Das Gupta, a lecturer in Hindi at SOAS from 1962 to 1996 who first led the foundation for this research. Born in Hathras, a quaint town in the Braj region, he dedicated his life to the documentation of religious manuscripts by recruiting scholars and academicians and teaching them the art of conserving them. In 1968, he set up the ‘Vrindaband Research Institute’(VRI) above the pilgrim hostel owned by his family. Supported by the IVRI, the VRI is dedicated to the task of collecting, cataloguing and conserving manuscripts stored in thousands of temple rooms all across the town. 

One of the scholars that Ram Das Gupta supervised was Alan Entwistle (March 10, 1949 – March 28, 1996) who completed his Masters in South Asian Area Studies and a PhD in Hindi from SOAS in 1982. Using the resources at VRI, he wrote a dissertation titled ‘The Rasa mana ke pada of Kevalarama’, on a medieval Hindi text and later wrote the book, ‘Braj: Land of Krishna Pilgrimage’. A Professor of Hindi Language and Indian civilisations at the University of Washington, he led the survey for the project with IAVRI and photographed the majority of images in Braj that make it to the SOAS Special Collections, now digitised with descriptions written by Entwistle updated with searchable Hindi and geographic data.

From the Land of Braj SOAS archive
Last folio of a Sanskrit manuscript showing how a torn mārgin has been filled in with a frame of repair tissue

From photographs of artisans of Vrindavan to those of priests reading scriptures, from young boys bathing in the Yamuna to intricate carvings of temple stones, from videos recording the sound of religious music and the ringing of the bell in temples to a comprehensive documentary on the art of conserving manuscripts; the audio-visual material in the archive reflects not just dedication to the study of the intersection of religion and culture, but the sheer devotion that envelopes the land of Braj. The photographer’s spiritual intimacy with the subjects is eminent in the archive and perhaps makes up the charm of this research. 

A one-of-a-kind archive capturing the essences of past over present through documentary-style photographs; this special collection is for anyone with a keen interest in understanding Vaishnavism, the intersection of religions and culture and the Braj region that continues holding its distinctive character. 

Access ‘From the Land of Braj’ archive here

Devyani Nighoskar is SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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