Indigenous Education in the 18th century

  • By Dharampal
  • March 2004


I – Indian historical knowledge, by & large, has been derived, atleast until recent decades, from the writings & accounts left by foreigners. This applies equally to our knowledge about the status of Indian education over the past five centuries. The universities of Nalanda & Taxila, and a few others until recently have been better known & written about primarily because they have been described about centuries ago by some Greek or Chinese traveler, who happened to keep a journal which had survived.

Travelers & adventurers of a new kind began to wander around parts of India from about 1500 and more so from the close of the 16th century. Prior to 1770 (by which time they had become rulers of large areas), the British, on whose writings & records this book is based, had a rather different set of interests. Interests were largely mercantile, technological etc. Indian religions, scholarship & extent of education had scarcely interested them until then.

Education in Britain 17-18th century - It is not that the British had no tradition of education or scholarship during the 16th, 17th or early 18th centuries. It had the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh, which had their beginnings in the 13th-14th centuries. By the later part of the 18th century, Britain also had around 500 grammar schools. However, this considerable learning & scholarship was limited to a very select elite. This became esp. marked after the mid-16th century, when the Protestant revolution led to the closing of most of the monasteries, while the state sequestered their incomes & properties.

From the mid-16th century, a law was enacted ‘that the English Bible should not be read in churches. The right of private reading was granted to nobles, gentry & merchants that were householders (denied to others e.g. laborers). From about the end of the 17th century trends reversed slowly, leading to the setting of some Charity Schools for the common people. These schools were conceived with the intent of raising the laboring class to the level of religious instruction. After a short while these became dormant and were succeeded by the Sunday school movement. ‘Popular Education’ even at this period was still approached as a missionary enterprise, meaning the maxim was ‘that every child should learn to read the Bible’. After some time attention was focused on daily schools. Things moved hereon, nevertheless, as late as 1834, “the curriculum in the better class of national schools was limited in the main to religious instruction, reading & arithmetic, in some country schools writing was excluded for fear of evil consequences”

‘End of the 17th century there are Charity Schools whose main purpose was that every child was to learn to read the Bible.

Around 1802, the monitorial method of teaching used by Joseph Lancaster (and also by Andrew Bell, supposedly borrowed from India, Ibid pg 246, Note on Indian Education by Alexander Walker quote ‘The children were instructed without violence and by a process peculiarly simple. The system was borrowed from the Bramans and brought from India to Europe. It has been made the foundation of National schools in every enlightened country. The pupils were the monitors of each other and the characters are traced with a rod, or the finger on the sand. For more refer to pg 263 of the book) came into practice and helped the cause of popular education.

In 1792 number of those attending schools was app 40,000, in 1818 the nos was 674,883 and in 1851 there were 21,44,377 students. Number of schools in 1801 were app 3,363 and in 1851 were 46,114. School education, esp. elementary education at the people’s level, remained an uncommon commodity till around 1800. Nonetheless universities like Oxford were perhaps as important for Britain as Taxila & Nalanda were in India.

II - Three approaches (seemingly different but in reality complementary to one another) began to operate in the British held areas of India regarding Indian knowledge, scholarship and centers of learning from about the 1770s. The first resulted from growing British power and administrative requirements which (in addition to such undertakings that men like Adam Ferguson had recommended) also needed to provide a garb of legitimacy and a background of previous indigenous precedents (however far-fetched) to the new concepts, laws and procedures which were being created by the British state. It is primarily this requirement which gave birth to British Indology.

 The second approach was a product of the mind of the Edinburgh enlightenment (dating back to around 1750) which men like Maconochie represented. They had a fear, born out of historical experience, philosophical observation and reflection (the uprooting of entire civilizations in the Americas), that the conquest and defeat of a civilization generally led not only to its disintegration, but the disappearance of precious knowledge associated with it. They advocated, therefore, the preparation of a written record of what existed, and what could be got from the learned in places like Varanasi.

