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Knowledge Transmission in Medieval and Early Modern India: The Role of Families and Jatis


An important feature of traditional Indian education has been the preservation and dissemination of knowledge across the whole spectrum of society. Surveys carried out by the British in the early nineteenth century revealed that nearly every social class of Indian society, from the mali (gardener) to the kurmi (agriculturist) was educated. While this suggests that probably no one was denied access to basic education, it also points to a deeper principle of decentralized Indian education. This means that education in India was not just restricted to ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ schools (in the sense that we generally understand this term) and that education in almost all disciplines, especially the 64 kalas, including sculpture, pottery, dance, drama, music etc. was mainly conducted in the family homes of the artisans. But the family was more than a physical space for knowledge transmission. Being the custodians of ancient knowledge traditions and practices, select families and jatis were the primary modes through which knowledge was transmitted from one generation to the next. No wonder that a strict discipline and code of conduct was maintained to guard the knowledge of specific art forms which were the preserve of families. In view of this background, the paper will discuss various examples of family-based knowledge transmission pertaining to a wide range of Indic knowledge systems including dance, drama, pottery, and ayurveda.

 Historiography on Indian Education: Gaps and Limitations

Much of the historiography on Indian education focuses on formal and mainstream institutions and therefore, the role of families as repositories of traditional knowledge systems has not received sufficient attention.In the early nineteenth century, the British colonial government ordered a systematic survey of indigenous education in India. The district collectors of various provinces were asked to report on the number of ‘schools’ for reading and writing, the number of pupils, their castes, the names of textbooks, school fees, and number of ‘colleges’ where subjects such as ‘Theology, Law, Astronomy etc.’ were taught.[1] The colonial surveys revealed that such indigenous ‘schools’ and ‘colleges’ flourished all over India. In Bengal and Bihar, for instance, surveys conducted by William Adam revealed that there were over 1,00,000 ‘village schools’.[2] In Madras, Thomas Munro had remarked that ‘every village had a school’, while in Bombay, there was hardly a village that did not have a school.[3] Overall, the colonial surveys revealed the existence of a vast network of ‘village schools’ where basic numeracy, reading, and writing were taught to children. In addition, the surveys reported that there were ‘bazaar schools’ which specialized in imparting education in accounts and book-keeping, especially to the children of merchants and shopkeepers. Furthermore, large number of ‘colleges’ or ‘Sanskrit institutions’ for higher learning were reported for a variety of disciplines including Grammar, Logic, Law, Astronomy, Samkhya, and so on. For instance, the district collectors of Madras presidency reported a total of 1,094 ‘colleges’ with a total of 5,431 students. Of these, the highest number (279) were in the district of Rajahmundry, followed by Coimbatore (173), Guntur (171), Tanjore (109), Nellore (107), North Arcot (69), Salem (53), Chingleput (51), Masulipatam (49), Bellary (23), Trichnopoly (9) and Malabar (1).[4]

This was just the tip of the iceberg, for a much larger number of students were being taught privately in family homes. For instance, the collector of Masulipatnam observed that Brahmins taught their children ‘either in colleges or elsewhere in their respective houses’.[5] In Malabar, the number of students being taught at home was reported to be 1,594 and in Madras district, as many as 26,963 scholars were receiving tuition at home.[6] No wonder that Dharampal estimated that the number of ‘privately’ trained scholars was perhaps ‘several times the number of those who were receiving such education institutionally.’[7] It is evident from these observations that a major gap in the existing literature on traditional Indian education is that the discourse has been largely limited to institutions. Furthermore, because traditional knowledge in the arts and crafts was transmitted orally and in diverse informal environments, the colonial surveys hardly mention any institutions for music, dance, drama, arts, crafts and so on. The surveys only mention that the training of “dancing girls” who were traditionally dedicated to temples, was managed privately. The collectors of Masulipatam, Madura, and Coimbatore reported that the number of such female students was 33, 105 and 82 respectively.[8] In fact, family based Gurukuls rarely figured in the colonial surveys because the officials were only interested in surveying institutions and in recording the written, formal, and institutional modes of knowledge transmission. Moreover, in the post-enlightenment era, the European mind gave precedence to “scientific” disciplines as compared to the arts and cultural disciplines.

