“The Beautiful tree – Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century” by Dharampal- Preface

In this series of articles, we are introducing the book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ by Shri Dharampal, to readers old and new. Shri Dharampal was one of the leading intellectuals & writers of Independent Bharat, whose work was subsequently marginalised & suppressed by the left-leaning academic establishment. We are grateful to Voiceofdharma.org for making this treasure trove of books/articles available for the common public.


A great deal of scholarly work has been published on the history of education in India, especially during the 1930s, and 1940s. In fact, writings on the subject, initially by British officials-cum-scholars, started to appear as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Most of these histories, however, relate to the ancient period, sometimes going as far back as the tenth or twelfth century CE.

Others deal with the history of education during British rule and thereafter. Besides detailed scholarly works on specific ancient educational institutions (such as those at Nalanda or Taxila), there are more general works like that of A.S. Altekar[1] on the ancient period.

For the later period, there have been several publications: besides the two volumes of Selections from Educational Records, published and recently reprinted by the Government of India itself,[2]the work of S. Nurullah and J.P. Naik may be mentioned here.[3]

The latter work is interestingly described by the two authors (thus indicating its time and mood) as an attempt at a well-documented and comprehensive account of Indian educational history during the last one hundred and sixty years and to interpret it from the Indian point of view.[4]

Reaching a far wider audience is the voluminous work of Pandit Sundarlal, first published in 1939,[5] though perhaps less academic. The 36th chapter of this celebrated work entitled, The Destruction of Indian Indigenous Education, runs into 40 pages, and quotes extensively from various British authorities.

These span almost a century: from the Dispatch from England of 3rd June 1814 to the Governor General in India, to the observations of Max Mueller; and the 1909 remarks of the British labour leader, Keir Hardie. However, given the period in which the book was written and the inaccessibility of the detailed manuscript records, it was inevitable that the author had to base his work entirely on existing printed sources.

Nevertheless, as an introduction, this chapter of Bharat men Angreji Raj is a landmark on the subject of indigenous Indian education in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Very little, however, has been written on the history, or state of education during this period, starting with the thirteenth century and up until the early nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, there are a few works like that of S.M. Jaffar[6] pertaining to Muslim education.

There are a chapter or two, or some cursory references in most educational histories pertaining to the period of British rule, and to the decayed state of indigenous Indian education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nurullah and Naik’s book[7] devotes the first 43 pages (out of 643 pages) to discussing the state of indigenous education in the early nineteenth century, and in challenging certain later British views about the nature and extent of it.

Most of the discussion on the state of indigenous Indian education in the early nineteenth century, and the differing view points which give rise to it, use as their source material

(a) the much talked about reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, on indigenous education in some of the districts of Bengal and Bihar 1835-8 [8]

(b) published extracts of a survey made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education in the Bombay Presidency during the 1820s,[9] and

(c) published extracts from another wider survey of indigenous education made in the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) during 1822-25.[10]

A much later work on the subject, but more or less of a similar nature is that of G.W. Leitner pertaining to indigenous education in the Punjab.[11]

Amongst the above-mentioned sources, G.W. Leitner’s work, based on earlier governmental documents and on his own survey, is the most explicitly critical of British policies. It holds the British authorities responsible for the decay, and even the destruction of indigenous education in the Punjab the area with which his book is concerned.

The reports of Adam, as well as the reports of some of the collectors in the Madras Presidency[12] refer likewise to the decay of indigenous education in the areas of India with which they were concerned. Of course, they do so much less explicitly and in language more suited to British officers and gentlemen(Leitner, though a British official, was not an Englishman).[13]

Mahatma Gandhi’s long address at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London on 20 October, 1931, stated that literacy had declined in India in the past 50-100 years and held the British responsible for it. The statement provided a real edge to the observations of Adam, Leitner, and others and to the view which Indians had held for decades.

It was then that all the above sources relating to indigenous education in the earlier part of the nineteenth century assumed their great importance. The person who, perhaps not only as an individual, but also as a representative of British rule in India, contested what Gandhiji had said was Sir Philip Hartog, one time vice-chancellor of Dacca University, and chairman of the auxiliary committee of the Indian Statutory Commission. He asked Gandhiji for precise references to the printed documents on which Gandhiji’s statements were based.[14]

Not finding satisfaction (during much of this period Gandhiji and his colleagues were in prison) Hartog, four years later delivered a series of three lectures at the University of London Institute of Education with the aim of countering Gandhiji’s statement. After adding three memoranda and necessary references, Hartog got these published in book form in 1939.[15]

Countering Gandhiji and the earlier sources in this manner, Sir Philip Hartog was really not being original. He was merely following a well-trodden British path in defence of British acts and policies in India; a path which had been charted some 125 years earlier by William Wilberforce, later considered as the father of Victorian England, in the British House of Commons.[16]

Hartog had been preceded in his own time in a similar enterprise by W.H. Moreland, who could not accept Vincent Smith’s observation that the hired labourer in the time of Akbar and Jahangir probably had more to eat in ordinary years than he has now.[17] Smith’s challenge appears to have led Moreland from the life of a retired senior revenue settlement officer into the role of an economic historian of India.[18]

Quite understandably, at least till the 1940s, and burdened as they were with a sense of mission, the British could not accept any criticism of their actions, deliberate, or otherwise, in India (or elsewhere) during the two centuries of their rule.

