The Role of Bhakti Saints in Music during the Mughal Period

Huma Aizaj (Research Scholar)

Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh



This paper aims to examine the role of Bhakti saints in music during Mughal period. During the time of Mughals, music played an essential part in Bhakti tradition. In this paper, we have noticed that Bhakti saints not only devoted themselves to worshipping God but also made significant contributions to the cultural life of their times. Listening to music to achieve a state of ecstasy and to profoundly engage in love for God is how these people express their devotion to God, and music is the medium through which they do it. By performing a variety of music that they have created themselves, Bhakti saints can effectively transmit their societal ideals and ambitions to us, which is an interesting phenomenon to observe. In this paper, we examined that with the use of regional languages in their compositions, Bhakti saints provide a common ground for the people of India. This, in turn, attracts people and fosters an environment of peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. We see that Temples were the most effective arena for cultural transmission, and as a result, they played a crucial role in disseminating the composite tradition in art and culture. We have undertaken to trace the Mughal emperors, especially Akbar, who had a spiritual leaning towards Bhakti saints and would visit their places and listen to their music. It is quite fascinating to see that saints of the Bhakti tradition gave performances in a wide variety of musical styles throughout this period.

Keywords: Music, Bhakti, Dhrupad, Vishnupad, Kirtan.

How to cite this paper:

Aizaj, Huma. 2024. “The Role of Bhakti Saints in Music during theMughal Period.” Sangeet Galaxy 13(1): 34-45.

In the Bhakti tradition, music is regarded as the most significant aspect and is practiced the most frequently. Since the time of the ancient Indo-Aryan culture up till the present day, the Hindu religious tradition has maintained its use of musical elements such as tone, rhythm, and dance, in addition to providing textual support and interpretation in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages. The practice of music, which is considered to have a heavenly origin, plays a significant role in Hindu mythology. The musical instrument known as the vina is honored with the goddess Sarasvati, who is considered to be the heavenly patroness of music. The fifth of the Veda, which is known as Indian music, was created by the god Brahma. In his incarnation as Krishna, Vishnu, the preserver, makes the sound of the conch and plays the flute. During the process of the destruction of the universe, Siva, in his form as Nataraja (the lord of dance), plays the damru (drum). The manifestation of these gods in India led to the development of music and serves as an example for musicians.[1]

The temple system of Hinduism in the new bhakti movements was distinct from the typical puja environment and structure that had emerged by the middle of the medieval period. They favored the name seva (service) over the term puja, which refers to the common pious worship that is offered as devotional service. Bhava (emotions) is the term for the compassionate experience of seva that music creates in the minds of the singer and listeners. Bhava changed depending on the sort of raga used, the significance of the pada or literary composition, and the atmosphere that the temple’s decor created. A.W. Entwistle asserts that the purpose of singing, like other acts of devotion, is to arouse bhava. The lyrics typically recount a specific event in Krishna’s life. The feeling of grandeur generated by the deity’s ornamentation is enhanced and complemented by the devotional songs. Additionally, the congregation feels more united as a result of these songs. This type of worship has always played a significant role in fostering a sense of connection among followers in addition to having an emotionally relieving effect on the participants.[2] We must keep in mind that this musical essence in the bhakti tradition has been dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of musical tradition. It is amazing to see how Bhakti saints can express their societal aspirations and ambitions to us clearly by singing a range of songs they have written themselves.

Music in Bhakti Tradition:

By the sixteenth century, various new bhakti traditions had been established in the Braj region, or earlier Vaishnava tradition (sampradaya) had been modified during the Mughal period (1526-1707 A.D). These new movements advocated for Krishna to take the place of Vishnu as the greatest Being in Hinduism. The Bhakti tradition, which originated in Braj, drew almost entirely on Braj bhasha, which is spoken in northern India. Today, the name “Brajbhasha” is likely to immediately bring up images of devotion to Krishna. The word, which translates to “Brajbhasha language,” asserts Brajbhasha’s mytho-poetic links with Krishna lore and the Vaishnava efflorescence that swept across Mathura and Vrindavan starting in the sixteenth century. However, Braj was also a prominent language, giving it a much more varied cultural vehicle than its modern Vaishnava implications would suggest. Krishna-worshiping literati did indeed cultivate Braj to some extent.[3] This is the region of India where Krishna was born, spent his childhood, and participated in many activities. The Pushti Marg or Vallabha tradition, which was started in the early sixteenth century by Vallabhacharya, the Radhavallabha bhakti tradition, which was started by Sri Hita Harivamsa in the mid-fifteenth century, the Nimbarka bhakti tradition, which was started by Nimbarka in the twelfth century but revived in the sixteenth century, Swami Haridas established the Haridasi bhakti school in the middle of the fifteenth century; Chaitanya established the Gaudiya bhakti school in Bengal in the early sixteenth century were among these new bhakti traditions.

