Mathas The term matha (matha) has been defined as the residence of an ascetic and/or a student. Conceptually, it owes its origin to the buddhist vihara prescribed by the Buddha as one of the four aspects of the religiously ordered Sanggha life. The earliest mention of a matha in Bengal is in a Kharosthi - Brahmi inscription (2nd cent. AD) recording an oblation given to the chief or best matha. Unfortunately, no details about the matha are available from the epigraph. However the numbers of mathas grew from the 6th century AD onwards. A matha consisted not only of residential structures for priests and their disciples and for diverse professional groups serving the material needs of the religious establishment, but also housed Brahmanical deities in temples and sects based on Bhakti ideology. Therefore the mathas along with temples were primarily founded from a religious motive directed at the instruction of pupils by some great teacher (acharya) in some philosophical doctrines or in some sectarian tenets. So, mathas were essentially religious centres.
In the 7th century in Shrihatta (Sylhet) a temple was built wherein an image of Lord Ananta Narayana with Kuberas Kinnaras etc was set up; and bali charu and satra were provided to the Lord. Apparently in association with the Vaisnava temple, a community of Brahmanas versed in the Vedas was settled. One pachaka (cook) and one Vachaka (spokesman?) were also settled apparently for serving the Brahmanas. Thus a matha-like residential religious establishment was set up in the forest region of the Suvvunga district (unidentified) in Srihatta. Similarly, in the same century in a marshy and forested area (jalatavibhukhande), a temple was established and an image of Lord Ananta Narayana was set up there in. The Vaisnava temple was a residential one because Brahmanas versed in the three Vedas were settled there.
Another large religious complex is known to have been established during the rule of the Chandra King Sri chandr (Sri Chandra, 930-75AD) in Srihatta. According to the Pashchimbhag Copperplate inscription, the religious establishment included eight mathas in which four gods, Agni - Vaishvanara, Yogeshvara (a form of Shiva), Jamani or Jaimini and Mahakala (a form of Shiva), were worshipped. It is to be noted that the god Agni in his Vaisvanara form (Vaishvanaro Visarge) is known from the epigraph to have been independently worshipped, probably for achieving moksa or mukti (release). It is a rare example so far as Bengal is concerned. Jaimini of the epigraph is undoubtedly identical with the celebrated philosopher Jaimini of c 3rd century AD, who was a great author of treatises on Mimangsa philosophy. The epigraph in question makes it clear that a philosopher even seven centuries after his appearance was deified and worshipped. Mahakala, though a form of Siva, became popular to both the Shaivas and Buddhists in early medieval times. It appears to have been an example of acculturation between the Saivas and Buddhists. Brahma was also worshipped in a separate matha. The most remarkable fact is that the four gods were together worshipped in the mathas of two different groups, mentioned as Vangaladexiya and Dexantariya matha in the Pashchimbhag copperplate.
The whole religious establishment was made residential by providing land settlement provisions to the Brahmanas and other professional groups such as Malakaras, Napitas, Tailikas, Rajakas, Karanikas, Ganakas, Chikitsakas, Chetika or dasi, Varika (Panda?) etc. At this point it should be noted that fifteen Vadakas were settled with lands for the only matha of Brahma; but there was not a single Vadaka for the eight mathas.
Four hundred patakas (pataka is a land measure equal to 10 drona in the 10th century) of land were distributed among the Brahmanas and other professional groups mentioned above. After that, the rest of the land was distributed among 6000 Brahmanas (allotment not specified) and they were settled in the religious complex under discussion. The number 6000 may be exaggerated, because the epigraph has not mentioned 6000 Brahmanas by name; it has named only 38 Brahmanas.
A similar religious establishment is also known of from the Bangarh (Bangad) praxasti in West Dinajpur of the Mattamayura Shaivacharya Murtishiva, contemporaneous to the Pala King Nayapala (AD 1027-43). The establishment is known as Golagi matha, which is known to have included within it, a temple of Bhavani. The matha was a prasada -meru one (lofty palatial religious institution) meant for the enshrinement of a Saiva image. This matha is known to have housed a number of Shaiva acharyas, namely Vidyashiva, Dharmashiva, Indrashiva, Sarvvashiva, Murtishiva and Rupashiva, as known from the Bangarh prashasti. They are known to have belonged to the Mattamayura Shaiva subsect and worshipped Shiva with Shakti. The assumption is supported by the invocation to the goddess Charchika (om namah Charchikayai) for the protection of the world. This leads to the idea that the acharyas of the matha were dedicated to the welfare of the people at large. The prashasti records that the Golagi matha had undertaken a number of charitable works such as excavation of large tanks etc for the cause of the people at large. The religious performances of Murtishiva and Rupashiva, two famous acharyas, added to the reputation of the Bangarh matha.
