The term Braj (Sanskrit Vraja) literally means an area where cows resided or an enclosure for cows. At times, it designated cows themselves. As a place name, it was used for the very’ first time in the Bhagvad Gita, where it applied to a colony of Ahiras. The Harivansha Purana mentions it to indicate an area near Mathura where and a resided with his cows; in fact, the exact words used here are Go- Vraja. The Bhagvata Purana uses the term to signify a small settlement of cowherds and refers to Nanda as the head of this Vraja. At another place also it is used in matching context: ‘observing extremely ominous portents in the Brahdvana Gokula, elderly gopas (cowherds) like Nanda and others met in a conference and deliberated the measures to be adopted in the interest of the Vraja’. A scrutiny of the re-occurrence of this word in the Bhagvata Purana reveals that it was in usage to denote any place of permanent settlement. Krishna, in the episode of lifting the Goverdhan mount as Giridhara, acted as the protector of the residents of Gokul and therefore he was dubbed as the defender of the Vraja. It is worth noting that even when the settlement of Nanda shifted from Gokul to Vrindavan, while referring to the men and women of the settlement, the term occurs repeatedly, irrespective of the geographical location of the settlers.
The geographical neutrality of Vraja/Braj was persistent even in the medieval times. In Chaitanya Charitamrita, Krishnadas Kaviraj marks areas of Gokul, Vrindavan and Mathura by this single term. While designating Madhurya Ras as a kind of emotional denomination peculiar to residents of a unique place the term becomes tautological. Kaviraj says:
‘There is a great increase of mellow in the unwedded conjugal mood. Such love is found nowhere but in Vraja. This mood is unbounded in the damsels of Vraja, but among them it finds its perfection in Shri Radha.’
An estimation of the extension of tracts attached with the term can be made by the fact that Krishnadas does not use it only in the narrow sense of bantam settlement of cowherds, but also mentions jungles to be a part of it. In continuation of the antecedent trend, Kevalarama in Rasa Maan ke Pad uses Vrindavan as a specific place name and Braj as an accustomed appellation used to denote places associated with Krishna. He says:
Mohan plays with Radha, in the groves of Vrindaban, (with his) beautiful, broad eyes. A peacock crest looks beautiful on (his) brow, wonderful clothes, and radiance in every limb. (He) plays the flute, the cuckoo sings captivating the girls of Braj.
Therefore the intrinsic meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘Vraja’ out of which ‘Bray emanates; was an enclosure of cows or station of herdsmen. Some modern scholars define it as a place where cows roam (Vrjanti gavo yasminn iti vrajah) and therefore endorse the use of Braj, as name for the countryside in which Krishna grazed his cattle. All sacred places associated with his early years are located here. However, this area was never labeled with clearly defined boundaries and the term Braj was not used as the official name of a political territory or an administrative division.
An area of 84 Kos according to conventional persuasion was called the ‘Braj Mandal’, whose center was Mathura, which was known as the Surasen Pradesh in ancient times.
In accordance with the narrative of Braj Bhakti Vilas, Braj Mandal’s eastern boundary is along Hasyavan i.e. Barhad village of Aligarh district, the western along Uphaarvan i.e. Gurgaon, up till the banks of Son river, southern Jambhuvan i.e. Batesar village near Agra and northern at Bhuvanvan i.e. Bhushanvan in Shergarh in Mathura. A popular Braj couplet circumscribes the region as follows:
‘It Barhad ut Sonhad ut Sursena ko gaam Braj chaurasi kos mein Mathura MandaI dham’.
Over a period, certain zones were identified as Braj speaking regions. Here the use of Braj dialect of Hindi was popular. In this acreage came the western most parts of Rajasthan and districts of Uttar Pradesh as far east as Hardoi. In the Linguistic Survey of India, G. A. Grierson undertook a detailed study of the limits of this region. He specified the Braj language as a western Hindi dialect; spoken in west and central Doab and the region to its north and south. According to him, it was in use in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab and the Braj MandaI. It did not cover the whole of Doab but exceeded far beyond the Braj MandaI. The specified area approximately comprises of Mathura, Gokul, Vrindavan, the central Doab, Gurgaon, Bulandshahar, Aligarh, Etah, Mainpuri, Budaon, Barielly, parts of Nainital, western and eastern Agra, Dholpur, plains of Karauli, neighboring parts of western and north-western Gwalior, Bharatpur and eastern Jaipur. It occupies an irregularly shaped tract running from south-west to north-east, measuring approximately 90 miles wide and 300 miles in length; an area of 27,000 square miles.
Reference to Braj in this work symbolizes the eighty-four Kos region, which is the pivot of the Braj anatomy, with Vrindavan as the bull’s eye. In the medieval period of Indian History, from here emerged systems of convictions that worked as the paramount driving spirit not only for the eighty-four Kos Braj Mandal and not only for the medieval times, but for regions outlying limits of boundaries and times beyond time. The pilgrimage circuit of Braj covers an area stretching ten kilometers to the east and south of Mathura and nearly fifty to the west and north. The Yamuna winds its way through the eastern part of this area flowing past Shergarh, Vrindavan, Mathura and Gokul. It separates many sacred places on its western bank from the few that are located to the east of it. Virtually all places of pilgrimage in the area are fraternized with the Hindu god Shri Krishna.
The Bhagvata Purana (8thCE) marked a phenomenal growth of Bhakti (Devotional worship) movement in the Braj region. It drew thinkers and philosophers towards the idea of emotional devotion in a big way. Mechanical ritualism of earlier times began to lose ground in some pockets and the Braj Mandal was one of them. The medieval Braj cults of Krishna worship were essentially novel in more ways than one. Their religious ethos was region and culture specific and they ensured that the advantages of being in the centre of this zone were perpetuated in their favor. It is very creditable that despite the use of highly region specific metaphors, the religious philosophers of medieval Braj were able to facilitate Krishna’s popularity cutting across boundaries of any type. The cultural trends that they unleashed were so timeless that they still seem fresh and are not only operational but also very popular. Radha who is Krishna’s consort personifies true love and is extremely popular in the region. Her name is a part of the everyday vocabulary of the locals. Some of the most prominent professors of Brajiya Krishnaism (Radha-Krishna worship as popular in the Braj region) were Nimbarak, Vallabhacharya, Chaitanya, Swami Haridas and Hit Harivansh. They all contributed towards the reclamation of Braj as a land of spiritual significance. Even though there are contradictory narratives about the chronological order, in which they and their followers arrived in the Braj region, the one thing, which remains undisputed, is that they all played a vital role in the popularization of Krishna worship in the expanse. Sectarian writings claim that the leaders of their own sect were the main initiators of the profound changes that took place on the socio-religious canvas of the area. Sectarian rivalries began to color the history of the region towards the end of the 16th century. The probable reason for this could be the build-up of complex and contradictory philosophical literature on the ideological side and a race to convince more and more bhaktas to their viewpoint, on the practical one. Interestingly all these sects worshipped the same deities but their iconography and abstractions divided them. Possibly the greatest common factor among them was the Bhagvata Purana oriented images of Radha and Krishna. Of course, some of them gave such precedence to Radha over Krishna that like Krishnaism, Radhaism also became a phenomenon. Certain sects promoted Radhaism in their own, particularized, individualistic and revolutionary ways.
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