The third approach was a projection of what was then being attempted in Great Britain itself: to bring people to an institutionalized, formal, law-abiding Christianity and, for that some literacy and teaching became essential. To achieve such a purpose in India, and to assist evangelical exhortation and propaganda for extending Christian ‘light’ and ‘knowledge’ to the people, preparation of the grammars of various Indian languages became urgent. The task according to William Wilberforce, called for ‘the circulation of the holy scriptures in the native languages’ with a view to the general diffusion of Christianity, so that the Indians would, in short become Christians, if I may so express myself, without knowing it’. 

All these efforts, joined together, also led to the founding of a few British sponsored Sanskrit and Persian colleges as well as to the publication of some Indian texts or selections from them which suited the purpose of governance. From now, on, Christian missionaries also began to open schools. Occasionally, they wrote about the state and extent of indigenous education in the parts of India in which they functioned. However, British interest was not centered on the people, their knowledge, or education, or the lack of it. Rather, their interest in ancient texts served their purpose: that of making the people conform to what was chosen for them from such texts and their new interpretations. Their other interest (till 1813, this was only amongst a section of the British) was in the christianisation of those who were considered ready for such conversions (or, in the British phraseology of the period, for receiving ‘the blessings of Christian light and moral improvements’). These conversions were also expected to serve a more political purpose, in as much as it was felt that it could establish some affinity of outlook and belief between the rules and the ruled.

A primary consideration in all British decisions from the very beginning, continued to be the aim of maximizing the revenue receipts of Government and of discovering any possible new source which had remained exempt from paying any revenue to Government.

III - Instructions regarding the collection of information about the extent and nature of indigenous Indian education (including its contemporary state) were largely the consequence of the long debate in the House of Commons in 1813. This debate focused on the clause relating to the promotion of ‘religious and moral improvement’ in India. Before any new policy could be devised, the existing position needed to be better known. But the quality and coverage of these surveys varied from Presidency to Presidency, and even from district to district. (This generally happens in the gathering of any such information, and more so when such collection of data was a fairly new thing.)

The information which is thus available today, whether published, or still in manuscript form in the government records-as is true of the details of the Madras Presidency indigenous education survey-largely belongs to the 1820’s and 1830’s period. An unofficial survey made by G.W. Leitner in 1882 for the Punjab compared the situation there for the years before 1850, with that in 1882.

Before highlighting the main points of information given by the surveys and then proceeding with its analysis, some preliminary observations about the data as a whole are in order.

The first observation concerns the largely quantitative nature of the data presented and the fact that it concentrates largely on the institution of the school, as we know it today. This, however, may help propagate wrong impressions.

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions-which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants-was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shill and samadhi. These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

For this reason, the quantitative nature of the data presented should be read with great caution. The increase in the numbers of schools in England may not necessarily have been a good thing, as it merely signified the arrival of factory schooling. On the other hand, the decline in the numbers of traditional educational institutions is to be intensely deplored, since this meant quality education was being replaced by a substandard substitute. These aspects must always be kept at the back of our minds when we commence analyzing the data for significance. Before we do that, the highlights first.

The most well-known and controversial point which emerged from the educational surveys lies in an observation made by William Adam. In his first report, he observed that there exist about 1,00,000 village schools in Bengal and Bihar around the 1830s. This statement appears to have been founded on the impressions of various high British officials and others who had known the different areas rather intimately and over long periods; it had no known backing of official records. Similar statements had been made much before W. Adam, for areas of the Madras Presidency. Men like Thomas Munro, had observed that ‘every village had a school’. For areas of the newly extended Presidency of Bombay around 1820, senior officials like G.L. Prendergast noted that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more. Observations made by Dr. G.W. Leitner in 1882 show that the spread of education in the Punjab around 1850 was of a similar extent.

Since these observations were made, they have been treated very differently: by some, with the sanctity reserved for divine utterances: and by others, as blasphemous, Naturally, the first view was linked with the growth of a vocal Indian nationalism. Its exponents, besides prominent Indians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, have also included many illustrious Englishmen, like Keir Hardie, and academics like Max Mueller. The second, the blasphemous view of them, was obviously held by those who were in the later period, in one capacity or another, concerned with the administration of India: or those who felt impelled, sometimes because of their commitment to certain theoretical formulations on the development of societies, to treat all such impressions as unreal. Especially after 1860 it had become necessary to ensure that men who had had a long period of service in the British Indian administration or its ancillary branches and who also had the ability to write, should engage in the defence of British rule, especially its beginnings, and consequently attempt to refute any statements which implied that the British had damaged India in any significant manner.

