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Tradition of Female Education In Karnataka

Dr. Jyotsna Kamat 

Paper first published in:
 Dr. B.R. Gopal Commemoration Volume 
Dharwad 1998

It is generally believed that women were denied education, particularly in medieval times and later till the British period. Absence of references to female students in traditional educational institutions like agraharas, mathas and ghatikas further lead to confirm this view. But from ancient times, a regular system of domestic education existed for girls, which continued even up to nineteenth century. Available information from Kannada kavyas, sculptures, paintings and depiction in lithographs (printing) provide us glimpses of unhindered tradition of imparting education to females in reading writing, arithmetic, recitation from classics, dance, drama, music, besides general knowledge about ways of the world. Few observations could be made from the above available sources, starting with general knowledge.

General Knowledge

Domingo Paes and Fernao Nuniz, the Portuguese travellers who visited the Vijayanagara kingdom during sixteenth century, had noticed, participation of women in big number in the Navaratri festival. They sang, danced, played trumpets, drums, violins and pipes. There were women-accountants, guards, wrestlers and fighters [1]! The pictorial education was imparted to the ladies of the palace by illustrating life styles of people around the world on the walls of inner apartment of the Zenana [2]. This method had a great impact on learning of environment, geography and allied subjects. This system continued in the following centuries. Chennabasavapurana [3], a Kannada literary work of sixteenth century refers to an inner hall of a nobleman decorated with paintings of beasts and birds of different countries. Again 'Kanthiravanarasaraja vijaya' of Govinda Vaidya (1648 A.D.) describes inner apartments of Mysore palace, walls of which were decorated with paintings, depicting episodes from Kavyas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. In order to give three dimensional effect, the rooms were provided with life size sculptures of swans, peacocks, elephants, bison, and tigers [4].

The method of painting royal bed-rooms with erotic scenes is mentioned in Vikramankabhydayam of 12th century Chalukya king, Somesvara. Kanthiravanarasaraja vijaya also refers to 'Madana-vilasa' hall which contained paintings and sculptures depicting Kamasutra. It is very obvious that these were intended to impart sex education to young couples.

Reading and Writing

The existence of a big woman-force in the palace is confirmed and their quarters were near those of royalty. Oduva (Reader) Tirumalamma or Tirumalambika used to read out classics and holy texts in the palace. She also excelled in composing poetry in Sanskrit. Because of these talents, she had won admiration from the king Achyutaraya. There were also women who excelled in different sastras, literature, drama and music. This kind of education produced versatile queens who were good scholars and administrators. A hero-stone of Kolar district of Karnataka depicts an educated girl by name Savinirmadi who was well versed in all sastra [6]. Sanchiya Honnamma, a betel-server in the Mysore palace got all encouragement from the royalty to study under the famous court scholar, Rajaguru Alahiya Singararya. Her seventeenth century classic, Hadibadeya Dharma gives numerous sutras or guide lines that could help a woman to lead an ideal housewife's life.

Self-study was as important as attending a class-room teaching. Stress was laid on memorising, reproduction and correct pronunciation. In numerous paintings and sculptures of Karnataka one comes across many illustrations in which female students are depicted as engrossed in reading and writing.

Recitation from Classics: There were expert women who were engaged in educating and entertaining house-wives. Such volunteers were required to be accomplished vocalists, instrumentalists, orators, witty and humorous. They were well-versed in literature and music and therefore could set ragas to selected verses depending upon rasa and bhava on the piece [7]. Sculptures depicting women engaged in recitation by holding palm leaves-book in left hand and playing a string instrument by right hand are a common sight on temple pillars of Karnataka.

