Indigenous Education in the 18th century

  • By Dharampal
  • March 2004

Adam’s Report on Bengal       

Thirteen years after the initiation of the survey in Madras Presidency, a more limited semi-official survey of indigenous education was taken up in the Presidency of Bengal. They are called Reports on the State of Education in Bengal 1836 & 1838.

Inspite of the controversies which Adam’s reports have given rise to, the most notable one being his mention of there being perhaps 1,00,000 village schools still existing in Bengal and bihar- the total impression produced by them is one of extensive decay of these institutions. Adam was no great admirer of Indian education, he believed and brought home the point that the British should interest itself in elementary & higher Indian education. Further he had initially come to Bengal in 1818 as a Baptist missionary. Though he left missionary after a few years, was now a journalist, he saw the necessity of evangelizing India and its westernization. Though his reports were not formal documents they were sanctioned & financed by the Governor General himself.

The more important point that comes through Adam’s voluminous writing was the detail & variety of data that he was able to collect, from post 1800 existing sources and through his own investigations. Information on caste composition of pupils, average age of teachers and books in use still have great relevance.

1st Report: Survey of Post 1800 material  - his conclusions, one every village had atleast one school and in all probability in Bengal and Bihar with 1,50,748 villages, there will still be 1,00,000 villages that have these schools. Two on the basis of personal observation & evidence collected he inferred there were app 100 institutions of higher learning in each district meaning app 1,800 such institutions and 10,800 scholars in them. He held that while elementary schools were generally held in the homes of some of the most respectable native inhabitants, institutions of higher learning were of clay with 3-11 rooms. These were also used as residences of scholars.

2nd Report: Survey of Nattore Thana (district Rajshahy) - the results of this Nattore survey of 485 villages were tabulated village by village. Population was 1,20,928; number of elementary schools was 27, schools of higher learning 38 (latter being all Hindoo). Number of scholars in elementary schools was 262 average student age was 8-14 while in schools learning corresponding number was 397 average age was 16 with range being 11-27. While the number of elementary schools was low, these 485 villages had 123 native general medical practioners, 205 village doctors, 21 mostly Brahmin smallpox inoculators practicing according to the old Indian method.

3rd Report: Survey of 5 districts - Findings of his surveys in part of the district of Murshedabad and whole districts of Beerbhoom, Burdwan, South Behar and Tirhoot. The total number of schools of all types in the selected districts were 2,566 of which Bengali were 43%, Persian 27%, Sanskrit 14% and others.

Four stages of School Instruction
• 1 seldom exceeded ten days during which the young child was taught to form the letters of the alphabet on the ground with a small stick or bamboo.
• 2 extended from 2 ½ to four years, use of palm leaf as the material on which writing was performed, taught to read 7 write, memorise the numeration table as far as 100 and the Katha Table (a land measure table).
• 3 extended from 2-3 years which are employed in writing on the plantain leaf. Arithmetic rules were taught.
• 4 stage lasted upto two years, writing was done on paper. Scholar was expected to be able to read Ramayana, Mansa Mangal at home as well as qualified in accounts and writing of letters.

Elementary Education for all Sections - the first striking point from this survey is the wide social strata to which both the taught & the teachers in the elementary schools belonged. It is true that the greater proportion of teachers came from Kayasthas, Brahmins, Sadgop and Aguri castes. Yet, quite a number came from 30 others caste groups, and even the Chandals has 6 teachers. The more surprising figure is the 61 Dom and 61 Chandal school students in the district of Burdwan, nearly equal to the number of Vaidya students, 126 in that district.

Teachings of Agricultural & commercial accounts was widely prevalent in native schools as compared to the Christian ones.

Institutions of Sanskritic Learning - schools of learning in the surveyed districts (in all 353) numbered as high as 190 in Burdwan (1358 scholars) and as low as 27 in South Behar  (437 scholars). The teachers (355 in all) were predominantly Brahmins. Subjects taught were Grammar 9 (1,424 students), Logic (378 students), Law (336 students) and Literature (120 students). Other subjects taught were mythology, astrology, rhetoric, medicine, Vedanta, tantra amongst others.

