Indigenous Education in the 18th century

  • By Dharampal
  • March 2004

Young India Articles

Copy of article from ‘Young India’8TH December 1920
1. The Decline of Mass Education in India  (By Daulat Ram Gupta, M.A.)

It is generally believed that from the time the British Government have taken in their hands the duty of educating the people of India, in accordance with the Parliamentary dispatch of 1854, the country has made remarkable progress in education, in so far as the number of schools, the number of scholars, and the standard of education are concerned. It will be my business to prove, that we have made no such progress in these respects-a fact which will be starting to some and a revelation to others-and in so far as our mass education is concerned, we have certainly made a downward move since India has passed to the British Crown.

The advent of British Rule found in India systems, of education of great antiquity and value existing among both Hindus and Mussalmans, in each case closely bound up with their religious institutions. There was not a mosque, a temple, a Dharamsala, that had not a school attached to it. To give and receive instruction was regarded as a religious duty. Schools of learning were formed in centers containing a considerable high caste population, where Pandits gave instruction in Sanskrit, grammar, logic, philosophy and law.

For the lower classes, village schools were scattered over the country in which a good rudimentary education was given to the children of petty traders, cultivators and landlords. The very fact that every family of the DWIJA (twice-born) and every guild of the mixed castes, and very village of any importance, had its own priest, and that it was enjoined upon the priest to teach as well as to minister to religion, leads one to the belief, on strong prima facie grounds, that education was very widely diffused among the people.

The higher education of the Mussalmans was in the hands of men of learning. Schools were attached to mosques and shrines and supported by the state grant in cash or land, or by private liberality. The course of study in a Muslim Madrassa included grammar, rhetoric, logic, literature, jurisprudence, and science.

Thus, in Madras, in an inquiry conducted by Sri Thomas Munro in 1826, it is stated that in 1826 there were 11,758 indigenous schools and 740 colleges giving instruction to 1,57,664 boys, and 4,023 girls. (Vide Education Commission Report by the Madras Provincial Committee 1884). It is therefore estimated, that considering the population in that period (123,50,941) elementary indigenous education was imparted to about one fourth of the boys of school-going age. It was also estimated that there was at least one school to every 1,000 of the population. But as only a few females were taught in schools, we may reckon one school to every 500 of the population.

Mr. Munro, (as he then was) further supplements this estimate of the spread of education with the following observation: -

I am, however, inclined to estimate the portion of the male population, who receive school education, to one-third than one-fourth of the whole, because we have no return of the numbers taught at home.

In 1826, such was the state of purely indigenous education in a province which had been under British influence for over a century and was, therefore, fast disintegrating old institutions and adopting new ones.

In Bengal, Mr. W. Adam, conduced a similar inquiry and found that in 1835 ‘a network of primitive Vernacular schools existed throughout Bengal’, and he estimated their number to be about one lakh. The Sadler Commission has pointed out that no attempt was made to develop these schools.’ Government preferred to devote its energies to secondary and higher schools, on the theory that, if Western education were introduced among the upper classes, it would filter down by a natural process to the lower classes, Practically all the public funds available for education were expended on schools and colleges founded and controlled by Government, and nothing was spent upon indigenous schools, and as rent-free lands attached to these schools were resumed, the schools were left without any financial aid and naturally collapsed.

The purpose of all this was political. Sir Sankaran Nair in his masterly Minute of Dissent writes:-

Efforts were made by the government to confine higher education and secondary education, leading to higher education, to boys in affluent circumstances… Rules were made calculated to restrict the diffusion of education generally and among the poorer boys in particular. Conditions for “recognition” for grants-stiff and various-were laid down and enforced, and the non-fulfillment of any one of these conditions was liable to be followed by serious consequences. Fees were raised to a degree, which, considering the circumstances of the classes that resort to schools, were abnormal. When it was objected that minimum fee would be a great hardship to poor students the answer was such students had no business to receive that kind of education. Managers of private schools, who remitted fees in whole or in part, were penalized by reduced grants-in-aid.

Thus, by this policy, education was only confined to the well-to-do classes.

They it was believed would give no trouble to the Government.’ Sri Sankaran Nair, therefore, concludes that,

It is the universal belief, and there is little doubt that facts unfortunately tend to prove it, that primary English Education for the masses, and higher education for the higher classes are discouraged for political reasons. Higher, professional, industrial and technical education is discouraged to favor English industries and recruitment in English of English officials.