Since the beginning of the 16th century, Mathura (Braj area) has distinguished itself as a significant hub for Krishnaite pilgrimage. It is home to countless temples and other places of worship that are associated with all of the major Vaishnava sects.[4] The founder of Pushti Marg and the way of fulfillment through divine grace (Pushti), Vallabhacarya (1479–1531), as well as his son and successor Vitthalanathaji (1515–86), who organized the cult and expanded the sect, are among the most notable religious figures who personally contributed to, were inspired by, or supported a thriving literature written primarily in Braj Bhasha.[5]

During the time of the Mughals, the Bhakti saints had a tremendous influence on the growth of music. During this time, the devotional traditions of the early medieval period, such as harikatha, as well as the cults of the Vaishnavites, Naths, and Siddhas, were assimilated into the Bhakti tradition. The Bhakti poet-saints adopted chhand, pad, and doha in place of the traditional prabandh form. This situation led to the ultimate emergence of the majority of musical genres, including shabad, dhrupad, and vishnupad.[6] The Vallabhites hagiographies are known as varta. The main varta are the Chaurasi Vaishnava ki varta and Do sau bavan Vaishnava ki varta, which described respectively the legendry life of Vallabha and Vitthalnath.[7] The Caurasi Vaisnavan ki Varta is a collection of 84 vartas– a varta is an account, report, or story of something or someone—each of which describes significant spiritual occurrences in the lives of 84 of Vallabhacarya’s chief disciples. Vallabhacarya was a significant thinker who founded his distinct school of bhaktimarga in North India during the first third of the sixteenth century.

Vallabha Bhakti Music Tradition:

Vallabhacarya gives very importance to music to express their devotional love to God, he began the practice of having kirtans (hymns of praise) sung before the svarupa (a divine image is never in Vallabhacarya’ sampradaya referred to as murti representation, image as would be the ordinary Hindu usage, but always called a svarupa the divine entity itself, not just a likeness of Shri Govardhananathji) of Shri Krishna as a part of darshana seva (the act of coming to see and to pay homage to a deity) . These kirtans were intended to intensify the extraordinary (alaukika) atmosphere that was supposed to surround each darshana period (the act of coming to see and to pay homage to a deity). The kirtans described the lilas of Shri Krishna vividly and beautifully, different kirtans were sung for each darshana period and each holiday celebration. Later, Vitthalanathaji added musicians to the kirtana singers and had artists paint background scene for the darshana periods. Today, the kirtanas of the astasakhd (called the “Astachapa” when considered from the standpoint of their literary abilities only) are still sung during the darshana periods of modern temples of the sampradaya. The poets of the ashtachap are eternal companions of Shri Krishna, their poetry is most likely to evoke powerful emotions (bhakti bhava) in the hearts of listeners. Collections of the poetry of each of the four members of the Astachapa who were Kumbhan Das (1469-1584 A.D.), Surdas (1478-1580 A.D.), Paramanand Das (1494-1585 A.D.) and Krishna Das (1497-1580 A.D.) initiated by Vallabhacarya have been published, the other four members of the ashtachap were Govind Swami (1506-1586 A.D.), Chitaswami (1517-1586 A.D.), Chaturbhuj Das (1531-1586) and Nanda Das (1534-1584 A.D.) initiated by Vitthalanatha.[8]The first member of the ashtachap to be initiatedwas Kumbhanadasa; Vallabhacarya gave him the duty of singing kirtana before Shri Govardhananathaji, but, since he was a householder, Kumbhanadasa was not able to give his full time to this duty. Suradasa was the first full-time kirtana composer and singer: he was followed by Paramanandadasa, who also devoted himself to singing kirtanas full-time. Krsnadasa was the last of the Astachapa to be initiated by Vallabhacarya.[9] Thus, it is clear that the Bhakti tradition places a high value on music and singing as a means of expressing one’s sincere devotion to God. These poet-saints possessed an in-depth knowledge of poetics, singing, and music; among them were the asht-chap, also known as the eight eminent poets’ composers. Therefore, we can assume that temples became the centre of a variety of cultural activities, which attracted a great number of performing artists and poets-saints, who created poetry and song and performed it as a part of their devotion to their God.

The Vallabha tradition’s Dhrupad-style songs are referred to as Kirtan in the early hymnals and literature of this group. Sometime during the lifetime of Vallabhacharya, Haveli Sangit was created under the Pushti Marg Seva under the name of kirtan. The music of Pushti marg was not always known as Haveli Sangit. The haveli sangit, however sometimes referred to be music played in the havelis or palaces of Krishna worship, is more recent. A Vallabha tradition acharya assigned to the Govardhan section of the Jaipur temple, Gopal Rasik Tailang, detailed the essence of Haveli Sangit in an interview, describing its continuity and significance for the followers over the centuries: With the help of Surdas, Nandadas, Chaturbhuj Das, etc., haveli sangit started to evolve. Kirtan was given a proper position in daily worship when these Ashtachap poets realized the value of this approach. Innumerable devotees have subsequently performed their padas in the same way as these Astachapa, who sang about Lord Krishna as they experienced his darshan. The general population enjoys this music, and for many of them, it has been a means of liberation and awakening to the existence of God.[10]

According to B.L. Sharma, Vallabh sampradaya’s musical traditions have contributed significantly to the development of Indian music. This sampradaya is also responsible for maintaining the dhrupad-dhamar vocal style of traditional Indian music and the tradition of playing the veena and pakhavaj instruments. This sampradaya is largely responsible for all the exquisite dhrupad-dhamar compositions that are currently available.[11]

