Braj What (III)? By Acharya Shrivastsa Goswami

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The following article was written by Acharya Srivatsa Goswamiji of Sri Caitanya Prema Sansthana. This is Part –III of the three-part series.

In 1987, the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Kalakendra (IGNCA) and Sri Caitanya Prema Sansthana (SCPS) initiated the process of academically revisiting the culture richness of Braj. A serious and comprehensive documentation effort by SCPS grew into a rich archive of printed and audio-visual material that made it a natural home for scholars and researchers from India and abroad.

This collaborative effort, formally launched at the beginning of 1988, produced a series of translations of classical texts central to Braj, a compilation and publication of historic documents and a series of international seminars and multi-media exhibitions for exposing new audiences to the fascinating history and culture of Braj. The project came to known as Vraja Prakalpa.

The following article was written by Acharya Srivatsa Goswamiji of Sri Caitanya Prema Sansthana. This is Part –III of the three-part series. Part-II was published in VT’s last edition.

From both the raas lila and samaj traditions further art forms developed, which are described below.


The Bhagavata Purana tells that Lalita sakhi sang in Dhrupad style during the famous Maharaas dance. Dhrupad means “fixed verse”, that is, the verse used are set to a definite melodic and rhythmic pattern.

Its historic development has already been outlined, from its rise in the courtly tradition of the sixteenth century to its demise with the fall of those same courts.

However, even as Dhrupad declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its forms were incorporated into more popular and enduring traditions, becoming the basis of raas lila and samaj. Its stylistic eminence is even recognized today, when all royal patronage for this most courtly art form has completely disappeared; raas lila and samaj repay their debt to the parent tradition of Dhrupad by promulgating its musical form.

In course of time, however, renewed interest has been shown in the parent of so many other traditions. Dhrupad Samarohas (festival) have taken place in Varanasi since 1976, and with that renewal of interest, the cycle seems to have been reinvigorated. There have been Dhrupad Samarohas in Vrindavan since 1979, where the tradition of Dhrupad had always continued in the raas lila, and there has also been a Samaroha in Nathdwara, itself closely allied with the Dhrupad tradition through its own musical form of temple worship known as Haveli Sangeet.

Thus, Dhrupad, one of the few surviving forms of original medieval art in India, seems to be regaining its place in the pantheon of arts with regular events at Jaipur, Delhi and other places.

Since there is no means of reviving the patronage system that once fostered this art, it is obvious that new means must be found to ensure its survival. One such has been the foundation of a traditional school, a Dhrupad Gurukula, in Vrindavan at SCPS since 1982, so closely allied with Dhrupad through its own tradition of saints and musicians, who provided the verses and music for the form, and through the continuing tradition of raas lila-mandalis or troupes, which have utilized the classical forms of Dhrupad by incorporating them into the folk tradition of music-drama to reenact the sports of Radha and Krishna in Braj.

The veteran artists of the classical Dhrupad tradition have become the teacher of a new generation of artists, recruited from India and from the West.


Samaj has been mentioned as one of the continuing original offshoots of Dhrupad singing. While classical Dhrupad was rehabilitated in the royal courts of the Mughals, samaj took refuge in the temples, where it was put into the service of Radha and Krishna. The great poet saints of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wrote verses in the Braj dialect describing the sports of Radha and Krishna, and these were set t the traditional Dhrupad style of singing, with some variation.

In the temples, the devotional aspect of the art of music was emphasised. As it survives to this day, the style is “responsive singing”, with the verse first sung out by a lead singer and then repeated by the accompanying samaj or group of musicians playing instruments like the sarangi, pakhawaj, and cymbals, all to the chorus of the devotees.

Just as the great saints of the medieval period lived together harmoniously in Braj, the verses of all these saints are included in the samajs sung in the temples of Vrindavan today. Because the saints of that era are belived to have actually experienced the lilas of pastimes of Radha and Krishna, more pastimes have been recounted in their Brajbhasa verses than in the ancient classical Sanskrit scriptures.