In the Punjab the state of indigenous education was much better because of the special efforts made by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to promote learning. Dr. Leitner, who was the Principal of the Oriental College and Government College, Lahore, and who also, officiated for some time as Director of Public Instruction. Punjab, conducted a very thorough going inquiry into the state of indigenous education in the Punjab, and in his book on the ‘History of Indigenous Education’ in the Punjab, he writes: -

I am about to relate-I hope without extenuation or malice-the history of the contact of a form of European, with one of the Asiatic, civilization; how in spite of the best intentions, the most public-spirited officers, and a generous government that had the benefit of the traditions of other provinces, the true education of the Punjab was crippled, checked and is nearly destroyed; how opportunities for its healthy revival and development were either neglected or perverted; and how, far beyond the blame attaching to individuals, our system stands convicted of worse then official failure.

He therefore writes: -

I fear that my account of the decline of indigenous education in the Punjab may offend some prejudices and oppose some interests. I have to appeal to rules to put themselves in the position of the ruled, if they wish to understand them…. and both the writer of these pages and the reader must endeavor to divest themselves of every preconception. Indeed, the man has so often described the struggle with the lion, that it would be well to sketch a picture with the lion might have drawn had he been a painter.

Referring to the educational glory of the Punjab before annexation he writes:

Respect for learning has always been the redeeming feature of the East. To this the Punjab formed no exception. Torn by invasion and war, it ever preserved and added to educational endowments. The most unscrupulous chief, the avaricious moneylender, and even the free-booter, vied with the small landowner in making peace with his conscience by founding schools and rewarding the learned. There was not a mosque, a temple, a Dharamsala that had not a school attached to it, to which the youth flocked chiefly for religious education. There were few wealthy men who did not entertain a Maulvi, Pandit, or Guru to teach their sons, and along with them the sons of friends and dependents. There were also thousands of secular schools, frequented alike by Mahomedans, Hindus and Sikhs, in which Persian or Hindi was taught. There were hundreds of learned men who gratuitously taught their co-religionists, and sometimes all comers, for the sake of God, “Lillah”. There was not a single village who did not take a pride in devoting a portion of his produce to a respected teacher.

In respectable Mahomedan families husbands taught their wives, and they their children; nor did the Sikhs prove in that respect to be unworthy of the appellation of “Learners and disciples”. In short the lowest computation gives us 3,30,000 pupils in the schools of the various denominations who were acquainted with reading, writing and some method of computation, whilst thousands of them belonged to Arabic and Sanskrit Colleges, in which oriental literature and system of oriental law, logic, philosophy and medicine were taught to the highest standards. Tens of thousand also acquired a proficiency in Persian which is now rarely reached in government and aided schools and colleges. Through all schools there breathed a spirit of devotion to education for its own sake, and for its influence on the character and on religious culture; whilst even the sons of Banias who merely learnt what they absolutely required in order to gain a livelihood, looked with respect, amounting to adoration, on their humble Pandhas, who taught them the elements of two ‘Rs’.

Dr. Leitner further describe the state of feeling with respect to education in the Punjab. He writes:

The Punjab is classic ground. Not merely the celebrated country between Sutlej and the Jumna, but also the whole province teems with noble recollections. The history of its culture will tell us of a simple worship…..of an ardent republicanism allied to the most chivalrous devotion to chiefs, of capacity for self-Government not equaled else where, and above all, of the universal respect for learning and of the general spread of education. The priest was a professor and poet, and education was a religious, social and professional duty.

It is, therefore, our belief, founded on authentic historical data, that before annexation, every Punjab village had a school of its own.

In every Indian village which has retained anything of its form…the rudiments of knowledge are sought to be imparted; there is not a child, except those of the outcastes (who form no part of the community), who is not able to read, to write, to cipher; in the last branch of learning, they are confessedly most proficient.’ (Vide BRITISH INDIA by Ludlow).

Dr. Leitner estimated that in 1854-55 there were at least 30,000 schools, and if we count at least 13 pupils per school, the total number of pupils will amount to 4 lakhs. Dr Leitner writes:
The village school would contain 3,00,000 pupils but there are reasons for estimating larger number.’

Further, in backward district like that of Hushiarpur, the Settlement Report of 1852, shows a school to every 1,965 male inhabitants (adults and non-adults), which may be contrasted with the present proportion of one government or aided school to every 9,028 or one school to 2,818.7 inhabitants including the present number of ascertained indigenous schools throughout the province, a significant contrast to the proportion of one school to every 1,783 inhabitants in the most backward division of the Punjab in 1849 when brought under British Rule after a period of confusion following on war and annexation.

Such was the state of affairs in 1882, but the contrast will become more starting if we look at the figures already reproduced in “Young India”.

