The Exquisite Gauda Desha of Dhundiraja
A detailed picture of the Bengal that the 17th Century Sanskrit Scholar Dhundiraja saw and described in his Sanskrit work, Girvanapadamanjari
One of the long-pending tasks that still lies in wait to see the soothing sunlight of the tender morning is the magnificent history of traditional Sanskrit scholarship in Maharashtra that blazed a fiery trail roughly from the time of Shivaji up to the middle of the 20th century. That is a period of nearly three centuries. It appears that this era spewed out extraordinary Sanskrit Vidwans at regular intervals akin to a well-oiled conveyor belt.
One such distinguished Sanskrit scholar is the selfsame Dhundhiraja mentioned in the earlier parts of this series. Dhundhiraja who flourished between 1650 – 1710, was the son of an equally towering Sanskrit scholar named Srirangabhatta, hailing from a hoary lineage of Maharashtrian Sanskrit scholars. Dhundhiraja was based in Kashi and rose to prominence during the rule of Sambhaji Maharaja.
His renowned work on Sanskrit Vyakarana (Grammar) is beautifully titled, Girvanapadamanjari and employs a conversational technique of teaching grammar. The subject of the conversation: a day in the life of a Varanasi-based Brahmana from morning till night. This is the brief story of the Brahmana: as was customary, he once invites a Sanyasin for dinner at his home. When the Sanyasin visits him, the Brahmin host says, “I was born in Gaudadesa (Bengal) and spent many years there.”
The dinner is elaborate and grand and the Sanyasin is contented. The post-dinner conversation goes something like this.
Sanyasin: “Why did you stay in Gaudadesha for so long?”
Brahmin: “To study Tarka (Logic), which was my father’s specialization. The Gauda country has excellent Tarka scholars and teachers. Apart from this, I also studied many other subjects. The people there are fully guided by the Smritis in their conduct.”
The Sanyasin’s curiosity is piqued and he is interested to learn more about Bengal. He also enquires about the sacred Tirthas in Bengal. The host lists the following chief Tirthas:
1. Gangasagara Tirtha
2. Kumarika Kshetra whose presiding deity is the Goddess Kumarika
Kamarupeshwara with Goddess Kamakshi as the presiding deity
And so, the conversation continues. The Sanyasin then asks him for a fuller description of the Bengal country. What unfolds is a truly panoramic and gorgeous canvas of the Gauda Desha in its full, detailed glory leaving out almost nothing. The contrast between Dhundiraja’s picture and those given by Ibn Batuta, Ba Huan and Bernier is yawning as we shall see.
1. Expensive clothes of the finest variety. Coloured clothing was super-expensive.
2. Extremely fine silk garments.
3. Coloured silk fabric was produced in Bengal alone.
Cotton fabrics of a very fine quality (Dhundiraja uses the word, Atisukshma).
1. Rice, wheat, barley, gram, beans, kidney beans, lentils, Rajma, Lanka (a variety of grain), sesame, long pepper, saffron, wild rice, corn, mustard (three varieties), and flattened rice.
2. An exquisite variety of white sugar.
4. Baked flour
It was said that a prized quality of a young woman who wished to endear herself to her man was to offer him a delicious preparation of “parched and flattened rice soaked in milk and sugar and served with her lotus-like hands.”
Sesame, mustard, linseed, castor, sunflower and different kinds of perfumed or scented oils. The manufacture of oil cakes was a thriving industry in itself.
1. Fruits: Mango, jackfruit, coconut, betel nut, banana, jujube, rose-apple, pomegranate, orange, custard apple, pineapple, fig, lime, tamarind, gooseberry and nutmeg.
2. For a list of vegetables, see the previous two parts of this series.
3. Flowers: Kadamba, Bakula, Parijata, Ashoka, Champaka, Ketaki, Tamala, Karanja, Haritaki, Vibhitaki, Plaksha, Nagakesari, Sevantika, Mallika, Kandapushpa, Asana, Mandara, Jaji, Bandhuka, Sindhura, Maachi, Damana, Maruga, Lotus (blue and red)…
4. Trees: Saala, Sarala, Arjuna, Kedura, Banyan, Coconut, Agaru (black), Pipal, Bamboo, Dhava Khadira, Vibhitaka, Palaasha, Bhallaataka, Guggula (gum), Agasti, Dhatri, Tamarind, Karavanda, pine, sandal, red sandal…
5. Creepers and Grass: Madhavi, Akashavalli, Pippali (long pepper), Gudachi, Nagadama, Gunja, Nagavalli, Apasmara, Kusha, Kaasha, Shara (white grass), Vishnu-Kranta and Durva.
1. Birds: swan, heron, crow, cuckoo, peacock, caataka, chakravaka, wag-tails, parrot, saarika, patridge (of different varieties), water-fowl, white crane, water crow, duck, vulture, blue jay, owl, pigeon (of different varieties) and Tittibha.
2. Wild Animals: The famed Royal Bengal Tiger, wild buffalo, bison, wolf, jackal, rhinoceros, deer, bear, monkey, wild dog, and antelope.
3. Domesticated Animals: Cows, buffaloes, goats, wild goats, sheep, camels, elephants, horses, mules, donkeys, cats, rats, mongooses, snakes, frogs, musk-rats, chameleons, house-lizards, scorpions, flies, mosquitoes, bugs, bees or wasps, moths (or locusts or grass-hoppers), black-bees, and ants.