Music and Dance

Personal attention was paid to every individual while teaching music and dance. The hall where girls from higher society were trained was known as Kannemada [8]. Paes had seen such a hall in Vijayanagara palace. Each pillar of this hall had paintings depicting different postures of a particular dance which helped the students while practising. Paes had also seen a painted recess where women clung on with their hands to stretch and loosen their limbs to make their whole bodies supple. He had noticed the golden image of a girl about twelve years age with her arms in the position which came at the end of a dance performance [9]. This age was considered ideal for a student by Sivatattva rathnakara, an anthology in Sanskrit ascribed to king Basavaraja I of Keladi (1684-1710 A.D.). Upto twenty years of age was considered as the best period for performing dance. After thirty years, one has to retire from this artfield. A dancer had to be of medium height, weight, proportionate limbs, and a very pleasant personality. She should be adept in music, dance, acting, recitation and also in conversation [10].

Chalukya and Hoysala queens and princesses were accomplished musicians and dancers and had title like, Ganasarade, Patrajagaddale and Geetavadyanataka-Sutradhari. Sixteenth century Portuguese traveller, Barbosa, had noticed that the service-wing of the palace recruited talented young girls after scouting through the entire kingdom. The courtesans were the custodians of fine art of the palace as well as the empire. Hyder Ali kept up this practice of recruiting pretty girls from Lahore, Abdala, Kabul, Kandhar, Kashmir, Gujarath, Arabastan etc., and got them trained in dance, singing, playing musical instruments and acting. Their training was supervised by the father of Manager Kuppayya, who was an authority on Bharatanatya-sastra and was the head of Royal theatre [11].

Education of Commoners

 In Jaina monasteries and mathas, spiritual training of nuns continued and was kept unhampered by the wandering mendicants. Basadis continued to impart popular education for women where shravaka goshthis were conducted. They learnt to read Jinagamas, participated in group singing of stotras and listened to stories of Trishashthi-Salaka purushas [12]. Temples also played a similar role in female education. House wives of Purandardasa's period (16th century) were adept in handling musical instruments like tittiri, mouri, tanpura, cymbals etc., and were busy giving performances during festival occassions [12]. Obviously they had their own method of learning at home under accomplished house-wives.

Existence of literacy to a fair degree among women is confirmed by copies of palm-leaf manuscripts available even today that were copied by women. Popular works like Kumara Ramana Sangatya, Basavapurana, Sukumaracharite, Linga lilavilasa were copied down by women who had carried out this tedious work for self study or to help others in reading [13]. Tulu folklore speaks of a girl student who tried copying letters on sand and memorise lessons.


  1. Sewell Robert: A Forgotten Empire, New Delhi, 1972 (FE) Account of Paes, p. 263. and Nuniz p. 363. 
  2. Ibid, p.274. 
  3. Chennabasavapurana of Virupaksha-Pandita, Kannada Sahitya parishat, Bangalore, 1977 Ch. 36, Verse 26, p.546. 
  4. Betageri Krishnasharma: Karnataka Janajivana, Dharwar 1971, p. 161. 
  5. Ibid, p. 162 
  6. Epigraphia Carnatica, X, BW No. 65. 
  7. Manasollasa of king Somesvara (Ed. Shrigondekar G.S.). Baroda, 1939, Part II, Vv 918-19, p.80. 
  8. Prabhulingalile of Chamarasa: Publication of Dept. of Kannada and Culture, Bangalore 1985. Sandhi v, Vv 17-18. 
  9. FE. P. 277. 
  10. Sivatattvaratnakara of Basavaraja of Keladi, Oriental Research Institute, Mysore 1964, Part I, Kallola VI, Taranga III, Vv. 32-39, p. 487. 
  11. Sharma T.T.: Charitrika-Dakhalegalu, Bangalore 1971, p. 140. 
  12. Dharmamritam of Nayasena: (Ed. K. Venkataramappa), Bangalore, 1977, Ch, X, Vv 17-18, p.665-6. 13. Purandara sahitya-darsana: (Ed. Ramachandra Rao S.K.), Bangalore, 1985. Part IV, p.47.

See Also:

  • Educating the Fair Sex -- Tradition of female education in Karnataka
  • Old-timey Education -- Dr. Jyotsna Kamat hosts an amusing online exhibition of historical artifacts on education in India through the centuries

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