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Education in Karnataka through the ages
by Jyotsna Kamat

Community Education

(The Institutions of Tapovana, Shala, Agrahara, Brahmapuri, and Matha)

The Indian educational system has evolved since Vedic times and has developed on multiple fronts. The paths it has trodden sometimes overlap, and therefore tracing the history of education in India is a rather difficult task. The main sources for reconstructing social history such as archaeological finds, epigraphs, sculptures, accounts of foreign travelers and literature provide glimpses only of certain aspects of education, and tell nothing of vital matters such as modes of instruction, tests, degrees obtained, the number of students, the literacy rate, etc. Research in the ancient Indian educational system offers many challenges to rational thinkers, but the lack of sufficient evidence does not mean that schooling and group- or mass-education was non-existent.

During Vedic times, education was limited to the gurukulas (the abode of the guru) in hermitages, where seekers of spiritual attainment, divine matters and traditional lore came in search of the guru. The stress was on self-discipline, contemplation, penance and absolute surrender. Instruction was typically individualistic. Slowly, institutionalized education systems came in vogue and group education was made available. The agrahāras (meaning "leading to front" – "agre harati ”) gained prominence, as both primary and higher education was imparted. The Sanskrit language was taught along with regional languages, and residential facilities were provided to teachers and students. Agrahāras were found amidst clusters of villages. The mathas (monasteries) grew at important religious centers and attempted to assist communities of the region in socio-religious matters, in addition to providing free education. The brahmapuris or quarters of brahmins grew in big and small towns and developed their own method of educating students of the locality. The shāles  or temple schools were common in every village and attempted to fulfill local needs of literacy as far as possible.

Hermitages, temple-schools, Brahmapuris, and mathas, which existed and were found to be scattered throughout the state of Karnataka provide us with a few glimpses of the continuous educational system through the centuries.


Hermitages or tapovanas of olden times were far away from the capitals or cities and were usually located in forests or sylvan surroundings and were meant for undertaking serious studies under the stewardship of famous ascetics. Although spiritual training was given a priority, in the beginning several secular subjects were also taught, including shāstras, rājaneeti  (political science), law, and classics by the versatile gurus.

The Buddhist system brought in institutionalized teaching and had a lasting effect on the Vedic system. Temple schools, agrahāras and mathas adopted the organization found in Buddhist chaityas and vihāras. Hermitages or tapövanas also continued to exist, as in ancient times, but they were fewer and far-flung.

In Rashtrakuta times, the Kartikeya tapovana  (976 C.E.) flourished in Kollegal near Bellary. Gadadhara, an ascetic who hailed from the Bhattatala village in Varendhri Mandala (now in Bangladesh) headed this hermitage. He had practiced great austerities and was a “refuge of learned men” as per the inscriptions found at the place. He was in charge of the hermitage for nearly half a century. There was a tank, a monastery, and several dwellings in that tapovanas , besides a matha1. Free tuition and boarding (vidyādāna and chatra) was established with the help of munificent royal grants. This hermitage flourished for more than two hundred fifty years, enjoying the patronage of three royal houses: The Rashtrakutas, the Hoysalas and the Chalukyas.

The Suvarnakshi tapovana at Sogal (Belgaum district) was set in beautiful surroundings, with a perennial water supply, green foliage, rare flora and fauna. In 984 C.E. a learned ascetic, Gangarasi, received a huge land grant from a patron called Dhanagara Kanchiyabbe for the support of ascetic students. The inscription throws light on this wealthy lady's love for religion and learning; by birth she belonged to the shepherd caste (Dhanagar). The inscription further describes poetically that in this tapovana a tiger listened to the preaching without stirring; parakeets chanted the hymns after listening to the recitation of student monks day and night. Apes brought water to their ablutions and cuckoos reminded people about the right conduct through their cooing2. There was also a matha and satra  (also called chhatra) boarding school in 1121 C.E. and grants continued to arrive from wealthy patrons. Tapovanas  existed in Karnataka till the thirteenth century C.E.


Shāles or Vedic temple-schools emerged as the first post-Buddhist educational institutions, and were modeled along the lines of the chaitya  vihāras  of previous times. Every village had a temple dedicated to a particular deity and offered a place of worship; the temple grew into a center of community activities, including imparting of education.