While much ink has been spilt on such a controversy, little attempt is known to have been made for placing these statements or observations in their contextual perspective. Leaving Leitner’s work, most of these statements belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century. For the later British administrator, the difficulty of appreciating the substance of the controversy is quite understandable. For England had few schools for the children of ordinary people till about 1800. Even many of the older Grammar Schools were in poor shape at the time.

Moreover, the men who wrote about India (whether concerning its education, or its industry and crafts, or the somewhat higher real wages of Indian agricultural laborers compared to such wages in England) belonged to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century society of Great Britain. Naturally when they wrote about a school in every village in India-whether that may or may not have been literally true-in contrast to the British situation, it must have appeared to them so. And though they did not much mention this contrast in so many words, it may reasonably be assumed that, as perceptive observers, it was the very contrast which led them to make such judgments.

These surveys, based not on mere impressions but on hard data, reveal a great deal: the nature of Indian education; its content; the duration for which it ordinarily lasted; the numbers actually receiving institutional education in particular areas; and most importantly, detailed information on the background of those benefiting from these institutions.

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an sight into the nature of Indian society at that time. Deeper analysis of this data and adequate reflection on the results followed by required further research may help solve even the riddle of what has been termed ‘the legend of the 1,00,000 schools’.

According to this hard data, in terms of the content, the and proportion of those attending institutional school education, the situation in India in 1800 is certainly not inferior to what obtained in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganized India that one is referring to). The content of studies was better than what was then studied in England. The duration of study was more prolonged. The method of school teaching was superior and it is this very method which is said to have greatly helped the introduction of popular education in England but which had prevailed in India for centuries. School attendance, especially in the districts of the Madras Presidency, even in the decayed state of the period 1822-25, was proportionately far higher than the numbers in all variety of schools in England in 1800.

The conditions under which teaching took place in the Indian schools were less dingy and more natural; and, it was observed, the teachers in the Indian schools were generally more dedicated and sober than in the English versions. The only aspect, and certainly a very important one, where Indian institutional education seems to have lagged behind was with regard to the education of girls. Quite possibly, girl schooling may have been proportionately more extensive in England in 1800, and was definitely the case, a few decades later. Accounts of education in Indian do often state (though it is difficult to judge their substantive accuracy from the data which is so far known), that the absence of girls in schools was explained, however, by the fact that most of their education took place in the home,

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite. The actual situation, which is revealed, was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamil-speaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of the areas.

Funding of schools - The last issue concerns the conditions and arrangements which alone could have made such a vast system of education feasible: the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity. Through these fiscal measures, substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purpose. These seem to have stayed more or less intact through all the previous political turmoil’s and made such education possible. The collapse of this arrangement through a total centralization of revenue, as well as politics led to decay in the economy, social life, education, etc. this inference, if at all valid, warrants a re-examination of the various currently held intellectual and political assumptions with regard to the nature of pre-British Indian society, and its political and state structure.

Before discussing this last issue any further, however, it is necessary first to understand the various aspects of the educational data, and the controversy it gave rise to in the 1930s. Since the detailed data of the Madras Presidency is the least known and the most comprehensive, we shall examine it first.

Madras Presidency 1822-25 (Collectors Reports)
Details of Schools & Colleges

Speaking Language

Nos of Schools

Students in Schools

Total Population (1823 estimates)

1. Oriya




2. Telegu




3. Kannada




4. Malayalam




5. Tamil








One Presidency of India had so many schools, were we that bad off!

Caste Division of Male school students



Brahmins, Chettris



Other Caste


Total Male Students

1. Oriya







2. Telegu.







3. Kannada




























% of total







Soodras & other caste are 65% of the total school going students and Brahmins only 20%. Compare that to 2004 and ask, why did this happen. Simply put British industrial & land revenue policy destroyed the labor class (who were into manufacturing) and the peasant. To know more log on to ‘Rediscovering India’, same section on site.