In addition to the Vallabha tradition of Pushti Marg, three more bhakti sects are flourishing in Braj. These Bhakti sects have all embraced Bhakti sangit as their primary method of expressing their devotion to Krishna. The Nimbarika, Haridasi, and Radhavallabha are three prominent but less well-known Vaishnav sects of North India. These sects all originated from the Radha-Krishna worship tradition that was practiced in Braj. The still-thriving samaj-gayan is at the centre of all three of these sects. Samaj-gayan is a form of group song singing that consists of devotional verses sung in a certain way. The word “samaj” refers to a gathering or assembly Singing is referred to as “gayan” in common usage. Even though samaj-gayan fulfils the requirements of the pada-kirtan definition, these three traditions do not utilize the names kirtan or bhajan. Samaj-gayan is a kind of pada-kirtan that resembles the conventional dhrupad form. Like dhrupad, it comprises a formal framework with strict growth principles that demand a core knowledge of Indian musical culture. It is based on a similar understanding of raga and tala. The Radhavallabha tradition is thought to have been the first Krishna bhakti tradition to incorporate samaj gayan as a part of its worship, and they did it simultaneously with the establishment of their tradition.[12]

Radhavallabha Bhakti Music Tradition:

The Radhavallabha lineage was created in the sixteenth century by Sri Hita Harivamsa of the North Indian town of Vrindaban (1501–1552 C.E.). Hindu mythology states that the nearby town of Mathura was the place of birth for Krishna’s incarnation, which occurred around 3000 B.C.E. According to legend, Krishna spent his early years at Vrindavan (Vrindavan, in Sanskrit), which is considered to be the most important geographic site. Along with Shri Chaitanya, the six Goswamis of the Gaudiya tradition, Vallabha, the Ashtachap poets, Shri Bhatta, Harivayasadevacharya of the Nimbaraka tradition, and Swami Haridas of the Haridasi tradition, Hita Harivamsa played a significant role in the early history of the medieval revival of Vrindavan as a significant Hindu pilgrimage centre. According to historians, each of these saints had a significant role in restoring Vrindavan as the hub of the Bhakti culture in northern India.[13]

The Radhavallabha tradition’s musicians assert that the poet-saint Hita Hativamsa, the sect’s founder, was responsible for starting the practice of congregational singing in the 16th century.  This opinion is supported by a miniature artwork from 1538 AD that shows Harivamsa and a devotee singing the samaj gayan while being accompanied by cymbals, a barrel drum, and a Tanpura. The Radhavallabha tradition produced a rich lyrical heritage beginning with Hita Harivamsa, and music has always played a significant role in this society. Both of these developments can be traced back to Hita Harivamsa. The Radhavallabhite samaj is arguably the oldest samaj gayan tradition that has been continuously upheld to the present. The Radhavallabha temple in Vrindaban, the sect’s primary devotional centre, organizes samaj performances twice daily.[14]

Hita Harivamsa’s significance lies not only in the fact that he was a pioneer in establishing Vrindavan as a religious centre, but also in the fact that he was crucial in establishing the musical practice of samaj gayan as the centre of the temple ritual and in elevating Radha to the position of supremacy. Both of these accomplishments contribute to Hita Harivamsa’s overall importance. The Chaurasi-Pad’s Braj Bhasha contains Hita Harivamsa’s most important work.  It has Eighty-four verses and discusses the Nikunja-Vihara (the passionate pastime of Radha and Krishna that occurs in everlasting time), the Ras-Lila, Radha’s Mana or pride, and the spring and autumn landscapes of Vrindavan. Because the Chaurasi-pad is primarily intended to be a poetic depiction of Radha and Krishna’s romantic encounters, it contains relatively few straight theological assertions. In addition to the Chaurasi-pad and a work written in Sanskrit about Radha, there is only a brief text in Braj Bhasha known as the Sphut-Vani, as well as a prayer written in Sanskrit to the goddess Yamuna. Both works are considered to be the only extant examples of their respective subjects.[15]

Nimbarika Bhakti Music Tradition:

The Nimbarka tradition is a much less well-known subject and its creator Nimbarka than is the case with other traditions (c.a. 1120-1200 A.D.). The earliest of the new Krishna traditions is the Nimbarka tradition. The one-hundred-verse masterpiece Yugala-Satak was written by Sri Bhatta (c.a. 1470–1570 C.E.), the first Braj Bhasha poet of the Nimbarka sampradaya. The Yugala-Satak, acknowledged as the earliest devotional work in Braj Bhasha among the new Vaishnava sampradaya, evolved into an excellent example of how devotional poetry should be composed in the language. Several early preferences, including kedarau bihagarau 18, sarang 17, vilaval 11, malhar 6, gauri 5, vasant 3, vibhas, kanhara, rayaso, maru 2, and sorath, pancham, ramkali, kafi, cancari, and hori 1, are indicated by the number of times specifically ragas are mentioned alongside particular verses in manuscripts of this text. Additionally, specific talas like champak, ektal, tintal, and chautal were discussed in this work.[16]

The primary liturgical hymns utilized in Nimbarka samaj gayan singing, the Mahavani, were written by Shri Bhatta, a pupil and disciple of Shri Harivyasdevacharya (1540–1630). The Mahavani (great hymns) text is divided into five sections. In today’s samaj gayan settings, all of the songs from the second section, Utsaha-Sukha, are utilized to celebrate festivals. The twenty festivals listed, which span from Vasant to Diwali, are those that the Nimbarka sect typically celebrates. Many songs from the other section of the work, which are intended for everyday performance, are not sung because it is thought that they are too intimate for the general audience to hear. The lyrics to these songs’ descriptions of Radha and Krishna’s love play are so personal that they run the risk of being mistaken for sensual poetry rather than spiritual hymnology, which is what was meant by intimate.[17]  The Mahavani does not relate to Raga or tala above the poem or stanza, in contrast to the Samaj-srinkhala of the Haridasi tradition or Sri Radhavallabhaji ka Varshoustav of the Radhavallabha tradition.