Some temple-schools imparted elementary education, some only higher education, and others offered both. The schools were called shāles even when the highest education, in Sanskrit,  was taught. The earliest and most famous temple school was at Salotgi (in present day Bijapur district) attached to the temple of Traipurushadeva. The school typically included Vedantins who worshipped Brahma, Vaishnavites whose patron deity was Vishnu and Shaivas who were followers of Maheshvara. But for both the teachers and the taught, God, like knowledge, was one and the same (ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti). This noble concept of non-sectarianism was personified in Traipurusha and the temple of Traipurusha was a regular feature wherever a shāle, an agrhāra, a matha or a ghatikā flourished. The school at Salotgi thrived for two centuries (from 945 C.E. to 1141 C.E.) 3 Usually the vedas or parts of vedas, vyākarana  (grammar), darshana (philosophy), shāstras  (treatises on science) and the purānas (epics) were taught in shāles. The number of students and teachers varied in accordance with the public grant or donation available.

Smaller villages had part-time teachers. Pietro della Valle saw a primary school in 1623 C.E. where, on their own, students practiced the lessons already taught, by reciting together and writing in the sand, without the teacher's presence. Schools big and small were innumerable, and were scattered throughout the land. Some of the villages that had schools during this period were: Saleur, Salegame, and Salotgi.

The Agrahāras  

Agrahāras became the foremost educational institutions and their number was legion throughout India. They were group settlements of Brahmins who formed a corporate body and administered all affairs of the agrahāra, including education. The earliest agrahāra in medieval Karnataka appears to be that of Talagunda or Sthanakundur (in Shimoga district). An inscription mentions that the ancestor of Mayurasharman (or Varman), the founder of the Kadamba dynasty, brought thirty-two learned Brahmins from Ahichchatra and settled them in Sthanakundur, turning it into an agrahāra  (350 CE.). This shows that kings promoted learning by inviting scholars from outside, and this practice continued in later centuries. Mayurasharman granted 144 villages to the support of the agrahāra4.

Further details of this agrahāra are available in an inscription from 1150 C.E. indicating that Talagunda continued as a famous center of education for eight centuries. There were 48 students and 8 teachers of different subjects, such as the vedas, vedānta, prosody, rupāvatāra  (grammar) and prabhākara  (philosophy). Besides, there were arrangements to teach Kannada at the primary level (Kannadāksharashikshe). Provision was made for clothing (sire) for the teachers, students and the temple staff, and there were cooks who cooked food for all inmates.

Later, the Chalukyan king Vikramaditya VI invited learned Brahmins from Tamil Nadu, and turned Nirgunda in Koguli province into an agrahāra  (agrahārikritya) and donated it to the Brahmins.

Queens of Karnataka also took a leading role in establishing the agrahāras. Queen Kamaladevi, wife of the Kadamba king Shivachitta thought of founding an agrahāra in Degamve (Belgaum District) and told the king of her desire in the audience hall. According to an inscription, the king put the proposal before his council of ministers, which consulted one another, and finally accepted the proposal. The queen herself selected a number of Brahmins, who were well versed in different subjects5. They hailed from different lands. This inscription gives an idea of how an agrahāra came into existence and how enough care was exercised to recruit the right learned Brahmins who could prove worthy of royal grants.

 The agrahāras imparted primary education, which was in the Kannada language. As already noted, this practice was known as Kannadāksharashikshe. This system was also sometimes called bālashikshe  (the education of children) or Karnātashikshe  (the education of the people of Karnataka).  In one instance, the purānabhātta  (teacher of the epics) read out the purānas  in the evening and the rest of the day was utilized to teach children. The teacher was known as the akkariga or Karnātapandita. These teachers, who taught the reading and writing of the Kannada alphabet were village schoolmasters.  However there were also other teachers who taught Nagara (Sanskrit), Tigula (Tamil) and Arya (Marathi) as per an inscription of 1290 C.E. It was required of boys to learn different languages, which enabled them to travel from one region to another, for reasons of trade, pilgrimage and learning6.

In Narasimhapura agrahāra of Belur, boys were taught the Rigveda and the Yajurveda. Some agrahāras taught only parts (khandike) of the vedas. It is likely that the simpler prayers, invocation mantras and riks were taught to youngsters, followed by an introduction of padapātha   (recitation of verses), sutrās, and the recitation. An agrahāra was typically composed of different vocations such as blacksmiths (kammāra), carpenters (badiga ), goldsmiths (suvarnakāra), security men (talāra ), flower-men and farmers. Youngsters of all the families in the community received elementary education locally in their families and later through guilds.

Most of the agrahāras had groups of villages under them and were closely connected with other educational institutions such as shāles, mathas, brahmapuris, and ghatikā, and in a real-sense could be called alma mater.

The Brahmapuris and the Mathas

The brahmapuris, as the name indicates, were quarters for Brahmins in parts of cities or towns (puri in Sanskrit, is “town” or “city”) that had arrangements for the imparting of education to youngsters. Kings and generals, while on tour, arranged dharma-prasangas or religious discourses by Brahmin scholars. If impressed, they gave away grants and at times established new brahmapuris. Ballegave had seven brahmapuris and Annigeri had five. The education provided was both at the primary and Vedic levels7.