A major part of the documents reproduced in this book pertain to the Madras Presidency Indigenous Education Survey. These were first seen by this writer in 1966. As mentioned above, an abstract of this survey was included in the House of Commons Papers as early as 1831-32.

Yet, while many scholars must have come across the detailed material in the Madras Presidency District Records, as well as the Presidency Revenue Records (the latter incidentally exist in Madras as well as in London), for some unexplained reasons this material seems to have escaped academic attention.

The recent Madras University doctoral thesis pertaining to the various Madras Presidency districts covering this period also does not seem to have made any use of this data, despite the fact that some of it does contain some occasional reference to matters of education.

The Beautiful Tree is not being presented with a view to decry British rule. Rather, it is the continuation of an effort to comprehend, to the extent it is possible for this author, through material of this kind relating to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the reality of the India of this period: its society, its infra-structure, its manners and institutions, their strengths and weaknesses.

The book touches on another aspect of this India in more or less the same manner as the author’s two earlier books in this field, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century,[19] and Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition.[20]

Furthermore, an attempt has been made in the Introduction to situate the information on the indigenous Indian education of the period in its temporal context and, with that in view, brief mention is made of the state of education in England until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

A number of friends have taken interest in this material and offered me their valuable advice and opinion during the past several years. I am grateful to all of them. Without their support and encouragement, this work may never have been completed.

Even more so, I am greatly indebted to the University of Oxford for being kind enough to consult their University archives in order to answer some of my queries pertaining to the academic courses, etc., at Oxford at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, I am much obliged to the India Office Library & Records (I.O.R.), and to Mr Martin Moir in particular, for supplying me with copies of the Hartog-Gandhi correspondence. I am also obliged to the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, for offering me a senior fellowship of the institute during 1972-73 and to the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, the Gandhi Seva Sangh, Sevagram, and the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development, New Delhi, for interest in and support to this venture, as occasion demanded.

The text of the Madras Presidency material (included in the Annexures), though first consulted in the India Office Library, is taken from the records in the Tamilnadu State Archives (previously the Madras Record Office). For this facility, and for much kindness and consideration shown to me, my thanks go to the fairly over-worked staff of the Archives.

The note by Alexander Walker, also reproduced here, is from the Walker of Bowland Papers in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. My sincere thanks go to the National Library for permission and facilities to consult these and other papers, as also to the Scottish Record Office, the University of Edinburgh, and the Uttar Pradesh State Archives, Allahabad, for similar permission and facilities.

Finally, I am honoured by the Ashram Pratishthan, Sevagram, for extending me an invitation to write this book in the Ashram, and for providing me the necessary facilities and for treating me as one of their own. Completing this work living near Gandhiji’s hut has indeed been a great privilege.

* * *

The title of this book has been taken from the speech which Mahatma Gandhi had made at Chatham House, London, on 20 October, 1931. He had said:

…the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.

The subtitle has also been chosen accordingly. Although the Madras Presidency data which forms the bulk of this book was collected during 1822-25, the educational system to which the data pertained was much older.

It was still the dominant system during the 18th century, after which it started decaying very rapidly. The Adam Reports reflect that decline in the fourth decade of the 19th century.

February 19,1981.


Ashram Pratishthan,



1.A.S. Altekar: Education in Ancient India, 2nd Ed., Benares, 1944.

2.National Archives of India: Selections from the Educational Records, I:1781-1839, II:1840-1859 by H.Sharp and J.A. Richey 1920, 1922 (reprinted 1965).

3.Syed Nurullah and J.P. Naik: History of Education in India during the British Period, Bombay, 1943.

4.Ibid, Preface.

5.Bharat mein Angreji Raj (in Hindi). While its first edition in 1929 was immediately banned by the British, it was again published in 1939 in three volumes (1780 pages), and has not only been republished again, but has become a classic of its kind, providing a detailed account (pri

6.S.M. Jaffar: Education in Muslim India, Peshawar, 1936.

7.History of Education in India during the British period, 1943.

8.W. Adam: Reports on the State of Education in Bengal 1835 and 1838, edited by Anathnath Basu and reprinted, Calcutta, 1941.

9.House of Commons Papers, 1831-32, Vol.9.

10.Ibid., pp.413-417, 500-507.

11.G.W. Leitner: History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab since Annexation, and in 1882, 1883; (Reprint: Languages Dept., Punjab, Patiala, 1973).

12.See reports of Madras Collectors reproduced in Annexures A(i)-(xxx).

13.Philip Hartog: Some Aspects of Indian Education Past and Present, OUP, 1939. Preface, viii.

14.India Office Library: MSS EUR D 551, Hartog to Mahatma Gandhi 21.10.1931.

15.Hartog: op. cit.

16.Hansard: June 22 and July 1, 1813.

17.V.A. Smith: Akbar: The Great Mogul, Clarendon Press, 1917, p.394.

18.London: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1917, pp.815-825.

19.Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century: Some Contemporary European Accounts, Other India Press, Goa, 2000.

20.Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition: With some Early Nineteenth Century Documents, Other India Press, Goa, 2000.


Book: The Beautiful Tree

Author: Dharamapal

Originally published: 1983

Published by: Voice of India

Available on: Amazon, PDF

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