Hereditary Nature of Occupations

The hereditary nature of occupations is evident from various ancient textual sources, especially the Jatakas that use the suffix kula (family) or putta (son of) for various craft terms. Some prominent examples highlighted by Upinder Singh include “satthavahakula (family of caravan traders), kumbhakarakula (potters’ family), setthikula (family of forest guards), dhannavanijakula (grain merchants’ family), pannikakula (greengrocers’ family), and pasanakottakakula (stone grinders’ family). Terms ending in putta include satthavahaputta (son of a caravan trader), nisadaputta (son of a hunter), and vaddhakiputta (son of a carpenter).”[9]

Family as Repository of Knowledge Tradition

  1. Veda Patha

The Veda in all its branches, has, since the most ancient times, been preserved in this country through oral tradition, being learnt by heart completely by an entire community, and being handed down by word of mouth from father to son and teacher to pupil.[10]

The hoary tradition of Vedic education goes back many millennia. It all started with the Rishis or seers to whom the Vedas were revealed. These Rishis and their progeny imparted the knowledge orally from one generation to the next and “it was in the families of these seers, their sons, pupils, and successors, that this knowledge had been preserved.”[11] In his country wide survey of Vedic schools, Dr. V. Raghavan found that several Veda Pathasalas and Gurukulas had been continuing to teach Veda Patha for several generations. Some prominent examples were the lineage of Venkatraman Srauti chanting of Samaveda at Darbhanga, the Veda Pathasal founded by King Serfoji of Tanjore at Tiruvaiyaru, or the Tulu Brahmins of Trivandrum who specialize in the Sakala shakha of the Rgveda, the Sangavedapathasala of Pandit Rajesvara Sastri at banaras, the three Nambudiri mathas at Trichur (Thrissur) of which Vadakke Brahmaswam Madham specializes in Rigveda.[12] Thus, there was no break in the continuity of the family tradition of imparting instruction in Vedic recitation.

  1. Ayurveda

Among the most well-known indigenous medical practitioners of the nineteenth century were the eighteen families of hereditary physicians in Malabar, famously known as the Ashtavaidyans, who had been originally directed by Parasurama to devote themselves solely to the study and practice of medicine and surgery.[13] They were called Ashtavaidyans because they had mastered all the eight branches of Ayurveda, namely, Kayachikitsa (general medicine), Balachikitsa (paediatrics), Grahachikitsa (psychiatry), Vishachikitsa (toxicology), Shalyachikitsa (surgery), Salakyatantra (ENT, dentistry and ophthalmology), Rasayana (immunology and geriatrics), and Vajikarana (reproductive medicine).[14] Furthermore, the accounts of several traditional Vaidyas reveal that Vaidyas were not trained in some grand institutions but rather in the homes of families that had inherited the art and practiced it for generations. For instance, a traditional account of the period comes from Brahmanand Gupta who hailed from a family of traditional Vaidyas in Bengal. He was the son of Kaviraja Bimalananada Tarkatirtha and the grandson of Kaviraja Shyamdas Vacaspati (1864-1934). Gupta notes that in Bengal, the Kavirajas (literally, prince of poetics, considering his expertise of Sanskrit treatises), as the physician was called, used to train young physicians in their homes. A similar pattern of education for the Vaidyas is mentioned in other contemporary accounts of the nineteenth and twentieth century. For instance, the Ashtavaidyans of Kerala inform that they were trained at home in the Gurukula style.[15]

  1. Drama

The only surviving form of Sanskrit drama in India is the Kutiyattam, also popularly known as Kuttu. It is performed mainly in the temples of Kerala and the actors of this drama are called Chakyars. Each temple has traditionally assigned the rights to specific families to perform this art. Originally, there were 18 Chakyar families that preserved the knowledge of Kutiyattam since the time of King Kulasekhara who ruled from c. 845 – 870 CE. Because this art was transmitted through the family based system, each family gathered experience and expertise in certain acts and also had their “own repertoire of plays in which they specialized.”[16] The fact that family homes were the places of education is evident from the account of eminent actor Ammanur Madhav Chakyar who famously remarked that his family itself was called ‘Madhom’, which in other words means a Gurukulam.[17]

  1. Architecture

One of the most well-known examples of knowledge transmission in architecture through the mode of the family is illustrated by the inscriptions found at the Jagdish temple in Udaipur, built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1652 CE.[18] The chief architects, or sthapatis, of the rulers of Mewar were the Bhangora family who were renowned experts in Vastusastra (architecture) and Silpasastra (sculpture). Their ancestors hailed from Anhilwara Pattan in Gujarat, and they migrated to Mewar around V. S. 1445 (1388 CE). The Bhangora family “produced the well-known Mandana who built the great Tower ofVictory at Chitor and was the author of the Rajavallabha and many other original treatises on architecture.”[19]

(Figure 1: Credit: Wikipedia – Stone inscription about the temple)

Another famous example of knowledge transmission in architecture comes from an inscription dated 1495 CE of a temple dedicated to Mahamaya at Ratanpur in Bilaspur district, Madhya Pradesh. This inscription praises the Kokasa family of architects, particularly the Sutradhar Chhitaku, the “able son of Manmatha”.[20] 

  1. Pottery

Kapila Vatsyayan has observed that “the craft traditions of India have had a long tradition of continuity, both because they were community-based and largely hereditary, and continue to be so.”[21] Similarly, in his well researched book titled Silpa in Indian Traditions, R.N. Misra has noted that “family and the homestead had ever remained the hub of artists’ training, with home serving as a school as well as the workshop where father and other elders of the family would assume the role of a guru for younger members of the family.”[22] Let us take the example of pottery.