A mere glance at that statement will show how the indigenous education has declined, and how stagnant the state of education has remained from 1882 to 1918-19. In a period of 37 years the government has done nothing whatsoever for mass education. In a period less than this, England was able to educate the whole of its populations; in a period considerably less than this, America could give education to a population without any records of civilization or intellectual stamina; and in a period equal to this, Japan was able to work out its destiny. But such is the way of doing things in India that during all this time nothing was done except to shift schools from one place to an other, to shift the expenses of education from one source to an other, to shift the responsibility from man to man; in fact to make shifts as best as could be done.

Such in brief is the history of the decline of indigenous education, and as to how it was crushed in the Punjab will from the subject matter of the next article.

2. How Indigenous Education was Crushed in the Punjab (1849-1886)

         Published 29/12/1920

The Punjab was the last of all the Provinces of India to come under the direct influence of the English. The Honorable the East India Company had during a couple of centuries, extended their sphere of influence from the Cape to the Jamuna; but its administrators never thought it worth the trouble to go beyond the Moghul Court. The Moghul Court itself was jealous of any encroachments upon its northern province-the gateway to Kabul-which they still looked upon as their ancestral home.

When the descendants of Aurangzeb began to bungle things in this province, the invaders from the North and the people from within threw in a state of anarchy and misrule. Under such circumstances the hardy Sikh began to realize his own importance and individuality. Ever afterwards till 1849, the Sikhs kept the banks of Beas free from all diplomatic or martial overtures. They preferred their own incapacity to govern to an established order of things where their liberty would be restrained and their religion interfered with. The Sikh like the Hindu is essentially devout, and his devotion always lands him on the side of conservatism; of respect for the past, its institutions and traditions.

So that, when the reins of government and authority passed into the hands of the Sikhs, both from lack of initiative and requirements of diplomacy, they left untouched all the old village institutions. Whereas, British administrators in other provinces were changing and modifying ancient ways and manners to suit their own conceptions, the Sikh Sirdar was content to let things have their own way, so long as he got the revenue that he wanted. The result of it all was that a network of village schools which traditions of a thousand years past had spread all over India, was in its full strength here. If any change was made at all, it was to add the Granthi or Bhai, to the Maulvi and the Pandit. Instead of there being two traditional teachers of village youth, now there became three.

The village education was an essential part of the village administration and the provision for it was made in the village expenses. The schoolmaster’s field’, the ‘watchman’s field’ never disappear from the village books. There was in every village in the Punjab, a school of some sort, in which elementary education, having a direct bearing on the secular needs of the pupil, was imparted either free of cost, or at a nominal rate of monthly fee. In addition to these schools, there were spread all over the province ‘colleges of various grades and denominations in which the ancient ideals of the academies were kept alive and potent. There were centers of advanced studies of metaphysics, astronomy, mathematics, grammar, philosophy and other sciences.

That much good was done to all sections of the community by these indigenous schools and colleges is beyond doubt a fact recognized even by the bitter antagonists of the indigenous system. From the advanced ‘colleges’, in which classical education (Arabic and Sanskrit) was imparted to students of mature age and thought, to the elementary Mahajani, Sharafi, and Lande Schools, there was a very large variety of quasi-classical vernacular and technical schools. The teachers always kept in view the requirements of individual students and the profession they were qualifying for.

There was no class instruction, as in our schools reducing all intellects to the same level and retarding the industrious for the sake of the dullard. But recitations in Sanskrit and the system of repeating lessons in chorus on the dispersion of the school encouraged such emulation as may be necessary, whilst the separate instruction of the pupil and his devotion to his work during the time that he was not reading with his tutor stimulated those habits of reflection and of private study, in which the students of present day schools are sadly deficient. Then again when the student grew older, he traveled to learn philosophy under one tutor and law under another much in the same way as students of German Universities visit various seats of learning in order to hear, say, international law at Heidelberg, the Pandects at Berlin.

It would not be without interest to point out that from the humblest beginnings in education up to the highest courses in Hindu metaphysics and science great wisdom was displayed. Traces of the ‘Kindergarten system’ are still found. The simplest methods for arresting and keeping attention were resorted to and the moral and mental capacities of children, according to their spheres of life, were everywhere carefully studied and cultivated. As for the mode of instruction, it also bore in every one of its features the emphatically practical as well as ideal aim of the Hindu legislator.

That the above statement is not an unsupported assertion; I will quote a paragraph from the first educational dispatch of the Court of Directors which was issued on the 3rd June 1814.

The Directors point out that ‘the indigenous village schools are a part of the village system and that they have formed a model to schools in England.’ Again they point out ‘this venerable and benevolent institution of the Hindus is represented to have withstood the shock of revolutions, and to its operation is ascribed the general intelligence of the native.’