There is a small amount of disagreement on how old this sampradaya’s practice of Samaj gayan is? Many of the leaders said that Nimbarka was the origin of the samaj gayan and offered an account of how Krishna himself taught dhrupad to Narad Rishi in the skies before passing it on through the line of disciples to Nimbarka. Taking Darveshi Narad as an example, Sri Brajvallabh Saran, a Vedantacharya of the Nimbarka tradition and the director of Sri ji Mandir and Saravati Press in Vrindavan, once said that “just as Darveshi Narad sang dhrupad songs and lost himself in musical ecstasy, members of the Nimbarka sect continue performing samaj gayan in the dhrupad tradition.” Despite this assertion, Samaj Gayan seems to have been legally acknowledged by the Nimbarka Sampradaya only in the middle of the seventeenth century, following the Radhavallabha tradition. There is no evidence that Nimbarka participated in the singing of samaj gayan, which was customarily performed only in the regional Braj Bhasha vernacular, and he only composed in Sanskrit. The Nimbarka manuscripts, which are collections of songs in the Braj Bhasha language, also have a history of roughly 360 years, according to Sri Saran. Old pada collection manuscripts reveal that since 1643 A.D., the samaj gayan in Sanskrit, which served as a forerunner of the Braj Bhasha language, has been performed utilizing the eight-stanza poetry of Gita-Govind. This assertion is probably untrue since, even though these poems may have been performed in the dhrupada style, the interactive Samaj Gayan singing tradition is believed to be unique to the Braj.[18]

Haridasi Bhakti Music Tradition:

One of the key figures in the history of North Indian music is Swami Haridas, the creator of the Haridasi tradition. Miyan Tansen, who performed at Emperor Akbar’s court in the sixteenth century, was his disciple, and he is widely regarded as the saintly teacher who passed on the classical dhrupad and khayal to all the Mughal courts during the Mughal dynasty and beyond. Swami Haridas, who is thought to be an accomplished singer and musician, declined an appointment at the royal courts instead and chose to live out the rest of his days in the Nidhuvan grove in the Vrindavan forest singing about Syama (Radha) and Kunjbihari (Krishna) and their pastimes.[19]

The Kelimala is the main piece of poetry by Haridas to be found in Braj Bhasha. Ashta-siddhanta, a little philosophical work, is the only other thing he has ever written. Singing and music are specifically mentioned in the Kelimala (verses 94 and 107) in the context of Krishna and Radha’s pastimes. The name of a Raga appears above each verse in this piece. Kanhrau 30, kedar 22, kalyan 12, sarang 11, vibhas 11, malhar 8, gauri 6, vasant 5, vilaval 2, gauda malhar 2, and nata 1 are the most often encountered classical ragas in the kelimala.[20]

Instead of performing the samaja gayan as it is known now, Swami Haridas performed a type of solo dhrupad that was only heard by his close followers. Samaj gayan in the religious community traces its origin to the famous 16th-century poet-musicians swami Haridas, the Haridasi tradition, represents the most recent tradition of congregational singing practiced among north Indian Vaisnava. The preceptor of the monastic branch of the Haridasi tradition introduced samaja singing in their sanctuaries during 18th century. First, the performance was rendered jointly with the musicians of the Nimbaraka tradition. It was only later stage that samaja gayan of the Haridasi tradition developed in to separate and distinct musical styles. The major figure associated with the foundation and advancement of the samaja gayan of Haridasi tradition is the poet-saint Lalita Kishordasa (1733-1823 A.D.), who initiated the tradition and gave the music of this community its essential shape.[21]

The legendary female saint Mirabai wrote her poetry in the Rajasthani dialect of Hindi between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. She is well-known in India, at least among performers of bhajans (devotional songs).  Because Mirabai was a female poet who accepted Krishna as her husband and true lover, her lyrics about Krishna are very spiritual and differ significantly from those of Surdas and Tulsidas in various ways. We know very little about her life and literary contributions, as was the case with many other saints in the 15th and 16th centuries.[22]

Sikh Bhakti Music Tradition:

Sikh sacred music is an art form that is used as a channel for spiritual connection through the singing of devotional songs taken from the scriptures (shabad kirtan). Guru Nanak was the one who established the foundation for the creation of Sikh music, which was later carried on by his successor. The intellectual and aesthetic experience of the mystical meaning of scripture, which is produced by meditation on, singing of, and listening to the sacred hymns, is the main focus of the Sikh religion. The sacred text has been musically adapted and created to achieve this goal. Through the singing of hymns or shabad kirtan, the Sikh devotional experience effectively uses the poetic and musical communicative powers to convey the spiritual message. The name “kirtan” derives from the root “kirat,” which means “praise,” and refers to the praise of God. It evokes the sublime so that, while it is being performed, the receptive mind might experience the divine presence. [23]

