Two intellectuals across disciplines collaborate to bring out a book on the region of Braj under the Mughals

By Shafey Kidwai

The pre-colonial syncretic culture manifesting Hindu-Muslim symbiosis does not go well with some historians. They assert that Hindu and Muslims had never accepted each other. Contrarily much has been written about how Mughal made Hindu-Muslim synthesis the inseparable part of the national collectivity.

Two visionary historians of our times, Prof Irfan Habib and Tarapada Mukherjee, undertook an extensive exploration of the relationship between the Mughal Empire and armed monasticism in North India by zeroing in on private archives and reconstructing the history of three villages in the Braj region.

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Their book Braj Bhum in Mughal Times: The State, Peasants and Gosa’ins (Primus, 2020) addresses the cordial and sometimes adversarial togetherness of the state, the spiritual sect and the common man. Explaining how this insightful book came into being, Irfan Habib writes: “It was largely owing to the vision and effort of co-author Tarapada Mukherjee (1928-90), that an exceptionally large amount of very valuable documentary material became available to the historians of Mughal India.”

Mukherjee, who taught history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, got copies of all the old documents preserved at the Chaitanya Goswamis (Gosa’ins’ in Braj) and their temples. Further, the archives of Govind Dev temples of Vrindavan, Jaipur and Radhakund were also photographed. Historical documents related to the Mughal period are available in Hyderabad, New Delhi, Bikaner, Lucknow, Allahabad, and other places but not much is heard about the Vrindavan collection.

Irfan Habib says, “The Vrindavan Gosa’ins seem to have found an effective protector of their property rights in both town and country in the Mughal state, which made them anxious to get the terms of their pettiest transactions recorded in Persian. Another virtue of these documents is that through them we are enabled to meet many individual men (and at least one woman, Krishna Priya), mostly Gosa’ins whose biographies we can partly reconstruct.”

Dirk Kalff (1971), Christopher Bayly (1983) and William R. Pinch (1996) discussed the two most significant sects of Indian monasticism — Goasa’ins and Bairagis who have their independent armies to protect their interests. Habib and Mukherjee point out that the Gosa’ins with monastic armies were allowed to protect their properties, sectarian obligations, and pilgrimage rates as it was germane to the syncretic culture of that period.

The book makes the period of Akbar to the withering of Mughal Power the object of close historical scrutiny. The first section comprises two articles: Braj Bhum in Mughal Times by Irfan Habib and Notes on Economic and Ethnographic Geography of Braj Bhum in Mughal Times by Irfan Habib and Faiz Habib.

Contrary to popular notion that Braj refers to the areas where the Braj dialect is spoken, Irfan Habib, whose writings candidly manifests how history has an engaging and intellectual collaboration with linguistics, sociology, economics, linguistics and other disciplines, writes: “The name Braj adopted by linguists for the dialect, is, however recent. Banarsi Das, who wrote his Ardh-Kathanak (1641) in Braj, designates the language he was writing in as either Des-bhasha or just Bhasha. Whereas, in the Tuhfat Ul Hind, written in the late years of Aurangzeb’s reign, it is simply called Bhakha. It is clear, then, that Braj was the name for the territory around Mathura, had a religious, not a linguistics connotation, being the area in which pilgrimages were to be made to places that were related in tradition to episodes in the Krishna legend.”

Prof Habib’s article, firmly grounded in historical evidence, discusses the constituent elements of Brajbhum, such as the name and limits of the region’s agriculture, rural society, towns, merchants and money lending, administration, people, and relations among others communities with marked thoroughness. The records of 1692 related to a village Rajpur (near Vrindavan) reveal that a plot is left to be cultivated by untouchables, presumably in return for their labour services (including the removal of dead animals).

Mughal administration was not restricted to urban areas. While sifting through Vrindavan documents, Habib endorses Professor Shirin Moosvi’s findings that Mughals had the depth of control even in rural localities.

The economic and ethnographic geography of Braj Bhum in Mughal times came in for a detailed discussion in the second chapter, and here the famous text of Mughal period Ain-in Akbari (1595) is crossexamined with the Virandavan documents. Tarpada Mukherjee and Irfan Habib pore over the decrees and other administrative orders of Akbar to contextualise his constant engagement with the cultural and religious aspirations of local people belonging to other faiths.

The role of Jahangir and Shahjahan in dealing with Vrindavan temples is thoroughly assessed in another article of the second section.

In the third section, Habib has delineated land rights in Braj Bhum during the reign of Akbar, peasants in Vrindavan, the history of a Braj village and land holdings, and land control in the Village Rajpur punctiliously.

The last section provides a well enumerated and credible account of Gosa’ins of the Chaitanya sect at Vrindavan.

The book meticulously explores the Vrindavan documents in Persian and Braj. The authors illuminate the economic, political, social, cultural, and cultural history that largely eludes medieval historians. This is the reason that both of them are described as historical intellectuals across the discipline.

Shafey Kidwai is an Indian academic, communication scientist, translator, columnist, and author. He is the chairman of the Department of Mass Communications at Aligarh Muslim University.
He wrote this column for News Trail , Bengaluru.

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