In 1848 the Government of the Punjab passed into the hands of the East India Company. The first Board of Administration in the Punjab recognized the full value of the rich educational legacy, which they inherited from the decaying and disintegrating Sikh constitution. Recognizing the widespread character of the indigenous education, and the necessity of keeping up old educational traditions alive, Sir John and Sri Henry Lawrence defined their policy in matters of education in the following words: -

We intend to set up one school. If not in every village, at least in every circle of villages, so that at least should be something throughout the land in which the children do attend some rudimentary school.’

How far policy was actually carried out will be explained in another article.

     Letter by Gandhi associate Shri K T Shah to Sir Phillip, 20/2/1932
Dear Sir Philip,

I have been informed by Mahatma Gandhi that during his stay in London recently, and while speaking at some public meeting about the state of education in British India before the advent of the British in this country, he remarked that the extent of literacy was greater in those days than at the present time. He adds that you had questioned the accuracy of that statement, and called upon Mr. Gandhi to furnish proof in support of the same. Mahatmaji has, I understand, referred you to some writings in the Young India; but you do not consider that sufficient proof; and so has asked me if I could find any more acceptable substantiation for that observation. I am, therefore, addressing you this letter to try and offer that substantiation, as far as the records available could permit of my doing so. If you care to acknowledge this letter to Mahatmaji, would you at the same time send me a copy of the same?

 To begin with I need hardly point out to you that, at the time under reference, no country in the world had anything like definite, authoritative, statistical information of the type one would now recognize as proper proof in such discussions. In India particularly, thanks to the distracted state of the country, it was impossible to provide any such material on a nation-wide basis, even supposing it had been customary to compile such information from time to time. The elaborate ‘directory’, if I may so describe it, of the territories under his rule, compiled by the indefatigable Minister of the great Akbar known as the Ayeen-I-Akbari, was prepared so long before the advent of the British that I feel a hesitation even in referring to it, apart from the further fact that authoritative work suffers from other blemishes in the eyes of a too critical reader. All, therefore, that one can expect by way of proof in such matters, and at such a time, can only be in the form of impressions of people in a position to form ideas a little better and more scientific than those of less fortunately situated, or less well endowed, observers.

Such official investigations as were ordered in connection with the periodical parliamentary enquires before the renewal of the Company’s Charter in 1793, 1813, 1833, and 1853 also afford some data, though these have their own defect as is pointed out below. Other official enquiries, reports, or dicta of qualified officers, were originally for a purpose different from the one under reference here; and therefore, discussion or observation on educational matters therein must needs be taken as incidental rather than as the immediate subject of their concern, and consequently open such defects as all such incidental observation suffers from.

For the immediate purpose of this letter, will you permit me to begin by referring you to the reports of certain provincial enquiries conducted about the time when the British rule first began in those provinces? Let me, however, add a remark as applied to the country, at large, on the authority of Max Mueller, and another on the authority of the historian Ludlow-both mentioned in Keir Hardie’s work on India. “Max Mueller, on the strength of official documents and missionary reports, concerning education in Bengal prior to the British occupation, asserts that there were then 80,000 schools in Bengal, or one for every 400 of the population. Ludlow, in his History of British India, says that “in every village, which has retained its old form, I am assured that the children generally are able to read, write and cipher; but where we have swept away the village system, there the village school has also disappeared.” (Cp. B.D. Basu, Education in India under the E.I. Co., p18).

In Bombay, which came under British rule after the fall of the Peshwas in 1818, a Report of the Bombay Education Society for 1819 observes:- “There is probably as great a proportion of persons in India who can read, write, and keep simple accounts, as are to be found in European countries. The same Report for the following year notes:- ‘Schools are frequent among the natives, and abound everywhere.’ In April, 1821, Mr. Prendergast, member of the Executive Council of the then Government of Bombay, notes in a Minute on an application for 2 English schools in Thana or Panwell Talukas:- ‘I need hardly mention what every member of the Board knows as well as I do 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; many in every town and in large cities in every division where young natives are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, upon a system so economical, from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a rupee per month to the schoolmaster, according to the ability of the parents, and at the same time so simple and effectual, that there is hardly a cultivator or petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy, in my opinion, beyond what we meet with among the lower orders in our own country; whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease, conciseness, and clearness I rather think fully equal to those of any British merchants.’ (Cp. Commons Report, 1832 p.468).