The mathas : In the early times a matha was a boarding house attached to a temple-school (mathashhatrādinilayam  according to Amarakosh), but grew to be a center of learning by the middle of the eighth century. Kalamukha Shaiva teachers played an important role in the spread of education throughout the land. They arrived in Karnataka from Kashmir through Gujarat in about 7th century C.E., and since they daubed their forehead liberally with bhasma (sacred ash) they were nicknamed "black-faced" (kālāmukha) by the locals. Several Kalamukha mathas  sprang up by the 10th century, out of which those at Ballegavi, Kuppattur, Sudi, Huli, Muttage and Shrishaila were prominent. Some Kalamukha ascetics became royal preceptors as well8.

The most famous matha was Kodiyamatha at Ballegavi (in present day Shimoga district), attached to the Kedareshvara temple. It provided shelter to many sections of the society, besides providing free education, lodging and boarding to the student community. It imparted instruction in all the branches of learning. It is interesting to note that the matha distributed food to the poor, the destitute, the lame, the blind and the deaf. Artists such as singers, drummers, flute players, dancers and orators were also accommodated, confirming that the matha was a repository of fine arts. The naked and the wounded came to seek shelter and were gladly accommodated. Ascetics of different orders including Ekadandi, Tridandi, Hamsa, Paramahamsa as also the Jaina monks visited this great institution, not only from other parts of Karnataka, but from different countries. The matha provided shelter, food, security from fear, and arranged medical treatment for visitors.

This Kodiyamatha boasted of a long line of distinguished gurus. Vamashakti II himself was the head for more than forty-six years and through his scholarship, attracted the attention of the royalty, who in turn endowed the matha with liberal grants in the 11th century9. Besides Ballegavi, Kuppatur, Sudi, Huli, Muttage and Srishaila had famous Kalamukha mathas. Besides svādhyāya, (self study) adhyāpana (teaching) and vyākhyāna  (discourse) in all traditional lore, some mathas provided vocational education as well. Some taught students only to read and write (odisuva matha) some taught spinning and weaving (sālematha), and some others provided instruction in agriculture, medicine and smithy. Students were taught drawing and painting on palm leaves for illustrated books, and preparing kadatas  (permanent folding blackboards). Some old palm-leaf books and kadatas in mathas mention a number of tools required in different arts and crafts and describe modes for manufacturing them.

Even among those mathas that imparted literary education, there was specialization. For instance, koolimatha invariably taught the three R's (reading, writing, and arithmetic). In Shabdamanidarpana matha, grammar was the main subject. The Teekina matha dealt with different commentaries on the smritis, and Tippani matha trained people in the interpretion and analysis of books on law. Sampadane matha, which taught interpretation and editing, also boasted a large number of students.

Sanjeya matha, mentioned in inscriptions, functioned in the evenings. Here were performed the recitation of the purānas, which was a common practice in temple-schools as well. It is likely that people gathered at leisure in the matha to learn about religion and social duties, which formed part of the adult education of those times.

In South Kanara district, Jaina mathas  and Aigala mathas  existed and continued to flourish until the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to the three Rs, Kannada and Sanskrit classics and Yakshagana prasangas were taught.

In the mathas, besides Vedic lore and traditional darshanas and smritis  (books on philosophy and popular law), secular subjects were taught as were arts and crafts. In this way, mathas  tried to meet most of the local educational needs.

The administration and maintenance of mathas  was the responsibility of the particular community to which the matha belonged. Communities such as the Vaishnavas, Virashaivas, Jainas, etc., ran the mathas, but literary education was available to all. Like the Buddhist vihāras of previous times, bigger mathas  brimmed with multifarious activities in the medieval era.


  1. Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XVI, pp. 263-265. SII, Vol. IX (1), no. 65.
  2. Ibid, Vol. XVI, pp. p4 ff.
  3. Ibid, Vol. IV, pp. 60. Inscription at Salotgi. There were 27 dormitories for students from different lands.
  4. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. VII, Sikarpur 186.
  5. Journal of the Bombay Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. IX, p. 275.
  6. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. V. (new) 238.
  7. Ibid, Vol. VII, Sikarpur 123, SII XV, no. 71.
  8. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. VII, Sikarpur, no. 102, Sorab 276, SII XV 32 Muttage, 73 Hombal.
  9. Epigraphia Carnatica, Vol. VII, 100, 102, 104, 108.


Full Text of Education in Karnataka through the AgesEducation in Karnataka through the ages
Preface | Buddhist Education | Jaina Education | Palm-leaf Texts | Ghatikasthana | Education of Royalty | Community Education | Vocational Training | Education of Women | Physical Education | Among Muslims | Conclusions


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