The Siyan inscriptions (11th century AD; Siyan is a village near Bolpur in the Birbhum district of West Bengal) mention a hospital presumably near a temple. Near the temple there were the residences of the Vaidyas (vaidy-vasah). Not only religious personalities, but general people also used to get treatment in the hospital. The temple was a Shaiva one and the ascetics (tapasa) were apparently Shaivas. For their residence a two-storied matha was built. The hospital may be assumed to have been situated near the Shaiva temple. In one of the temples eleven Rudra images were established. Rudra is traditionally known to have been the healer of disease. Because of this attribute of shiva he has come to be known as Vaidyanatha.
Mathas, though primarily religious centres, are also known to have acted as centres of learning. Examples are not far to seek. The mathas at Shrihatta (named as Brahmapura in the Pashchimbhag CP) imparted knowledge and offered instruction in the grammar of Chandragomin, the well-known Buddhist savant (5th-6th century AD). The other eight mathas mentioned in the Pashchimbhag copperplate developed as institutes for studies in the four Vedas. Intellectual activities are also known to have been carried out at the Bangarh matha, which is known to have enjoyed a reputation as a centre' of scholarship.
A look at the socio-economic and political issues relating to mathas would be quite pertinent here. Mathas are known to have survived on agricultural production. Uncultivated (akarsa) land was brought under cultivation and populated with Brahmanas and other service groups centering round the Vaisnava matha in 7th century Shrihatta. Samanta Marundanatha's (7th century AD) grant shows that the depopulated marshy and forestland was brought under cultivation and populated with Brahmanical settlements on the occasion of establishing the Vaisnava temple at Shrihatta. In this way agricultural expansion was brought about, and the process reached its culmination in the establishment of the large Brahmanical settlement (named Brahmapura) in Shrihatta.
It appears that religious establishments were set up in uninhabited and uncultivated areas for the sake of expanding agriculture there. At this point, it should be kept in mind that habitation in uncultivated areas requires many persons from outside and naturally the people settled in cultivated areas do not want to take the trouble of getting themselves settled anew in uncultivated lands. On the other hand, to make outsiders interested in the newly settled areas requires the offer of facilities that the local people may not be given. And such facilities in an agricultural society generally have to do with the distribution of either landed properties or agricultural produce. In the Brahmapura settlements outsiders were so much in number that they had to be designated as Deshantariyas. Probably they were given more advantages than the Vangaladeshiyas. That is why we find a mahattara-Brahman getting 2 patakas of land, whereas a Kayastha got 2 patakas and a Vaidya 3 patakas. Such distribution of landed properties might have created some problems of inequality. And this in turn probably created some distance between the Deshantariyas and Vangaladeshiyas. In early medieval rural Bengal the people, though they worshipped the same gods and lived together, yet used to maintain their group differences in the religious establishments - Deshantariyamathas and Vangaladeshiyamathas.
However, mathas are also known to have enjoyed royal support because royal courts also in turn stabilised their temporal power by patronising the religious establishments. Thus the royal courts legitimised their temporal power horizontally as well as vertically. The best example in this regard is the establishment by Sri Chandra of the Brahmapura monastic establishment in Shrihatta, which he named after himself, so that it came to be known popularly as the Chandrapur- Brahmapura settlement (Chandrapurabhidhana-Brahmapurama). [Krishnendu Ray]
Bibliography R Chatterjee, Religion in Bengal during the Pala and Sena Times, Calcutta, 1985; NN Bhattacharyya, A Glossary of Indian Religious Terms and Concepts, New Delhi, 1990; H Kulke, Kings and Cults State Formation and Legitimization in India and Southeast Asia, New Delhi, 1993.