During the journey that Guru Nanak undertook in the sixteenth century, he was accompanied on his journeys by the Muslim rababi Mardana, who was an accomplished player of the string instrument known as the rabab. The first Guru went on four separate journeys and communicated with a variety of individuals through the medium of musical performance. This is made abundantly obvious by the fact that his hymns have specific ragas and a range of singing styles drawn from a variety of cultural traditions. He composed his verses in a variety of classical and folk styles, using nineteen different ragas and seventeen different raga forms, each of which had a different nature and origin. [24] To create the huge hymnal known as the Guru Granth Sahib, Nanak’s many songs, as well as the songs of Kabir, Namdev, and other bhakti saints and Sikh gurus among the famous ten gurus, were gathered together. Sikh songs were written in a standardized script known as Gurumukhi, but the language was quite similar to Braj Bhasha and Punjabi.[25] The song lyrics of the second Guru, Angad, who lived from 1539 to 1552 A.D., were composed in nine different ragas. Additionally, he initiated the popular Asa di Var (Ballad in Asa Mode) shabad kirtan (kirtan chauki) performance. The Gurmukhi script was also used by the second Guru, according to tradition. The third Guru, Amardas 1552-74 A.D., composed hymns in seventeenth musical modes and their six raga forms. The Ramkali raga song Anand Sahib (Hymns of Bliss), which is performed after all ceremonies, is his most significant composition.[26]

Musical form of Bhakti Music:

As a result, the sama-gana and gandharva sangita musical elements of early pujas and ancient yajnas were gradually combined with local and regional music. As a result, devotional music, also known as bhakti sangit, developed within the context of medieval temple Hinduism. Kirtan and bhajan, two of the most musical forms of expression, have taken the place of ritualistic actions and observances as a means of providing enjoyment or service (seva) to a deity.

The most well-known and often used terms for Hindu devotional music in India and the Indian diaspora are still kirtan and bhajan. This is because kirtan and bhajan are key components of the practice of bhakti.  According to Stephen Slawek, Kirtan and bhajan had a significant role in the preservation and spread of popular Hindustani religion. Kirtan refers to extolling someone or something by speaking or reciting about their admirable qualities. This interpretation of kirtan is still relevant today, but it is more frequently linked to the musical setting of a text that praises a deity. Even though it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when the term “kirtan” came to have musical meaning, there is no doubt that the modern use of the term “kirtan” as a musical term is a continuation of the practices of medieval bhakti saints who used kirtan as a means of disseminating the emotional devotionalism that they expressed.[27]

The majority of the time, Pada-Kirtan is performed by a few people seated on the ground near the lead vocalist. There are significant variants of pada-kirtan that are performed by professionals or skilled musicians with minimal audience engagement, despite the term “congregational” occasionally being appropriate. In the south of India, these are known as kriti, whereas in the north they are known as haveli sangit, samaj gayan, shabad kirtan, and padavali-kirtan. For Pada kirtan performances, a special area in the temple is typically set aside for singers and musicians, who recite lyrics from anthologies while being accompanied by instruments and facing or next to a deity portrait.[28]

The primary musical form utilized for Pada-kirtana in northern India is known as dhrupad, and it continues to be associated with many Vaishnava traditions of worship and service.The main types of traditional vocal music used in South Indian pujas were kritis and early kirtans, and they still are. These forms’ of music is based on ragas and talas from the Indian music tradition, which are used to please the gods and their adherents and are thought to have been inspired by the divine. These forms’ lyrics feature depictions of the chosen activities and expressions of devout adoration.[29]

Bengal and Orissa both have a unique variety of pada-kirtan known as padavali-Kirtan. mostly from the late-medieval songs of poets Vidyapati and Chandidas. In eastern India, Padavali-Kirtan evolved into the most refined style of devotional musicShri Narrottam Das (1531–1572), a disciple of Chaitanya who organized a significant kirtan festival at Kheturi in 1572 A.D., changed and altered the slower dhrupad style of braj music to reach its current structural shape. In honor of the modern-day Bangladesh, his original form of padavali-kirtan is sometimes referred to as garanhati kirtan. In later genres, Hindustani vocal forms including khayal, thumri, and tappa were added.[30]

Mughal inclination towards Bhakti Saints

It is possible to add here that the development of art and culture is directly associated with patronage, and that the patterns of patronage determine the level of creativity that is displayed. The proximity of the Braj region to the capital city of Agra, which was also the cultural node and financial hub of the Mughal empire, was an added advantage that facilitated the full fruition of art and culture in the area, as it amalgamated several characteristics of the literary and music culture of the Mughal court. This proximity also made it possible for the Mughal court to influence the artistic and musical cultural practices of the Braj region. The Mughal emperor Akbar, who aspired to create a climate of shared appreciation among a heterogeneous people, encouraged the Braj region to become a center for poetry and music throughout the sixteenth century. According to the Braj treatises Chaurasi vaishnavan ki varta and Do sau bavan Vaishnava ki varta and the Persian sources from the time, Akbar liberally donated lands to both new and old temples in the Mathura and Brindavan area.[31] The community had strong relationships with most of the kings during the period of Vallabhacharya’s son and successor Vitthalanath, which paralleled the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Eight imperial edicts (farman) from 1577 to 1643 A.D., confirm that the Vallabha sampradaya was endowed with land and a village by Akbar, his mother Hamida Banu, Jahangir, and Shahjahan, as well as grazing rights for its cows and protection for its peacocks. The community was also protected for the following several hundred years by a succession of Mughal emperors and Vallabh leaders. Between 1633 A.D. and 1658 A.D., Shah Jahan and his son Dara Shikoh renewed and reissued these gifts numerous times. Shah Alam revived them in 1771 A.D. and 1773 A.D.[32] Their benevolence and charitable approach toward other religions drew other Vaishnava poet-saints of the Chaitanya and Vallabhacarya sect to reside in the Braj region, which over time came to be known as a major hub for the Krishna Bhakti cult. Because Vaishnava was communicated to the populace in their language and through the arts of music, dance, and drama, which were essential components of the social-religious rituals and celebrations, Vaishnava attained immense popularity in this region.

