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The City Of Braj Yatra – Writings On Mathura In The Nineteenth Century

The district of Mathura is one of the five districts that together made up the Agra Division of the North West Provinces. The year 1803 marks the inclusion of Mathura to the British territory, while parts of it were still administered from Agra and Sa’dabad1. This political arrangement continued till 1832, when Mathura was recognized as an important center of local government and superseding the village of Sa’dabad, it acquired for itself the name of a new district. The district at the time of its addition to the British territory comprised of eight tahsils2, Aring, Sahar, Kosi located on the right bank of the Jamuna; and Mat, Noh-jhil, Mahaban, Sa’dabad and Jalesar on the left of the river. Mathura has been a subject of British documentation and writing, more precisely in the later part of the nineteenth century that coincides with the process of arranging and regulating the region as an administrative district.

One of the earliest textual accounts of the region of Mathura is found in the Vishnu Purana, Bhagavat Purana, and the Harivamsa3 , a comparatively modern sequel to the Mahabharata. Each of these texts seem to weave a similar mythical narrative around a giant king named Madhu who lived and reigned in a forest called Madhuban, and founded the city called Madhupuri, which upon his death passed on to his son called Lavana, in the days of Rama, the kind of Ayodhya. The story goes with the young Lavana challenging Rama, who sends his own brother Shatrughna to slay the giant. Shatrughna not only kills the giant, also cuts down the forest, and marks this event by founding the kingdom of Mathura. Another mythical narrative that goes back to the foundation of Mathura retells the story of the great Aryan Yadava family belonging to the Lunar race settled along the banks of the Jamuna river and made Mathura their capital city. This kingdom was called Surasena with the inhabitants being called Surasenaka. The story goes that  after years of the departure of Rama’s brother Shatrughna, Bhima, the third in descent from the Yadu clan, founded the Govardhana, annexed Mathura and the kingdom continued in that dynasty, until the time of Vasadeva, the father of Krishna. The mythical narratives of Mathura’s part of the living tradition and the experiential dimension of the region’s history forming a vital part in the material and cultural aspect of city life in Mathura and its adjoining regions.

The British period marks an important point in the region as the period also occasions an active effort of writing and textualizing its history. Though much of it had been done to document the newly formed district as an administrative center, the British writings on the region claimed at providing a sense of ‘history’ to a region tied by the shackles of myth and legends. This claim of being inflicted by a lack of a sense of history or historical consciousness, as seen being reiterated in the British accounts of the region is not only limited to that Mathura, but seen as a general inability inflicting the South Asian or ‘Indian’ mind. ‘In a land like India where the historic faculty is so singularly defective, it is difficult to know where history ends and where legend begins, or indeed, if there is any foundation in fact in any of the elaborate stories so universally believed…4 ’ The rhetoric of a ‘lack-of-historical sense’ is time and again employed in the British writings on Mathura which seek to discredit the mythical and popular nature of the region’s history and use this argument to create an image of the region’s natives and culture as “brutish and uncivilized”. Mathura in most British writings has been represented essentially as a Vaishnava holy land, with ‘grossly deluded’ devotees visiting it5. A critical examination of British composed literature on the region is of integral significance keeping in view the historical engagement the region has had with the British colonial project. The colonial state which Nicholas Dirks calls ‘an ethnographic state6’ in South Asia kept the process of collection and production of knowledge at the very center of its statist enterprise. Dirks points out how colonialism was made possible, strengthened and sustained as much as by cultural technologies of rule as it was by the more obvious and brutal modes of conquests. The power of documentation and the colonial knowledge systems becomes visible here, wherein the state’s appropriation of indigenous knowledge and native categories were both objectified and fixed7. Even in the case of Mathura, this transformation of the native society and culture can been seen in the ways the British writings have been produced on the subject.

An essential source for engaging the history of ‘modern8 ’ Mathura is credited to the work of F. S. Growse who composed the Mathura, District Memoir (1884), written in capacity of the district’s Magistrate9. Fredrick Salmon Growse belonging to the Bengal Civil Service was appointed as the Joint Magistrate of the Mathura district in 1871, followed by becoming its Collector and the Magistrate. Growse officially worked in Mathura for six years but is believed to have continued his stay in Mathura for another three years devoting to his antiquarian interests. A sound scholar, antiquarian, archeologist and an able writer, Growse is credited to have initiated the exploration and excavation of numerous mounds in the region, helping trace the existence of several important Buddhist antiquities. He was also responsible for founding the Mathura Museum before his final departure from the district. He writes, “After my transfer, operations at once came to a stand-still and the valuable collection of the antiquities I had left behind, remained utterly uncared for, till I took upon myself to represent the matter to the local Government…When I last visited Mathura, the work had made good progress, and I believe has now been finished for some time; but many of the most interesting sculptures are still lying  about in the compound of my old bunglow.10

Mathura, District Memoir (1884) composed in two editions printed at the North-Western Provinces and Oudh Government Press is largely received as a sympathetic account of the native life and culture at Mathura and its adjoining villages and towns. Growse has been recorded as a sympathetic admirer of the region and its people, living in Mathura he came to develop strong ties with the propertied class, and the financial elites of the district, he educated himself in the language of the natives and refers to several indigenous accounts and local narratives in his records and writing of the district. A review of the text by the Academy compares Growse’s Memoir of Mathura with the other contemporary texts and like the various settlement reports laden with labyrinth of statistics and figures and applauds the reader-friendly nature of the text. He is also credited to have written the first comprehensive collection of local histories of the district, subsequently used by most other official reports on the region.

The Memoir was originally intended to form one of the uniform series of local histories compiled under the order of the Government. Growse states that the main intent of the text is to serve as a reference for the use of the district officers. Though, largely claimed to be a sympathetic account, Growse’s tone in the Preface argues the absence of any sense of history among the natives. “As good libraries of standard works of reference are scarcely to be found anywhere in India out of the presidency towns, I have invariably given in full the very words of my authorities, both ancient and modern.11” Written in the form of a collection of local histories, the Memoir begins with a detailed chapter on the geographic location of the newly formed district and its extent, and divisions in the different periods. The voice of the administrator is clearly deciphered in the ways in which the details of the district are structured, Growse while discussing the geographical features and the extent of the district, discusses at length the arable regions, fertility of land, and the need for the production of certain cash crops that would yield in high income in rent for the Government. The work composed in narrative style documents the history of Mathura while referring also to the various native and foreign accounts on the region. The text dedicates few pages to the work of Vaharamihira, a sixth century scholar, a Hindu polymath residing in Ujjain in whose work Mathura finds recurrent mention. Another point of literary reference made by Growse are the accounts left by the Chinese pilgrim, Hwen Tsang who visited this part of the subcontinent in the seventh century and wrote a lengthy description of his visit to Mathura. Cunningham’s Archeological Surveys and excavation reports serve as another vital source from which Growse excavates the presence of Buddhism in Mathura and its adjoining villages.

Growse too employs a religious terminology while classifying the different periods of historical time that Mathura lived through. The writing reflects a bias the author has in favor of the Hindu elements with a clear disinclination towards all thing Islamic or Mohammaden in the district. The period of Muslim rule is seen as a transgression and a violent break in the rather peaceful history of the region. For instance, while describing the geographical divisions of the district Growse applauds how few masterpieces of Hindu architecture survived what he calls a torrent of ‘Muslim barbarism’. ‘On the other hand, the western side of the district, though comparatively poor in natural products, is rich in mythological legend, and contains in the towns of Mathura and Brinda-ban a series of the master-pieces of modern Hindu architecture. Its still greater wealth in earlier times is attested by the extraordinary merit of the few specimens which have survived the torrent of Muslim barbarism and the more slowly corroding lapse of time.12’ While commenting on the almost exclusively Hindu character of the district, the author points to the gradual erasure of Persian names- the termination of –abad, being replaced with Hindu names ending with nagar, pur, or garh.

Growse’s work is a rich source for the writing of the various social histories of communities and castes in the region. While elaborating the social demographic details of the district, the author supplements his data with tracing the ancestry of the different communities in Mathura. For instance he refers to the narratives of a Sanskrit pamphlet called Jatharotpati and the Padma Purana as refrences for tracing the origins and movement of the Jats towards Mathura. The text provides a detailed chapter on the different Hindu castes residing in the district with special emphasis on the social histories of the Brahmins, Thakurs and Seths of Mathura. Yet another very interesting part of Growse’s work is his effort to document the life of the district under the merchant devotees and the wealthy banking firms of which Bayly refers to us in his work. C. A. Bayly while discussing stability and change in the towns and cities in north India between 1770-1880 looks at the significance of religious practice in the larger life of the towns, and links it to the maintenance of urbanization and continuity in the same. One of the important elements of this chain of religious and urban life in Mathura was the wealthy Seths, hailing predominantly from the Agarwalas within the Baniyas who contributed greatly to the social, religious and urban life of the district. These have also been the heads of important banking firms. Describing one such banking firm says Growse,

For many years past the most influential person in the district has been the head of the great banking firm of Mani Ram and Lakhmi Chand. Their house has not only a wider and more substantial reputation than any other in the North-Western Provinces, but has few rivals in the whole of India. With branch establishments in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and all the other great centres of commerce, it is known everywhere, and from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin a security of any amount endorsed by the Mathura Seth is as readily convertible into cash as a Bank of England Note in London or Paris…

Bayly explains the relationship between pilgrim income and ritual movement through these towns and claimed that it served to maintain a certain unity of Indian economy in the said period. He adds that it is this pilgrim economy that framed the basis of human relation in religious town, Mathura being one. This was helped by the corporate religious bodies which invested in the religious towns, fairs that benefitted and connected to the surrounding villages and frequented by armed gosain bands and banjaara travelers behaving as merchant groups and helped tie the intermediate economy and the local bankers that facilitated trade and bullion movement between the regions. The text is an interesting compendium for sourcing the micro-histories of individuals that helped shape the city-life of the district in the given historical period. The text elaborates the strong relationship the Government had established with the Seths of Mathura and Brindaban who provided both financial aid and civic assistance to the British presence in the town. Seth Gobind Das, whose family founded the Rang-ji temple at Brindaban, in the acknowledgement of his public services, was made a Companion of the Star of India in 1877. Growse accounts the civic life of the district through the contribution and work rendered by the merchant devotees and Seths. These were active members of the Municipal Committee at Brindaban and Mathura, served as managers of the temple-estate at Brindaban, and many personally exerted in relief operations during the several severe famines that were faced by the district. One such Narayan Das, son of the famous and wealthy Seth Mangi Lal of Mathura, receives a khilat of honour from the Lieutenant- Governor in a public Darbar held at Agra in 1880. A part of the Memoir recollects the event of the revolt of 1857 and its effect on Mathura. Growse, calling the revolt of 1857 a mutiny glorifies the role of the Seths in proving their loyalty to the Government who warned the authorities and the Collector of the outbreak, sheltered him and other European residents in their homes till the crisis settled. The Seths says Growse,

Took charge of the Government treasure and maintained public order. They also advanced large sums of money for Government purposes on different occasions…as long as the disturbances lasted, they kept up at great expense, for which they never made any claim to reimbursement, a very large establishment for the purpose of procuring information and maintaining communication between Delhi and Agra…13

A large part of the text is also dedicated to the Mathura and significance of legends and myths in its history. The city of Matura is compared with that of Banaras and is described as an important pilgrimage center for the Hindus, the Vaishnavites to be precise. “So great is the sanctity of the spot that its panegyrists do not hesitate to declare that a single day spent in Mathura is more meritorious than a lifetime passes at Benaras14.” Growse places the story of Krishna at the center of the most remembered legends that together create a remembered past for the region. The text elaborates on the mythological connect each village has with the story of Krishna, a common theme that runs into the popular imagination of the city. The author dedicates a long chapter to the religious life of the native and the pilgrims at Mathura, a central theme of which focuses on the Braj-Mandal or the Chaurassi-Kos Yatra. There is a long description of the various aspects that together make up this Hindu-topography, or a “sacred-geography” as termed by Diana Eck15. He adds, “This extent of country is almost absolutely identical with the Braj-mandal of the Hindu-topography; the circuit of 84 kos in the neighbourhood of Gokul and Brinda-ban, where the divine brothers Krishna and balaram grazed their herds.” Growse describes the eighty-four miles route of the Braj-mandal, along with vivid and illustrative description of the twelve ban and upaban or forests of Braj with their mythological significance, retelling the religious stories each of these places have connected to them. Growse refers to the Sanskrit text, Vraja-bhakti-vilasa, composed by Narayan Bhatt Goswami in 1553 AD. Another important part of Growse’s work look at the transformation of Mathura as a ‘modern’ district or a center of local administration. There is an institution of European technologies of rule and instruments of city-making, a process that starts from 1803 when Mathura is occupied by the Government and made a part of the British territory. The memoir gives lengthy details of the opening up of the railway line in Mathura, the Agra Canal, the pontoon bridge, macadamized road system connecting Mathura to the rest of the pilgrimage sites in Braj and connecting Braj to important cities of Agra and Delhi. The period saw the creation of a Municipality, the Public Works Department, schools of higher learning based on European models, city-dispensaries, law-courts, civil-stations which were solely the property of the seths, English church, the first donations for which were made by the Mathura seths. The text includes sketches, maps of the district, and photographs clicked by the author, plans of the different temples and numerous anecdotes to corroborate the same.

The corpus of British writings on Braj and Mathura also include those composed by Christian Missionaries, Baptist Mission, or individual bishops and priests who documented the same in the form of didactic literature, travelogues and diary entries. Composed in the shape of a diary, Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India, From Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-1825, by the Bishop of Calcutta was published posthumously by his wife. The text also has letters he sent to his friends in England. One of the chapters in the text is dedicated to his journey from Delhi to Agra, recounts passing through Brindaban, which he describes as a land popular and celebrated among the Hindoos for sanctity and the wealth of its temples, and for its sacred monkeys. He writes on the legends associated with the town of Mathura and the ways in which it connects with the flora and the fauna of the city. The writer also recalls instances of baptizing people in the region, and carrying out missionary activities in the residence of other British officials. In addition to these the journals of the Baptist Mission carried out reports and articles on the nature and descriptions of various Indian cities, which could be read by Britons in the other parts of the world. Another such travel account is that of Val C. Princep, an artist, painter who was also a civil servant with the Raj. Princep’s family had been living in India, himself born in Calcuttta, Princep was long familiar with Indian culture, art and history. His father had arrived in Calcutta in 1809 and after returning home was elected a Director to the East India Company and later to the Indian Council. Val C. Princep writes a journal that he composed during his travels from Calcutta to Delhi, titled Glimpses of Imperial India (1878). On his way from Agra to Delhi, the author stays in Muttra (Mathura) which he recognizes as a “city sacred beyond any cities”.

Most of the British writings make a comparison of Mathura with Banaras, and Princep’s account does the same. While his stay in Brindaban, the author comments on the cast rituals and the way the pilgrims and native devotees alike spend money on the temples. The writer visits Brindaban on the arrangements and carriage of Seth Govind Das, one of the key figures in the city-life of Mathura. The text has long descriptions of Mathura as a center of Hindu pilgrimage, while emphasizing the historical and cultural primacy of places like Brindaban, Gokul, Radhakund in the Braj-mandal pilgrimage. The descriptions of the Brahmins are reduced to money-making fat and monstrous men. Mathura has also been described and imagined as the most lucrative place for the propagation of Christian faith. The writing describes the missionary activities in Mathura, beginning from Indian converts to Christianity distributing books, establishment of schools and churches in Mathura. The author left a vivid account of his interaction with the Mathura Seths, temples in the district and in Brindaban, on the geography of Braj-mandal, he sat by the ghats painting, “it’s (the land) is very flat, lying on the Jumna, and from no place can you get a good sketch save from the ghats, which are small, and beset by crowds of greasy Brahmins and dirty pilgrims.16” Finding few things of interest in Mathura, the author spends time to sports, leaving an account of some native wrestling arranged in the compound of his house in Brindaban. The text also contains accounts of the region’s legends, most of which the author finds uninteresting and improper “devoid of poetical interpretation”.

The text A Vaishnava Holy Land, A Jubilee Volume (1906), composed by a Christian missionary named Rev. J. E Scott, author of many other texts on India, namely In Famine Land, Observations and Experiences in India during the Great Drought of 1899-1900 (1904) and The India Mission, Methodist Episcopal Church is another vital source of information on the district of Mathura and the European presence in the same. The author states that the purpose of composing this text is, to give an account of the land and its paramount religion, which he believes is Vaishnavism and “to show how this religion has deteriorated with age, and the most modern form of it is the most corrupt17. The text contrasts this form of Hinduism to Christianity and this seems to be a persistent trope under which he understands all categories and expressions of religious life in Braj. Scott uses Growse’s Memoir, Thornton’s Gazetteer and the Cunningham’s Archeological Reports as the basis of his work on the region. The text empties out all sense of history among the natives, questioning “is there any foundation in fact” in the kind of history the natives have. This linear understanding of historical consciousness and an over-emphasis on fact based histories implied that Braj’s legends and myths have no place in serious history and history-writing18. Scott is motivated by the desire of setting up a Methodist Mission in Braj, with Mathura as its center. The text follows a similar narrative structure with describing the land, the geographical features of Mathura and Braj at large, the major towns in the district are described in terms of their location, demographic distribution, and boundaries. The author describes at length the flora and fauna of Braj, elaborating on the ‘sacred’ significance of some animals over the rest, along with the lists of animals, trees, and shrubs found in the many forests of Braj. The text dedicates a long chapter discussing the people, languages, classification of the various communities and the religious life of the region. “The city totally given to idolatry” and frequented by “deluded devotees” are just few of the expressions repeatedly used by the author to describe the daily religious life of Mathura. A fascinating part of the text is a section dedicated to what the author describes as the ‘modern Mathura’, a Mathura under the British. The author periodized the history of the region using religious terminology, wherein he argues that there have been at least three Mathuras’, the Buddhist, the Hindu and the Mohammadan when “the sacred city lay under the dark cloud of Mohammedan supremacy.” An important event that marked the history of this ‘modern Mathura’ had been the opening of the district to the Baptist Mission and the Methodist Episcopal Church. The text provides details of the workings of the Baptist Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society which while actively working in Agra, saw Mathura as an opportune site for religious revivalism. One of the objectives behind composing this text was to free Mathura from the clutches of their ‘degraded’ religion.

To show that this religion has deteriorated with age, and that the most modern form of it is the most corrupt. Hinduism is worse than Brahmanism, and the more modern Krishnaism is the grossest form of Hinduism. Third to contrast with the Hinduism of today – with the latter day Krishna cults- the purer and nobler religion of Christ, and with the puerile narratives of the Puranas, the exalted teachings of the gospels. And lastly, to show the triumphs of the nobler faith in the very stronghold of Hinduism, where for centuries, it has been fortified by tradition, custom, wealth, and the prestige of a dominant and bigoted priesthood.19

Mathura was seen as a “Mission field” where “providence was beckoning” the missionaries to enter and civilize. The text gives intricate details of the spread and propagation of missionary activity in Mathura. A session of the North India Conference of the Mission met at Cawnpur (Kanpur) in January 1888, describes Mathura a “hard and challenging field”. The author pens down illustrative details of the evolution and growth of the life of the Christian mission in the district, which soon spread to the other Hindu religious regions of Braj, namely Brindaban and Gobardhan. There is transformation of the city in this period, where changes are made to accommodate a new religious community in the urban landscape. The mission lived in the cantonment, dak bunglows, civil-lines, it rented land from the Mathura seths, the period sees the construction of chapels and churches. It starts a Sunday School for the propagation of Biblical knowledge, the famous Brindaban- mela (fair) is seen as a site for mission work. A Deaconess Home and training school for women gets constructed in Mathura. In one of the first church services held in Mathura, Scott reports the event of baptism of two young Bengali widows. The author provides a detailed account of the evolution of the Mathura Mission, with local histories of individuals and castes that were more prone to religious conversion. The urban space of district changed with the expansion of area under the cantonment, the lend rented by the church, installation of dispensaries under the Mission, for instance the Mabel Colvin Memorial Home and Dispensary was constructed in Brindaban, another addition to the city-life of Mathura was the annual Christian mela (fair) which was seen as a great evangelistic agency, these were popularly named as the Isaai mela in the language of the natives. The text is also important as it documents few instances of tension of the use and acquisition of urban spaces, between the natives and the Mission. Scott praises the victories of the Mission in acquiring certain strategic locations and spaces from the temples and Brahmins and these were then used for the construction of Mission institutions.


1. Sa’dabad- F S Growse in Mathura a District Memoir (1882) mentions that the Sa’dabad town came out of the Sa’dabad pargana, previously a part of the Maha-ban pargana created during the reign of Akbar. The Maha-ban included some ten villages of the Sadabad pargana. Growsw tells u that the Sa’dabad pargana had no independent existence till the reign of Shahjahan, when his famous minister, Sa’dullah Khan founded the town. According to the Statistical, Descriptive and Historical Account of the North-Western provinces of India, Vol-VII, Muttra, by Sadabad, was a zamindari of Lalkhani Muslim Rajput in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh, India. Situated at a distance of twenty-five miles south-east of Mathura, Sadabad was located on a small stream called Jharna, at the junction of four important macadamized roads. Of these, one runs straight to Muttra, another one to Jalesar road-railway station, while the remaining two connected with the towns of Agra and Aligarh.

2. A tahsil is an administrative division, an area within a town or a city that serves as its administrative center. As an entity of local government the tahsil exercises certain fiscal and administrative powers over the villages within its jurisdictions.

3. The Harivamsa, an important work of Sankrit literature, containing shlokas, The text is believed to be an appendix or supplement to the Mahabharata, and is traditionally ascribed to Vyasa. The manuscripts found in the 19th century in different parts of India included three portions known as parvas: the Adi Parva, the Vishnu Parva and the Bhavishya Parva. These are included with the eighteen parvas of the Mahabharata.

4. Rev. J. E. Scott, A Vaishnava Land, A Jubilee Volume, 1906. Pp 12
5. Rev. J. E. Scott, A Vaishnava Land, A Jubilee Volume, 1906. Pp 3
6. See, Nicholas Dirks, Castes of Mind, Permanent Black, 2001

7. See, Bernard Cohn, “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia”, in Bernard Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp 224-254

8. The British texts composed during the period use the term ‘modern’ to mark Mathura’s addition to the British territory. The term has been repeatedly used in both official, administrative and travel literature and has been used to mark a break to distinguish the period and its features from the previous political and cultural influences in the region, for instance, the Buddhist, Hindu and the Mohammedan.

9. F. S. Growse, Mathura, District Memoir, 1884. The North-Western Provinces and Oudh Government Print
10. Growse, pp 164
11. Growse, Preface, pp i
12. Growse, pp 3
13. Growse, pp 15
14. Growse, pp 50
15 Diana L. Eck, India, A Sacred Geography, Three Rivers Press, 2012
16. Princep, Glimpses of Imperial India (1878), Mittal Publications, Delhi, pp 180
17. Scott, Preface
18. Scott, pp 12.
19. Scott, Preface

Primary Sources Consulted

F S Growse, Mathura, A District Memoir, 1884. The North-Western Provinces and Oudh
Government Print

F S Growse, “The City of Mathura”, The Calcutta Review, 1873, Volume LVII, Calcutta,
Thomas S Smith, City Press, 12 Bentinck Street

Rev. Reginald Heber , DD, Lord Bishop of Calcutta, Narrative of a Journey Through the
Upper Provinces of India, From Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-1825 (With Notes upon
Ceylon), Vol 1, London, 1827

Rev, J. E. Scott, Braj, A Vaishnava Holy Land, A Jubilee Volume, 1906, Eaton and Mains,

Val C. Princep, Glimpses of Imperial India (1878), Mittal Publications, Delhi

J. Braille Fraser, Military Memoirs of Lt. Col James Skinner, Smith, Elder and Company,
1851, London

R S Whiteway, Report on the Settlement of the Muttra District, Allahabad, North Western
Provinces and Oudh Government Press, 1879

This paper was first presented at the Yatra conference.

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