“The children of potters”, as Huyler has noted, “learn the craft at an early age. Raised in an environment infused with terracotta production, they know little else. From their earliest memories, their experiences revolve around pottery, its commission and production, and its trade or sale. Their home is a studio; their playthings are the clay itself and the implements of pottery making. As toddlers they receive no formal training in the craft; they simply learn by imitation. Watching their parents, older siblings, and other relatives, they learn to shape the clay into forms and to paint designs on discarded potsherds. As they grow older, they are assigned simple household tasks that teach them some of the basics of the trade. Usually, between the ages of eight and fifteen, boys begin to use the wheel. Some potters give their sons small potting wheels on which to learn. On the first day a boy uses the wheel, his family celebrates by offering incense and confections to the spirit of the wheel. The females in the family, besides learning all of the household duties required of a potter’s wife, are trained to clean and prepare the clay, to slip and paint the terracottas, to help with the firing, and sometimes to mould vessels and/or sculpt figures. The apprenticeship of a potter can take years, beginning with learning to throw the simplest forms, such as deepas (lamps). His highest ideal is to perfectly copy the vessel and structure prototypes of his family.”[23]


Indian knowledge traditions were preserved by the continuity of family traditions since in most cases, the families alone were the repositories and carriers of specific knowledge systems. We saw that the hereditary families of physicians called Ashtavaidyas have preserved and transmitted the knowledge of Ayurveda in Kerala. Similarly, the Chakyar families were trained in the art of Kutiyattam in their family homes. Ultimately, in all the various domains of the Indian knowledge system, whether it was the teaching of vedas, shastras, arts, crafts, music, dance, drama, the family-based training was the key and the gurukul was often the family home of the Guru. I would like to conclude with a quote from Padma Bhushan Prof. Kapil Kapoor, someone who has pioneered the revival of Indian Knowledge Systems. In his Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Prof. Kapoor remarked that “the house of the teacher known as asrama or gurukula was the centre of education.”[24]

[1] For instance, the Madras government ordered a survey in 1822. See “Minute of Governor Sir Thomas Munro ordering Indigenous Education: 25.6.1822.” In Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, New Delhi: Biblia Impex, 1983, p. 83 – 84.

[2]Anathnath Basu, Ed. Reports on the State of Education in Bengal (Calcutta University Press, 1941), p. 6

[3]Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 13.

[4]See Table titled “Institutions of Higher Learning” in Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 30.

[5]Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 31.

[6]Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 36-37.

[7]Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 35.

[8]See “Caste wise division of female students” in Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, p. 40-41.

[9]Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, p.403

[10]Report of the Sanskrit Commission, p. 209

[11] V. Raghavan, The Indian Heritage, p. xxv.

[12]V. Raghavan “The Present Position of Vedic Recitation and Vedic Shakhas” (Kumbakonam: 1962).

[13] Some colonial accounts may have misinterpreted Ashtavaidyasto mean eight Vaidyas. For instance, Burnell noted that “there are 8 Namburi Brahmans […] who are called Ashtavaidyar, and who are the hereditary physicians of Malabar. A. C. Burnell, A Classified Index of the Sanskrit MSS in the Palace at Tanjore, (London: Trubner, 1880), p. 65b.

[14]I am grateful to Dr. P. Ram Manohar (Research Director, Amrita School of Ayurveda) for informing me about the connection between Ashtavaidya and these eight branches.

[15] Tsutomu Yamashita and P. Ram Manohar, “Memoirs of Vaidyas: The Lives and Practices of Traditional Medical Doctors in Kerala, India” in eJournal of Indian Medicine, Volume 5 (2012), 1–23. Accessed here:-

[16]Mundoli Narayanan, Space, Time and Ways of Seeing: The Performance Culture of Kutiyattam (New York: Routledge, 2022), p. 160

[17]Ammanur Madhav Chakyar, “My Training, My Gurus”, in Special Issue: Kutiyattam, Nos. 111-114 (New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1994), p. 141-146.

[18] See “JAGANNATHARAYA TEMPLE INSCRIPTIONS AT UDAIPUR”, in Epigraphia Indica, Vol.24, p. 56-90.

[19]Epigraphia Indica, Vol.24, p. 64

[20] Vasudev Vishnu Mirashi, ed., Inscriptions of the Kalachuri-Chedi Era, Part II, (Ootacamund: Government Epigraphist for India, 1955), p.556-557.

[21] Kapila Vatsyayan, “Fluid Cultures, Frozen Structures”, in Plural Cultures and Monolithic Structures, p. 203

[22]R.N.Misra, Silpa in Indian Traditions: Concept and Instrumentalities, p. 65

[23]Stephen.P. Huyler, Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India, p. 31.

[24] Kapil Kapoor, ed., Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. IV., p. 10-13

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