W. ADAM on State of Native Medical Practice in Bengal - The state of Native Medical Practice in the (Rajshahy) district is so intimately connected with the welfare of the people that it could not be wholly overlooked; and as the few facts that I have collected tend additionally to illustrate their character and condition, it would be improper to omit them. They are submitted with deference to those who may have made professional inquiries, and can form a professional judgment on the subject.

The number of those, who may be called general practitioners and who rank highest in the native medical profession in Nattore is 123, of whom 89 are Hindus and 34 are Mahomedans. The Medical School at Vaidya Belghariya possesses considerable interest, since it is, as far as I can ascertain, the only institution of the kind in the district, and the number of such institutions throughout Bengal is, I believe, very limited. The two medical teachers of this school are employed as domestic physicians by two wealthy families, and they have each also a respectable general practice. As a domestic physician, the junior teacher has a fixed salary of twenty-five rupees a month; while the senior teacher in the same capacity has only fifteen rupees a month, and that only as long his attendance may be required during periods of sickness in the family that employs him. I have spoken of that family as wealthy, but it is only comparatively so being in very reduced circumstances; and to that cause rather than to the low estimation in which the physician is held, we must ascribe the scant remuneration he receives.

At another place, Hajra Nattore, No.26, there are three educated Hindu practitioners, all three Brahmans and brothers and more or less acquainted with Sanscrit, having acquired the grammar of the language at Bejpara Amhatti, and subsequently applied their knowledge of it to the study of the medical works in that language. The eldest has practiced since he was eighteen, and he is now sixty-two years of age, and employs his leisure in instructing his two nephews. On an average of the year he estimates the income derived from his practice at five rupees a month, while one of his brothers who is in less repute estimate his own income at three rupees.

At a third place, Haridev Khalasi, No.100. there are four educated Hindu practitioners, three of whom appeared to be in considerable repute for skill and learning. They were all absent, and I had not an opportunity of conversing with them: but their neighbors and friends estimated their monthly professional income at eight, ten, and twelve rupees, respectively. There are at most two or three other educated Hindu physicians in Nattore, and all the rest are professionally uneducated, the only knowledge they possess of medicine being derived from Bengali translations of Sanscrit works which describe the symptoms of the principal diseases and prescribe the articles of the native material medica that should be employed for their cure, and the proportions in which they should be compounded. I have not been able to ascertain that there is a single educated Musalman physician in Nattore, and consequently the 34 Mahomedan practitioners I have mentioned, rank with the uneducated class of Hindu practitioners, deriving all their knowledge of medicine from Bengali translations of Sanscrit works to the prescriptions of which they servility adhere.

The only difference that I have been able to discover between the educated and uneducated classes of native practitioners is that the former prescribe with greater confidence and precision from the original authorities, and the latter with greater doubt and uncertainly from loose and imperfect translations. The mode of treatment is substantially the same, and in each case is fixed and invariable. Great attention is paid to the symptoms of disease, a careful and strict comparison being made between the descriptions of the supposed disease in the standard medical works and the actual symptoms in the case of the patient. When the identity is satisfactorily ascertained, there is then no doubt as to the practice to be adopted for each disease has its peculiar remedy in the works of established repute, and to depart from their prescriptions would be an act of unheard of presumption. The medicines administered are both vegetable and mineral. The former are divided into those which are employed in the crude state, as barks, leaves, common or wild roots, and fruits etc.: and those which are sold in the druggist’s shop as camphor, cloves, cardamoms, etc, They are administered either externally or in the forms of pill, powder, electuary, and decoction.

