In ancient India, there existed a three-pronged structure in education. A child would receive primary education until he/she was 8, for the next 8-12 years, secondary education was imparted. The university education was considered the pinnacle of knowledge.
Students entered universities to explore the final intellectual frontiers. It was at these majestic seats of learning that students were molded to achieve greatness.
The following seven ancient Indian universities became renowned to take students to the end of the knowledge:
TAKSHILA UNIVERSITY (600 BC – 500 AD)
Located in modern-day Rawalpindi, Punjab in Pakistan, Takshila or Taxila once upon a time was known as the intellectual capital of India.
This might surprise you but Takshila flourished several centuries before the Universities of Alexandria and Constantinople even existed.
Takshila became a melting pot of cultures as students converged there from far lands. It is said that many influential Indian scholars composed their epoch-making work while teaching at Takshila.
It is believed that Chanakya wrote Arthashastra – an ancient Indian treatise on economic policy and military strategy – during his teaching tenure at Takshila University. Maharishi Charak also composed his medical treatise Charak Samhita at Takshila university.
The revered Sanskrit scholar and grammarian Panini also taught at Takshila. It’s at Takshila where he produced his best work called Ashtadhyayi (eight chapters) – a complex, rule-based grammar book of Sanskrit that survives in its entirety to this day.
Back in the day, there was no culture of awarding degrees and other recognitions. Knowledge was its own reward. The modern day notion of using education as a means to earn money was considered blasphemous.
The dark times befell the university when Kushanas – a central Asian tribe – invaded Takshila and ruled over it until 250 AD. They added little to the stature of this great seat of learning. As a result, the education system at Takshila started to recede.
The final blow came when Hunas – nomads from northwest China -conquered the region around 500 AD and snuffed out the beacon that had once illuminated the minds of many.
NALANDA UNIVERSITY (425 AD – 1205 AD)
Situated in the eastern state of Bihar, Nalanda University was once the most prominent seat of learning in India.
The university is said to have flourished under the reign of Gupta Dynasty back in 5th century.
Excavations carried out in the late 19th century point towards Nalanda being a place of great repute among Buddhist scholars. There is evidence that at least 13 monasteries stood there once.
Like Takshila and other ancient Indian universities, Nalanda also imparted higher educaton.
At its peak, in the 7th century, Nalanda accomodated over 10,000 students and 2000 teachers. Indian Historian DG Apte in his book Universities in Ancient India mentions that Nalanda also attracted scholars from China, