From the Land of Braj: A Photographic Database

From the Land of Braj, Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage is an online database developed by SOAS, thanks to funding from Michael Palin, that houses over 4500 historical photographs from the Braj region in India’s Uttar Pradesh state. In this post, we will look at what makes this database special and how it combines digital humanities and visual archiving with the shifting grounds of historical and local knowledge.

The Land of Braj

The region of Braj encompasses the cities of Mathura and Vrindavan to the far west of Uttar Pradesh, almost bordering Rajasthan and Delhi. It is universally famous as the land that witnessed the deity Krishna’s days as a young cow herder boy, breaking young girls’ hearts, playing the flute, and presenting an almost unbearably tangible vision of the divine. Following the region’s rediscovery as a pilgrimage centre in the sixteenth century as part of wider movements towards devotionalism – bhakti – across early modern North India, Braj has become a major site of Vaishnava Hinduism.

A classic representation of Krishna with the cow-herder girls of Braj. Chromolithograph, unknown artist. Wellcome Collection, PDM 1.0.

Alan Entwistle

Most of the information and material in From the Land of Braj stems from the work of Alan Entwistle. As a participant in a major research project on Braj’s cultural heritage undertaken by the International Association of the Vrindaban Research Institute (IAVRI)and SOAS between 1976 and 1978, Entwistle took thousands of photographs of the Braj he visited as a PhD student in the 1970s. The photographs cover temples and deities, but also people, places, and everyday life, giving a snapshot of time and place. Entwistle’s influential, encyclopedic book Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage is now also available in open access and can be read as a companion to the photographs.

The links between the Vrindavan Research Institute, a major repository of manuscripts, and SOAS reach further back still. Dr Ram Das Gupta, born in nearby Hathras, founded VRI in 1968 and was Lecturer in Hindi at SOAS for over thirty years. In many ways, the From the Land of Braj database also is a representation of this shared history between institutions.

Database

Following a donation by Michael Palin, SOAS has been able to scan thousands of the photographs from the project, including Entwistle’s, towards the creation of the Braj database. Far from a static image gallery, the database pins each photo onto a map of the region itself. The project was led by Prof Michael Hutt and Special Collections Archivist Erich Kesse.

Developing the database involved multiple challenges. Taking part in the work as a PhD student at SOAS working on Brajbhasha literature, I visited Entwistle’s friends in Vrindavan to help identify people and places in uncatalogued photos, where possible. At every stage, the experience of contributing to the database highlighted to me how working towards digital outputs, with their vastly increased accessibility, demands more, not less, engagement with the world that the digital tools are intended to serve. 

As it stands, the database presents a historical snapshot of Braj in the 1970s. Intriguingly, the now historical distance from the photography and the collaborative project between SOAS and IAVRI also invites readings of the database as an archive of research activity and the people who took part in them. The now deceased Entwistle’s presence behind the camera lingers across the photographs, reminding us that in creating archives we are also archiving ourselves.

There is further information on the database in this SOAS blogpost and in a publication especially prepared to commemorate the grant given by Michael Palin.

All images, except where otherwise noted: All applicable rights reserved by SOAS. Header image: Durgā pūjā at Faujdārvālī Kuñj.

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