4. Aquatic Animals: Fish, small glittering fish, tortoises, crocodiles, water-snakes, prawns, water-crabs, leeches, water-rats, and mermen.
The foregoing collection is a mere summary of the Gauda Desha that Dhundiraja describes in such vivid detail. He goes into raptures especially while narrating the details of Bengal’s flora and fauna.
This apart, Dhundiraja also describes how the land was overflowing with fresh milk, rock-like curd, butter, and how there was an extensive supply of the ghee with its heady aroma; how the wealthy citizens wore exquisite and expensive silk garments while others wore clothes made of fine cotton. He mentions the fact that every variety of grain and pulses grew there including wheat, sesame, chickpea, and how specifically, the Bengal Gram and Black Gram was available by the gallon in the markets.
The other important economic component that Dhundiraja is highly impressed with is the flourishing boat-making and ship-building industry. Bengal’s riverlines and coastline was packed with boats of all shapes, sizes and makes. He reserves special praise for its sailors who “are expert in the art of navigation.” Some fishermen also moonlighted as highly skilled workmen engaged in the ship-building industry.
Dhundiraja devotes significant passages to elaborately sketch a marvelous portrait of the society and its various components. Here is a compressed view.
The society of the Gauda Desa had a healthy mix of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. Then he provides a highly informative list of the migrants who had settled there from various parts of Bharatavarsha: Gurjaras, Andhras, Karnatas, Dravidas, Maharashtras, Chittapavanas, Kanapavas, Madhyandinas, Jainas, Kanyakubjas, Sarasvatas, Mathuras, Paschyatas (i.e. Europeans), Marujas (Marwar, Rajasthan), Magadhiyas (Magadha, Bihar), Maithilas (Mithila, Bihar), Parvatiyas (people from the hills), Trihutajas (people from Tirhut), and Utakalas (Odisha). Interestingly, Dhundiraja notes how Brahmanas from Gaya and Prayaga frequently visited the sacred towns and cities of the Ganga in Bengal accompanying pilgrims from various parts of Bharatavarsha and performed various rites and rituals connected with a Tirtha-Yatra. These Brahmanas were known as Gaya-Palakas and Prayaga-Palakas.
It is clear that Bengal was the world's favourite destination for immigrants just like how the US was for the better part of the twentieth century.
Every profession, skill, and craft generated substantial income to its practitioners. Barbers, fishermen, boat-makers, coppersmiths, ironsmiths, washermen, weavers, cobblers, woodcutters, bamboo workers, flower-sellers, hunters, artisans, painters, tailors, merchants, interstate traders, and bards could make a comfortable living. Physicians, astrologers and conjurers were in great demand. And as with every society, there was also a profusion of dancers, street musicians, actors, drama troupes, pimps and prostitutes.
Then there was that other ubiquitous feature of the society of the Gauda Desa: ascetics, sadhus, monks and hermits who not only acted as the spiritual and moral cushion of the society, they were universally feared and revered. They fell into two broad categories and they all sported thick, matted locks and had “subdued all their passions and devoted to Sadhana.” The first category was the Bhairava-Upasakas (devotees of the Deity Bhairava or Shiva), and the second was the worshippers of Shakti (Kali and Durga). Indeed, for the longest time—including the present day—Bengal is renowned as a great centre of Shakti-Aradhana. Apart from this, people from all over Bharatavarsha flocked to the Gauda Desha to learn the secrets of Tantra.
The Brahmana host at Varanasi concludes by saying, “ whatever things on this earth are considered excellent are all found in Bengal.”
The Sanyasi who has listened with rapt attention so far is thoroughly impressed and roused to action. He thanked his host and said that his next destination was the Gauda Desha. The delighted host said it was an excellent idea and offered some tips. He told him to first take a holy dip in the sacred Gangasagara where Mother Ganga merges with the Sea (Bay of Bengal). The Gangasagara pilgrimage that occurs annually during Makara Sankranti is the second largest confluence of pilgrims after the Kumbha Mela.
Next, the Brahmana suggested that the Sanyasin should visit the magnificent Purushottama Kshetra followed by a visit to all the other sacred Tirtha Kshetras in the Gauda Desha. The Sanyasin assured his host that he would do accordingly after completing his Chaturmasya at Kashi.
Dhundiraja ends his account on this profound note.
This portion of the Girvanapadamanjari is remarkable by any standard. Tragically, it also belongs to that rare category: of detailed, firsthand description of an entire geography with such comprehensiveness written in Bharatiya Bhasha. At once, it is an encyclopedia, geographical and cultural lexicon and a mini-gazetteer. It is also intimate, written with genuine passion and devotion. Dhundhiraja’s pen is dipped in the honey of the pristine Sanatana cultural inheritance. This precise quality, this exalted feeling and the sanctity it exudes is what is missing in the accounts of Ibn Batuta, Ba Huan and Bernier.
The reconstruction of the civilizational, cultural, social, professional and spiritual history of Bharatavarsha will be far more rewarding and truly enriching when we delve into such accounts of us written by our own people. Foreign accounts are useful but only in a secondary, ancillary sense. Just as how we are intrinsically aware of the rhythm of our own breathing, we need to consciously catch the rhythm of the breath of our national culture like how Dhundiraja did. But then, people like Dhundiraja were the norm, not the exception, of his era.
Thus, for our own times, titans like Dhundiraja act as superb models on how to inhale the fragrance of the Sanatana spiritual civilization, take it deep inside, and imbibe it in our veins. The expression or writing will automatically follow.
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