The preceding class of practitioners consists of individuals who at best know nothing of medicine as a science, but practice it as an art according to a prescribed routine, and it may well be supposed that many, especially of the uneducated class, are nothing but quacks. Still as a class they rank higher both in general estimation and in usefulness than the village doctors. Of these there are not fewer than 205 in Nattore. They have not the least semblance of medical knowledge, and they in general limit their prescriptions to the simplest vegetable preparations, either preceded or followed by the pronouncing of an incantation and by striking and blowing upon the body. Their number proves that they are in repute in the villages; and the fact is ascribable to the influence which they exercise upon the minds of the superstitious by their incantations. The village doctors are both men and women; and most of them are Mahomedans, like the class to which they principally address themselves.

The smallpox inoculators in point of information and respectability come next to the class of general practitioners. There are 21 of them in Nattore, for the most part Brahmans, but uninstructed and ignorant, exercising merely the manual art of inoculation. One man sometimes inoculates from 100 to 500 children in a day, receiving for each operation a fixed rate of payment varying from one to two annas; the less amount if the number of children is great, the greater amount if the number is small. The cowpox has not, I believe, been introduced into this district amongst the natives, except at the head station. Elsewhere the smallpox inoculators have found its opponents, but, as far as I can understand, their opposition does not arise from interested motives, for the cowpox inoculation would give them as much labor and profit as they now have. Their opposition arises; I am assured, from the prejudice against using cowpox. The veneration in which the cow is held is well known, and they fear to participate in a practice, which seems to be founded on some injury done to that animal when the matter was originally extracted. The spread of the cowpox would probably be most effectually accomplished by the employment of Mussalman inoculators whose success might in due time convince the Brahman inoculators of their mistake.

Midwives are another class of practitioners that may be noticed, although it has been denied that Hindus have any. An eminent London physician, in his examination before the Medical Committee of the House of Commons, is stated to have affirmed that the inhabitants of China have no women-midwives, and no practitioners in midwifery at all. ‘Of course,’ it is added ‘the African nations and the Hindus are the same.’ I enquired and noted the number of women mid-wives (there is not a man midwife in the country) in the villages of Nattore, and find that they amount to 297. They are no doubt sufficiently ignorant, as are probably the majority of women midwives at home.

Still lower than the village doctors there is a numerous class of pretenders who go under the general name of conjurors or charmers. The largest division of this class are the snake-con-jurors, their number in the single police sub-division of Nattore being not less than 722. There are few villages without one, and in some villages there are as many as ten. I could if it were required indicate the villages and the number in each; but instead of incumbering Table I with such details. I have judged it sufficient to state the total number in this place. They profess to cure the bites of poisonous snakes by incantations or charms. In this districts, particularly during the rainy season, snakes are numerous and excite much terror among the villagers. Nearly the whole district forming, it is believed, an old bed of the Ganges, lies very low; and the rapid increase of the waters during the rainy season drives the land-snakes from their holes, and they seek refuge in the houses of the inhabitants who hope to obtain relief from their bites by the incantations of the conjurors.

Some of these details may appear, and in themselves probably are, unimportant, but they help to afford an insight into the character of the humblest classes of native society who constitute the great mass of the people, and whose happiness and improvement are identical with the prosperity of the country; and although they exhibit the proofs of a most imbecile superstition, yet it is superstition which does not appear to have its origin or support in vice or depravity, but in a childish ignorance of the common laws of nature which the most imperfect education or the most limited mental cultivation would remove. These superstitions are neither Hindu nor Mahomedan, being equally repudiated by the educated portions of both classes of religionists. They are probably antecedent to both systems of faith and have been handed down from time immemorial as a local and hereditary religion of the cultivators of the soil, who amid the extraordinary changes which in successive ages and under successive races of conquerors this country has undergone, appear always to have been left in the same degraded and prostate condition in which they are now found.

From Adam’s Reports on Bengal & Bihar Nos


No of Schools Surveyed



Avg age of students



Nos of Students


4. of which






Total Teachers


                                                             Institutions of Sanscritic Learning


Total Population



Number of Schools



Nos of Teachers



Nos of Students


                                                                               Subjects of Study















































Ordinary Schools


(The book has numbers for individual districts of Murshidabad, Beerbhoom, Burdwan, South Behar, Tirhoot. I am sharing total nos).

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