Since temple traditions vary, hence there are samajs sung daily in certain temples, and these depict the daily activities of Radha and Krishna living in Braj. In other temples, samaj is only sung on special occasions. Well-known samajs occur on the birth anniversaries of Radha and Krishna; during the forty-day period between Basant Pancami, the spring festival, and Holi, renowned for its playful throwing of colors; at Jhulan, the swinging festival during the rainy season, when swings are still hung from the trees in the Braj area, and so forth. The temple still remains the home of the arts in Braj, but without additional support, there is danger of even these time-honoured skills being lost. None of the traditional arts of the temple exist in a vacuum, and it will be seen that all must be fostered to ensure the continuation of this historic spiritual heritage.

Raas Lila

The history of raas lila begins with the Bhagavata Purana. It recounts how Krishna disappeared in the midst of the dance with the gopis during the full moon night. Enacting the parts of the various characters, the gopis began to perform Krishna’s childhood sports in order to bring him back. This ancient evidence for the raas lila is followed by other literary references and inscriptions. The definitive form of raas lila was realized during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Narayana Bhatta envisioned the raas lila as an integral part of the ban-yatra pilgrimage. He was not alone, for it is said that other saints, such as Gamandi-deva Acarya, were also instrumental in shaping the modern-day raas lila.

In the seventeenth century, the king of Jaipur, Sawai Jai Singh, built the compound, which today houses the Sri Caitanya Prema Sansthana, and organized raas lila performances there, for the first time outside temple settings.

Even today, the raas lila remains the means of educating the masses in their spiritual heritage. The inclusion of a sermon by Krishna, an innovation by its great devotee Baba Premananda, has also served to bring out clearly the message of the raas lila and the spiritual values, which are at its core. Thus, the folk tradition has incorporated the classical tradition, enriched it, and made it the instrument of mass-education.

Raas lila companies (mandalis) play to attentive audiences in Braj during the monsoon season (July-August). During the remaining ten months of the year they are invited for performances all over India, even beyond the Hindi-speaking areas, and they certainly are feeling of national integration in modern India, since they inspire integration of the language and religion, through this beguiling play of the celestials.


The temples have incorporated art forms not only from the classical arts but also from folk traditions. One such tradition is the celebration of sanjhi. The delightful background to this festival is the worship of the sanjhi motif at dusk; the motifs are made by young girls on the walls of their homes during a period of fifteen days in order to procure a fine husband. According to the tradition of Braj, Krishna disguises himself as a young girl and, unknown to Radha, joins her in the sanjhi worship, helping her to obtain himself as her husband!

The sanjhis created in the temples are related to an ancient art form described in the Visnu-dharmottara-purana, where it is known as dhuli-citra, making picture with coloured powders. In the temple of Radha’s village, Barsana, the festival and making of Sanjhi designs goes on for a full fifteen days. The various places in Braj associated with Radha and Krishna are drawn in a fixed pattern. Each day’s design becomes more elaborate until the new moon day, when the largest sanjhi, depicting Vrindavan the traditional meeting place of Radha and Krishna is created.

In Vrindavan, however, the sanjhis in the temples are made only between ekadasi, the eleventh day of the lunar cycle, and the new moon day. The Vrindavan temple sanjhis are extremely elaborate, consisting mainly of intricate geometric patterns, requiring great skill to execute. Several priests concentrate for several hours daily to complete these works of art, which are then effaced at the end of the ritual.

The entire tradition of sanjhi, from the proper preparation of the coloured powders and the clay base for the drawings to the geometric designs themselves, consists of highly specialized operations.

The sanjhis are prepared on a fresh octagonal clay base each day. The eight sides account for the intricate geometric borders. An eight-petalled lotus is also the mystic seat of Radha and Krishna, and Vrindavan itself is conceived of as a lotus. Either at the centre of the geometric designs, or spread out amidst these designs, representations of Radha and Krishna are depicted. Often a special samaj is sung for the occasion.

There is even another kind of sanjhi created with coloured powder in a large container of water. It is amazing how the powder floats on the water without being submerged! Truly amazing.


Shringaar refers to all kinds and varieties of decoration.