Akbar musical encounters with Bhakti saints

Akbar has a profound understanding of both the theoretical and practical facets of Indian and Persian music. He was well-versed in the devotional music of the Braj region, including Vishnu pad and kirtan, among other forms of music. It is fascinating to learn that Tansen is frequently mentioned in episodic contexts with the texts Chaurasi vaishanavan ki varta and Do sau bavan vaishnavan ki varta. The following is an example of a recurrent theme that appears across these texts: At Akbar’s court, a musician, most likely a Tansen, would perform a composition written by a Vaishnavite saint poet. It piqued Akbar’s interest in who the song’s composers were, so he was led to the saint-poet. There, the Emperor is put through a test of some kind, and a lesson can be gleaned from the experience. There are various variations on the theme, but they all point to the basic image of Akbar as a patron of music, particularly Indian vocal music, and a connoisseur of lyrics written in vernacular languages. In addition to this, it highlighted his interest in a variety of religious experiences and his diverse outlook on the subject. Examples drawn from sources in the Braj region show several instances that demonstrate Akbar’s musical interest in songs written by the bhakti saint poets Surdas, Kumbhandas, Govind Swami Nanddas and Haridas. Akbar’s musical interactions with the Bhakti saints are depicted in three episodes given below.

One of Suradasa’s padas was learned by Tansen, who performed it in front of Akbar the Great. Akbar quickly inquired about how to set up a meeting with the distinguished bhakta who had written the pada after hearing it. Tansen informed the emperor that Suradasaji, the kirtana’s composer, was from Braj. When Akbar learned of this, he came up with a strategy for how he would meet Suradasa. Suradasa received a great deal of love and respect from Akbar, who then called him Suradasaji. Please recite a couple of the numerous padas you have composed in adoration of Vishnu Suradasa followed by performing a pada in front of Emperor Akbar, who was ecstatic to hear it.[33] Then, Akbar considered testing Suradasa to see if he truly was entirely committed to Bhagavan by having the poet sing about his regal majesty. Then Akbar was aware that he would not honor any king on earth. Akbar told Suradasa, “Shri Bhagavan has given me the authority to reign, and every gifted person has sung of my greatness,” as was his intention. You should sing about my fame because you are a talented performer as well. You merely need to ask for whatever it is that you want. The next pada that Suradasa sang was not in praise of Akbar but rather Bhagavan Shri Krishna. Akbar had a moment of introspection after hearing the pada. Suradasaji, would you sing about my fame? If he had been even the slightest bit greedy, he would have sung about my magnificence. But because he is a Parameshvara-belonging man, he will only sing about Parameshvara’s fame.[34] Akbar was inspired by the poet’s devotion and asked the poet for a reward, which he flatly rejected. Then Surdas advised him not to make another attempt to meet. One episode expands on Akbar’s interest in the words sung by his court musicians as well as the performance aspects of music. The emperor heard the poems written by Surdas in their Persian translation and gave gold and silver coins in exchange. This narrative beautifully captures Emperor Akbar’s curiosity about Hindu culture. Though the earlier narrative makes it obvious that the emperor could immediately understand the meaning of the song which was sung for him by Surdas and to react immediately, it is significant to note the mention of Akbar having Surdas’ piece translated into Persian.[35]

The Chaurasi Vaishnava ki varta was present at Akbar’s second musical meeting with Kumbhandas, a saint-poet disciple of Vallabha. The identity of the musician who performed for Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri is not known, but he sang an original composition written by Kumbhandas to the emperor there. The devout poet was pressured by Akbar’s messenger to come to the court, which he did on foot as he refused to travel by the vehicle sent by the emperor very reluctantly and condemned himself for abandoning his familiar Braj and having come to hell. Kumbhandas finally finished composing a pada, which he sang to Akbar. When the Emperor first learned of this pada, he felt a rising rage within his heart. After giving it some thought, though, he told himself that if Kumbhanadasa had been greedy, he would have sought to flatter me. As a result, Akbar was able to deduce that Kumbhanadasa placed worship of his god above all else. Then Akbar said to Kumbhanadasa, “Baba Sahib”, I will carry out any order that you see fit to give me, and I will do it without question. In response, Kumbhanadasa stated, “From this day forward, you must never again call me here”. After listening to what Kumbhanadasa had to say, Akbar dismissed him.[36]

Further mentions to Akbar’s interest in music can be found in some vartas of the Do sau bavan Vaisnava ki varta. Another occurrence is described in the varta of Govind Swami. When Akbar was in Agra, he overheard people saying that Govind Swami sang exceptionally well. After hearing about Govind Swami, Akbar made his way there secretly to listen to his music. The emperor, who was overcome with amazement, was unable to contain his excitement and shouted out an appreciative phrase (wah! wah!), which infuriated Govind swami. As a direct result of these events, the musician decided that he would no longer sing in the raga known as raga bhairav because it had become contaminated.[37]