I shall come to Madras in a moment, and revert to statistical proof such as I can find,-thereafter. Let me here refer you to the classic case of Dr. Leitner’s Report on the system of Indigenous Education in the Punjab, based on an investigation carried out by the learned Doctor, -principal of a Government College, because of a surprising difference between his figures of the people educated in indigenous schools, and those supplied by the Director of Public Instruction for the province, to the Indian Education Committee of 1882. Dr. Leitner remarks, in his introduction to his Report, -‘In short the lowest computation gives us 330,000 pupils (against little more than 190,000 at present) in the schools of the various denominations, who were acquainted with reading, writing and some method of computation; whilst thousands of them belonged to Arabic and Sanskrit colleges, in which oriental literature and systems of Oriental Law, Logic, Philosophy and Medicine, were taught to the highest standards,’ I would particularly commend to your attention this classic document of 650 odd pages (folio), the more so as Dr Sir Wm. Hunter, President of the Indian Education Committee, made a special Minute to the Report of that Committee (pp.621-2) in which he found that Dr. Leitner’s estimate of 120,000 pupils in the Punjab was actually an underestimate by some 15,000 while the official figure supplied by the D.P.I. of the province was below the actual figure by some 80,000 pupils.

Incidentally, this will suffice to show how imperfect, Inaccurate, undependable, was the official statistical information for these early days, when the people viewed with easily intelligible suspicion enquires of this nature, and so passively refused to afford the correct information wherever and whenever they could help it. Without minimizing in the least degree the value of statistical evidence, I cannot but add that such evidence is worse than useless, when we recall the conditions under which it was complied, as also the temperament and training of the officials who helped in compiling the same in those primitive times of British rule in India.

Let me now speak of Madras, that earliest settlement of British rule in India, and even now said to be the best-educated province in the Empire. Sir T. Munro in a Minute dated 10.3.1826 (Commons Report, 1832, p.506) observes that, taking the male part of the population only, and taking children of between 5-10 years of age only, as school going population, (assumed to be one-ninth of that total population) there were 713,000 male pupils that would be at school. The actual number of pupils in recognized schools was found by him to be 184,110, which works out to be a little over a fourth of the total school-going population. Sir Thomas, however, was of the opinion that the actual proportion was nearer one-third than one-fourth, owing to a large number of children receiving instruction privately, and so not included in the above calculation.

In Bengal, (Cp. Adam’s Report, 1838) the total number of children between 5-14 years of age is taken at 87,629. of these, 6,786 were returned as receiving instruction in the recognized schools, or 7.7%. This includes men and women, girls as well as boys, while in Madras only the male population was considered. On that basis, this figure could be easily raised to at least 15% of the total. There is reason to prefer this basis for calculation, since, under the conditions and ideas of the time, women could not go for education to schools publicly recognized; and so a proper index for judging of the real state of literacy is rather the male population than the total. Again, the percentage of population receiving instruction, compared to the total of school-going age, would be still higher, if we would bear in mind the fact that the so called untouchables formed parts of the total, but could not, necessarily, be included in the people receiving instruction as these were not admitted into public institutions.

In the Bombay Presidency, the total population was returned in 1829 at 4,681,735. The total number of scholars in schools was 35,153. If we take, with Sir T. Munro, one-ninth of the population to be of school-going age, the total figure of school-going age would be 520,190. This gives a percentage of 7 to the total of school-going age; while if we confine ourselves only to males, the percentage of scholars to the total population (male) of school-going age would be 14. This proportion is more than borne out by the later Report of 1841, relating to only 9 selected districts in the Presidency.

The following comparative position, between the state of things now and a hundred years ago, would be instructive, if not conclusive.

% of population of school-going age receiving primary education

                    Presidency                               1921 (males only)                  1821 (approximate)






14 (highest 28 in some parts)



16 (highest 32 in some parts)

I have already pointed out that these statistical data for the earlier period are undependable, because (1) the figures for privately educated children are not available; (2) the people were averse to disclosing what they thought to be unwarrantable bits of information; (3) the compilers of this information were not of requisite efficiency or intelligence; (4) certain large sections of the population were necessarily excluded, and had to be excluded from these calculations, if they were to be at all reliable; and so the mere percentages, uncorrected, are of no use. The closer enquiry of this type conducted by Leitner is far more reliable, and so also the obiter dicta of people in the position to have clear impressions. These people, also, generally obtained their impressions of the state of education in the area under their charge, only incidentally, while collecting information for Land Revenue Settlement of their districts; and the primary object was not to discover the real state of education in the country, but something quite different. Hence even those impressions must be held to give rather an underestimate than otherwise of the true state of affairs in this behalf, in view of the considerations mentioned already.

Friends please thank Ajay for typing in nearly 90% of the above matter. Hope you found the excerpts as enlightening as I did. Three cheers to Dharampalji for a super book. May Ishwar bless with happiness in this and subsequent births.

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