Notes – Oriya speaking covers Ganjam district. Telegu speaking covers Vizag, Rajamundry, Masulipatnam, Guntoor, Nellore, Cuddapah. Kannada speaking covers Bellary, Seringapatham. Malyalam speaking covers Malabar. Tamil speaking covers North & South Arcot, Chingleput, Tanjore, Trichnopoly, Madura, Tinnevelly, Coimbatore, Salem & Madras. College details excluded for lack of space. Corresponding nos were 1094 colleges having 5,431 students. These reports were reviewed by the Governor of Madras Presidency, Sir Thomas Munro on 10/3/1826.

Age of Enrollment, daily timings ETC - As mentioned earlier, and the data varies considerably from district to district. Many of the collectors provided information regarding the age at which boys (and perhaps girls too) were admitted to school, the usual age being five. According to the collector of Rajahmundry, ‘the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the boy’s age is the “lucky day” for his first entrance into school’, while according to the collector of Cuddapah, the age for admission for Brahmin boys was from the age of five to six and that for Soodras from six to eight. The collector of Cuddapah further mentioned two years as the usual period for which the boys stayed at school. Nellore and Salem mentioned 3 to 5 or 6 years, while most others stated that the duration of study varied from a minimum of five to about a maximum of 15 years. While some collectors did not think much of the then current education in the schools, or of the learning and scholarship of the teachers, some thought the education imparted useful. The collector of Madras observed: ‘It is generally admitted that before they (i.e. the students) attain their 13th year of age, their acquirements in the various branches of learning are uncommonly great.’

From the information given, it seems that the school functioned for fairly long hours: usually starting about 6 A.M., followed by one or two short intervals for meals, etc., and finishing at about sunset, or even later. Table 5 (not reproduced) charts out the information which was received on these points from the several collectors. The functioning of these schools, their methods of teaching, and the subjects taught are best described in the annexed accounts of Fra Palino Da Bartolomeo (A.D. 1796) and of Alexander Walker (ca 1820).

55. As in many other instances, it was unthinkable for the British that India could have had a proportionately larger number receiving education than those in England itself. Such views and judgments in fact were applied to every sphere and even the rights of the Indian peasantry were tailored accordingly. On the rights of the cultivator of land in India, the Fifth Report of the House of Commons stated: ‘It was accordingly decided, “that the occupants of land in India could establish no more right, in respect to the soil, than tenantry upon an estate in England can establish a right to the land, by hereditary residence:” and the meerassee of a village was therefore defined to be, a preference of cultivation derived from hereditary residence, but subject to the right of government as the superior lord of the soil, in what way it chooses, for the cultivation of its own lands.’ (House of Commons Papers, 1812, Volume VII, p.105)

Education of Girls - As mentioned earlier, the number of girls attending school was very small. Leaving aside the district of Malabar and the Jeypoor division of Vizagapatam district, the girls from the Brahmin, Chettri, and Vysee castes were practically non-existent in schools. There were, however, some Muslim girls receiving school education: 56 in Trichnopoly, and 27 in Salem. The Hindoo girls who attended school, though again not in any large number, were from the Soodra and other Hindoo castes; and according to the collectors of Masulipatam, Madura, Tinnevelly and Coimbatore, most of them were stated to be dancing girls, or girls who were presumably going to be devdasis in the temples. Table 8 presents the district and caste wise number of the girls attending school, or said to be receiving private tuition.

As will be noticed from Table 9, the position in Malabar, as also in Jeypoor Zamindary of Vizagapatam district was much different. The relative numbers of girls and boys attending school in these two areas are presented in Table 8 below:

In percentage terms of the total, the proportion of girls to boys in school was the highest. 29.7%, in the Jeypoor Zamindary of the Vizagapatam district. Even more surprising, the proportion of Brahmin girls to Brahmin boys in school was as high as 37% Similarly, in Malabar the proportion of Muslim girls to Muslim boys in school being at 35.1% is truly astonishing. Even amongst the Vysees, the Soodras and the other castes in Malabar, the proportion of girls to boys was fairly high at 15.5% 19.1% and 12.4% respectively; the proportion of the totals being 18.3%. That two such widely separated areas (Malabar on the west coast while Jeypoor zamindary being in the hilly tracts on the southern border of Orissa) had such a sociological similarity requires deeper study.

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