The renowned poet Nanddas, like Surdas, is considered to be one of the Astachapa, also known as the eight seals. He is the principal saint-poet of the Vallabha sect. His varta was described in the Do sau bavan Vaishnavan ki varta. In one of the episodes of the Do sau bavan Vaishnavan ki varta, Tansen performs a lovely kirtan of Nanddas for Akbar. Akbar is so captivated by the portrayal of Krishna in the ras dance that he asks to meet the author, whom Birbal has invited to the court. When Akbar finally meets with Nanddas in Manasi Ganga, he asks him the meaning of a particular line from the poem, but the poet is hesitant to answer. Instead, he advises the emperor to ask a specific woman in his court; after leaving Birbal with Tansen, Akbar returns to the court and asks the woman, who faints and dies instantly. Akbar then turns around and returns to Nanddas, who instantly departs his body and joins the heavenly drama. Birbal explains to the perplexed emperor that he had to keep the meaning a secret as a sincere devotee and that he would have preferred to die instead.[38] This episode also mentioned in Astachapa ki varta.[39]

In the sixteenth century, Akbar, Tansen, and bhakti saint swami Haridas had several musical encounters. According to Nalini delvoye, the first account mentioning Tansen, Akbar and swami Haridas seems to be the Pad-prasamg-mala attributed to Nagridas (1699-1764A.D.), who as Savant Simh, was the former ruler of Kishangarh and retired to Vrindavbanin 1757 A.D., where known as Nagridas. Akbar asked Tansen who taught him to sing and who was a better singer than him at the beginning of the story. Tansen replied that he studied vocal music under a Vrindavan-based Vaishnava by the name of Haridas-ju. Tansen and Akbar head straight to Vrindavan to see Haridas. Tansen sings first, then requests a song from the Maharaja. Even though it is the month of Carita-Vaisakha (March-May), Sri Haridas Ju begins with the raga malar as clouds gather and peacocks begin to sing. The season is such that peacocks continue to sing as he starts singing a bishnupad. This brief narrative follows the structure of the Vallabhite account with an additional magical dimension provided by the power of Svami Haridas music. He has just performed some music, and right away it begins to rain.[40]

Tansen is referred to as Swami Haridas disciple in the Nijmat Siddhant, which is attributed to Kishordas and is associated with the Nimbarka sect. The raga Dipak, whose burning impact, if done flawlessly, is well known, and which eventually happens to Tansen, is sung by Tansen in one episode that is still well-known today. The incident takes place at Ramachandra Baghela’s court in this rendition. Rama Chandra was at a loss for how to stop the burning, and the only solution he could think of was to have someone sing the raga Malar, but none of the court musicians could do it correctly. Tansen began his search for a vocalist in Orcha, where a woman gave him a diagnosis and taught him the raga Malar. She advised Tansen to visit Vrindaban, where he studied the same raga with Swami Haridas and turned into one of his followers. After hearing about him, Akbar invited him to perform in Agra. Then Akbar questioned him about his lack of singing ability in comparison to Swami Haridas. Tansen responded by saying that whereas Swami Haridas was singing for himself, he was singing for the Lord of the World.[41]

In yet another incident illustrating Akbar and Haridas’ musical interaction, Tansen was given two pricey pearls by Akbar as a prize for his virtuosity. Later, when he learned that Tansen had given them to two servants, the emperor was indignant. Tansen sought assistance from Ramachandra Baghela. The King saved him by giving him a fan with pearl inlay that was worth three hundred times as much as Akbar’s presents. Tansen was asked by Ramachandra to greet Swami Haridas on his behalf. Akbar was amazed by everything.[42] Akbar’s musical interactions with Bhakti saints like Surdas, Kumbhandas, Govindswami, Nanddas, and Haridas demonstrate how talented these saints were in music and singing since Akbar was highly interested in seeing their performances. One thing we can note is how musically talented Bhakti saints were, as evidenced by the fact that one of Akbar’s court’s most talented singers Tansen, was also a disciple of Bhakti saint Haridas. Therefore, we can say that Bhakti saints have made a significant contribution to music.

We concluded that the Bhakti tradition had a significant impact on the development of music throughout the Mughal Empire. The tradition of Bhakti made a significant contribution to the music played at temples and places of Bhakti saints. During the time of the Mughals, several different sects of Bhakti tradition evolved, such as the Vallabha, Radhavallabha, Nimbarika and Haridasi sects, and music was a vital aspect of each of these traditions. In the Bhakti tradition, kirtan, bhajan, and other forms of devotional singing are the most prominent. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Bhakti tradition is the fact that when they sing about their devotion to God, they adopt the local dialect of the region, which is easily understood by the common people and helps them feel more connected to their feelings about God. Bhakti saints made extensive use of the dhrupad musical form; they created dhrupad songs in the regional language during this period. Hence, we can conclude that this is a significant part of Mughal music that formed within the context of a religious setting, although it incorporated parts of musical practice and tradition derived from the Bhakti tradition. It stopped being unique to any one particular religious community, caste or ethnic group and instead became more influenced. Bhakti saints were known to engage in the performance of a wide variety of musical styles, this religious tradition made use of musical structures and motifs that were striking.


[1] Guy L. Beck. Hinduism and music, Oxford university press, 2014, p. 358.

[2] Alan W. Entwistle, Braj, centre of Krishna pilgrimage, Groningen Oriental studies, Groningen, 1985, p. 85.

[3] Allison Busch, Hidden in plain view: Braj poets at Mughal Court, Modern Asian studies, 2010, p, 268.

[4] Charlotte Vaudeville, Braj, lost and found, Brill, Indo Iranian journal, 1976, p. 196.

[5] Alan W. Entwistle, Braj, centre of Krishna pilgrimage, pp. 141-3, 151-4.

