In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vraja/Braj

  • Introduction
  • An Overview
  • Braj Culture Today
  • Edited Volumes
  • Area of Braj (Vraja) Based on Purāṇas and Traditions
  • Archaeology
  • Early History and Geography
  • Krishna
  • Rādhā
  • Nimbārka Sampradāya
  • The Vallabha Sampradāya and Aṣṭachāpa Kavis
  • Vārtās
  • Rādhāvallabha Sect and Haritrayī
  • Brajbhasha Poets (Sūrdās and Mīrābāī)
  • Beyond the Sampradāyas
  • Music, Dance-Dramas, and the Brajbhasha Canon
  • Digital Videos

Hinduism Vraja/Braj
Vinay Kumar Gupta
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0235


Vraja is an old Sanskrit word that is now used to denote “Braj,” or the Braj region. Vraja/Braj/Brij presently denotes a particular geographical area in and around Mathura that is related to the childhood activities of Krishna (Skt. Kṛṣṇa), the most popular incarnation (avatar) of Lord Vishnu (Skt.Viṣṇu)—so important, in fact, that some of his most influential devotees consider that he is “God himself” (bhagavān svayam), as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa declares. The word vraja is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root dhātu (vraj), which means “go, walk, proceed,” implying “motion and movement.” In its early forms it can be used to designate areas where cows graze, but it may also refer to a cow pen or cattle shed. More broadly, it has to do with the culture of a semi-nomadic pastoral encampment. The modern-day term Braj, building on these meanings, denotes a conceptual as well as a geographic entity—the former related to the childhood of Krishna, the latter to the area on the banks of the River Yamuna where he is considered to have spent his childhood and youth. The language associated with this region is Brajbhasha [Skt.Brajbhāṣā], which came to have an almost canonical weight—along with Persian and Sanskrit—in Mughal times; for that reason, along with others, it came to be well known far beyond the geographical area of Braj itself. By no means is every usage of Brajbhasha to be associated with Krishna, although his imprint is often to be felt. Over the long course of time, then, we have, on the one hand, a sedimentation and localization of the term vraja (its geographical usage), and, on the other, an expansion of the term (its conceptual breadth and linguistic weight). Acknowledgement: Dr. John Stratton Hawley helped edit this article.

An Overview

Except for few important place names and the city of Mathura, not much is known of ancient Vraja apart from the archaeological record. It is in the early modern period that we come to have a detailed record of Vraja/Braj in written sources, and it was evidently at that point in time when the pilgrimage circuits that nowadays define the region, religiously speaking, were established. Mādhavendra Puri, Rūpa Gosvāmī, and Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa are the most important of these conceptual cartographers. It is understood by Gauḍīya Vaishnavas that Caitanya was the principal inspiration for this mapping, and we know that he did come to Mathura and visited several other locales. The same is claimed for Vallabha and Nimbārka, but the evidence is considerably weaker. In more recent times, it was Growse 1882 that first analyzed in detail various aspects of culture, history, tradition, and etymology of place names in Braj. Mittal 1966 (Mittal himself being a Brajvasi) is a wide-ranging study of Braj that includes details of bhakti literature and paramparā, along with history, festivals, and sacred space. Mittal 1968 is one of the most important works on the history of various sects of Braj. In Mittal 1975 the same scholar studies various art forms, particularly the local, sectarian, and folk art of Braj. Vaudeville 1976 represents an important attempt to question the historical veracity of much that is currently claimed about the religious roots of Braj culture; the author often saw Krishnaism as an overlay of earlier forms of Hindu religiosity. Entwistle 1987 provides the most comprehensive study of Braj geography, culture, and literature in English. Gupta 1982 studies Braj culture with an emphasis on Brajbhasha religious poetry from Rajasthan. Goswami 2001 and Nārāyaṇa 2001 provide a local devotee’s perspective on the region and its rituals, particularly the Rādhāramaṇa Temple in the former work; and both works are well illustrated with photographs. Haberman 1994 is an important first-person study of one enactment of the 84-krośas circumambulatory journey that is often held to define Braj as a sacred space. Vaudeville 1996 serves as a handy point of reference for the many essays of Charlotte Vaudeville that have to do with Braj history and culture.

  • Entwistle, Alan W. Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage. Groningen Oriental Studies 3. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 1987.

    One of the most comprehensive studies on Braj. Entwistle devotes detailed and critical attention to stories, locales, and histories of interpretation associated with all aspects of the Braj region, carefully evaluating almost all prior scholarship. He surveys mythological motifs, “devotion in theory and practice,” and archaeological and written records from earliest times up to the mid-1980s. He distinguishes between various kinds of sacred places in the Braj region and, in a hundred pages of closely documented study, surveys most of these individually.