Both the images in the temple and the svarupas of child actors in the raas lilas are honoured with the finest of decorations. In the raas lila, for example, the floral designs are most striking. The beautifully strung, fragrant garlands are requisites for the complete costuming of Radha, Krishna and the gopis. Along with these garlands, smaller items, such as earrings of flowers are also made with great skill and a sense of style; the same may be said for the various flower decorations that adorn the mukutas or crowns which the svarupas wear. It is only when they have been crowned with these mukutas that the devotee feels the spirit and inspiration of radha and Krishna descend into the child actors, who are then honoured as Radha and Krishna themselves.

The costuming of the svarupas is also a traditional art of Braj. The design of the clothing and the embroidered fabrics in which the clothing is made, and the mukutas embroidered in gold, are all the product of traditional artisans who make their homes in Vrindavan and in the surrounding towns and villages. While there is little likelihood of these arts dying out in the near future for such costumes are required not only for the many raas lila mandalis but also for the temple images – the quality of the work should be enhanced. When these traditional arts and crafts are recognized and fostered by just such an organization as the Braj Kala Gurukula, then there is some assurance that the products will retain their high standards and even improve with modern advances.

Phool Bangla

An extension of the personal Shringaar or decoration of images and svarupas is the art of building phool banglas, literally entire houses of flowers, in which the deities are then enshrined. This is an art particularly popular during the hot season, the idea being that the flower decorations are cooling and the masses of jasmine buds especially popular for these decorative houses are available in abundance at that time. The conjunction of tiny white flowers strung together into decorations, including even in the actual clothing of the deities, and the celestial fragrance produced by such quantities of jasmine, is beyond the power of mere words to describe.

The typical method of making these decorations is first to string the flowers and then to tie them onto frames fitted with rows of nails. An ancillary art to the making of phool banglas is the cutting of decorative pieces such as parrots, peacocks and other motifs and symbols from the fibrous white pith from the stalk of plantain (banana) trees. Incredibly intricate geometric patterns are produced by the tying of the strings of flowers onto these frames; the cut-outs of plantain stalk are also extremely intricate and show a high degree of artistic skill and dedication. All of the above-mentioned arts and crafts are put to one principal use: the enhancement of the sense of devotion, both in temple worship and in the viewing and enjoyment of the raas lila.

The raas lila may be called the ultimate extension of temple worship into everyday life, with a concomitant pouring of bhakti or devotion into every humdrum activity of the worshipper’s life.


Temple worship in Hinduism presumes a highly developed aesthetic expression. At the heart of the temples are the images, which must be made to strict scriptural standards. Casting of images in brass and other metals is another of the important skills still practiced in Vrindavan.

During the pilgrimage season, in the monsoon months, thousands of pilgrims pass daily through Vrindavan; many will wish to return home with images cast in this holy spot for worship in their homes and personal shrines. Of course, temples, too, rely on this supply if images.

Images are cast not only in metals. For other festive occasions, such as Diwali, the festival of lamps, images such as that of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and abundance, are made in terracotta; many other terra-cotta figures, such as the gods Ganesh and Hanuman, a variety of animals, from horses to elephants, and human figures, such as gopis, are also produced. These images fall under the category of folk arts. Many of them are brightly painted, displaying traditional costumes of the area. Folk arts cross sectarian boundaries, and so the great festival of Sivaratri, the holy night of Siva, also finds its place in Braj. A variety of clay images are produced for this special celebration, to be offered in worship in homes and temples.

All these arts and crafts are part of a timeless heritage. It is so surprise, then, to find that the folk arts are being discovered once again by enterprising visitors to India.

It would be a sad commentary on our mechanized age should they be allowed to die out for lack of sustained and enlightened patronage. But just as our industries are constantly being revamped and improved, so should our arts and crafts gain from the benefits of modern techniques and modern teaching methods as well.

To ensure that such forms of artistic expression do not become lost amidst the contemporary clutter of mass-produced consumer goods, the Braja Kala Gurukula will encourage and promote folk crafts to ensure finer products of the highest human and artistic calibre possible, crafts of which we may continue to be proud.

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