[6] Madhu Trivedi, The Emergence of the Hindustani tradition: music, dance, and drama in North India, 13th to 19th centuries, p. 90.

[7] Gokul Nath, Chaurasi Vaisnavan ki varta, ed. Kamla Shankar Tripathi, Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan,

    Lucknow, 2008.  Gokul Nath, Do sau bavan Vaisnavan ki varta, ed. Brajbhushan sharma and Dvarka Parikh 3 vols., Kankroli, 2018.

[8] Shri Hari Ray Ji, Astachap ki varta, ed. K.M. Shastri, Vidhya Vibhag, Kankroli, 1952.

[9] Braz, Richard, The Bhakti sect of Vallabhacarya, Munshiram Manoharlal Publisher pvt Ltd, 1992, p. 50.

[10] Guy, L. Beck, Sonic Liturgy: Rituals and music in Hindu tradition, Dev publisher &distributors, New Delhi, 2014, p. 168.

[11] Sharma, B.L., Contribution of Rajasthan to Indian music, Journal of the India musicological society, 2 (2), 1971, pp. 32-47

[12] Guy, L. Beck, Sonic Liturgy: Rituals and music in Hindu tradition, pp. 173-174.

[13] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[14] Thielemann, Selina, The music of south Asia. APH publishing, New Delhi, 1999, p. 305.

[15] Hita, Harivamsa, Chaurasi pad, ed. p. 52- 61, Delhi Charles, Eng. tr., S.J. White, The Chaurasi pad of Sri Hit Hitavams, p. 35.

[16] Shri Bhattacharya, Shri Yugala-Shatak, ed. Jay Kishor Saran, Sarveshvar Press, Vrindavan (Mathura), 2011.

[17] Harivyasdevacharya, Mahavani, ed. Govinda Saran Shastri, Shri Nimbarka Prakashan Trust, 1975.

[18] Guy, L. Beck, Sonic Liturgy: Rituals and music in Hindi tradition, pp. 188-189.

[19] Ibid., pp. 191-92.

[20] Ibid., pp. 191-92.

[21] Thielman, Selina, The music of south Asia, p. 308.

[22] S.M. Panday & Norman Zide, Mirabai and her contribution to the Bhakti movement, History of religions, The university of Chicago press, Vol. 5, 1965, pp. 54-73.

[23] Gurnam Singh, Sikh music, ed. Pashaura Singh and Louis, E. Fench, The oxford handbook of Sikh studies, oxford university press, United Kingdom, 2014, p. 398.

[24] Gurnam Singh, Sikh music, p. 399.

[25] Beck, G.L., Religious and devotional music: Northern area, ed. A. Arnold, Garland encyclopedia of world music, Vol. V, Indian Subcontinent, New York, 2000, 246-258.

[26] Gurnam Singh, Sikh music, p. 399.

[27] Slawek, Stephen, The definition of kirtan: An historical and geographical perspective, Journal of Vaisnava studies 4.2, 1996, pp. 57-113.

[28] Guy, L. Beck, Sonic Liturgy: Rituals and music in Hindi tradition, p. 134.

[29] Ibid., pp. 136-137.

[30] Beck, Guy, L., An introduction to the poetry of Narottam Das, Journal of Vaishnava studies, 4.4, 1996, pp. 17-52.

[31] Tarapada Mukherjee and Irfan Habib, ‘Akbar and the temples of Mathura and its environment’, paper

    presented at 48th session of Indian History congress, Goa, 1987, pp. 65-177.

[32] Milo Ho, Connecting histories: liturgical songs as classical composition in Hindustani music, Ethnomusicology, vol. 57, 2013, pp. 207-235.

[33] Gokul Nath, Chaurasi Vaishnava ki varta edited by Dr Kamla Shankar Tripathi in Raag Sarang, Hindi Sansthan, Lucknow, 2008,pp.148-159.  See also Braz, Richard, The Bhakti sect of Vallabhacarya, Munshiram Manoharla Publisher pvt Ltd, 1992, p. 111

[34] Gokul Nath, Chaurasi Vaishnava ki varta, pp.147-159. Braz, Richard, The Bhakti sect of Vallabhacarya, p. 121.

[35] Braz, Richard, The Bhakti sect of Vallabhacarya, p. 121, Parameshvara” “means “the Highest God” or “the Supreme God”

[36] Gokul Nath Chaurasi Vaishnava ki Vrata, pp.176-177, see also Braz, Richard, The Bhakti sect of

    Vallabhacarya, p.  176.

[37] Gokul Nath, Do bavan sau Vaisnavan ki varta, ed. Ram Das, Shri Venkateshwara Press, Mumbai, 2018. p.13-14.

[38] Gokul Nath, Do sau bavan Vaisnavan ki varta, pp. 275-276.

[39]  Shri Hari Rai Ji. Ashtachap ki varta, ed. K.M. Shastri, Vidhya-Vibhag, Kankarauli, 2006, pp. 580-592.

[40]   Francoise, Nalini Delvoye, The image of Akbar as a patron of music in Indo-Persian and Vernacular sources, ed. Irfan Habib, Akbar and his India, pp. 206-207. See also R.S McGregor, Hindi Literature from its beginnings to the Nineteenth century, Wiesbaden, 1984, pp. 158-9., 210.

[41] Francoise, Nalini Delvoye, The image of Akbar as a patron of music in Indo-Persian and Vernacular source, ed. Irfan Habib, Akbar and his India, p. 207.

[42] Ibid., p. 207-8.