  • Goswami, Shrivatsa. Celebrating Krishna. Vrindavan, India: Sri Caitanya Prem Sansthan, 2001.

    Presents an insider’s perspective on devotional life in Braj, with particular emphasis on the icon, rituals, and bhakti traditions at one of the important temples in Vrindavan, the Rādhāramaṇa Temple, of which the author is a priest. Numerous photographs by Robyn Beeche further enhance the quality of this work.

  • Growse, Frederick Salmon. Mathurā: A District Memoir. Allahabad, India: North-Western Provinces and Oudh Government Press, 1882.

    A superb work on the heritage, tradition, and history of the Braj region by a British officer who for several years served as District Collector of Mathura. The book is a great source for understanding the early findings from various sites that had emerged before 1880, and a mine of information on old Braj traditions, festivals, heritage, and history. The chapter on the etymology of local names is also an important contribution.

  • Gupta, Motilal. Braj: The Centrum of Indian Culture. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1982.

    A useful study of Krishnaite religion and Braj culture, with an emphasis on unpublished manuscripts of the Vaishnavite poets of Rajasthan and the concept of semiotics in relation to Braj culture.

  • Haberman, David L. Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    An in-depth study of various forests and sacred places of Braj as connected by one version of the caurāsī kos yātrā, emphasizing the physical features of selected locales and the moods associated with them. Because the account is personal and deeply reflective, this book has attained a special status in course syllabi dealing with Krishna and Braj culture.

  • Mittal, Prabhu Dayal. Braj Kā Sānskritik Itihās. Mathura, India: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1966.

    One of the most important publications on the Mathura region and its religious culture and history. Almost all aspects of Braj or Mathura are covered in this publication: history, literary references, vanas (“forests” as defined in the classical texts), Braj yātrā (the cirumambulatory pilgrimage in various guises), the history of religious sects, art, important places, festivals, tradition, literature, geography, animals, birds, and crops. An essential work. In Hindi.

  • Mittal, Prabhu Dayal. Braj ke Dharm Sampradāyon kā Itihās. Delhi: National Publishing House, 1968.

    One of the most important studies by a great savant of Braj culture. Discusses in detail every religion and sect of the Braj region, including Buddhism, Jainism, and various aspects of Hinduism. Mittal treats the sects that were established in Braj from the 16th century forward: the Sampradāyas founded in the names of Nimbārka, Vallabha, Caitanya, Hita Harivaṃśa, and Haridāsa. In addition, Rādhāvallabhis, the Arya Samaj, the Radhasoami satsang, the Sikhs, and a number of smaller groups are also treated. Mittal traces the development of the cult of Rādhā as represesented in Gāthā Saptaśatī, Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda, and the writings of Nimbārkites and others. In Hindi.

  • Mittal, Prabhu Dayal. Braj kī Kalāon kā Itihās. Mathura, India: Sahitya Samsthan, 1975.

    A detailed study of various art forms of Braj, including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and dance. Mittal has tried to study all these arts chronologically and on the basis of classification and typology. In Hindi.

  • Nārāyaṇa, Bhaktivedānta. Śrī Braja Maṇḍala Parikramā. New Delhi: Gaudiya Vedanta Publications, 2001.

    Colourful and lucid account of the entire Braj region through the eyes of a Gauḍīya bhakta. All the places in Mathura as mentioned in the Varāha Purāṇa account are described, and the sacred spots of Vrindavan, Govardhan, Barsana, Nandgaon, Unchagaon, Kamai-Karahla, Gokul, Mahavan, Baldeo, and other important sites and important vanas on the circumambulatory route are described in detail, with the associated legends.

  • Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Braj, Lost and Found.” Indo-Iranian Journal 18.3–4 (1976): 195–213.

    In this much discussed essay, Vaudeville raises doubts whether any specifically “Kṛṣṇaite” cult, other than a primitive form of nature-worship combined with some form of devī worship, existed among the rural populations of Braj before the arrival of followers of the great Vaishnava “reformers” in Govardhan and Vrindavan in the course of the 16th century.

  • Vaudeville, Charlotte. Myths, Saints and Legends in Medieval India. Compiled by Vasudha Dalmia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    A compilation of previously published articles, including “Braj, Lost and Found,” “The Govardhan Myth in Northern India,” “Kṛṣṇa, Gopāla, Rādhā and the Great Goddess,” and “The Lord of Govardhan Hill.” The collection reveals Vaudeville’s particular fascination for the palimpsest-like history of Mount Govardhan and the accounts and struggles that are associated with efforts to claim and reclaim it.

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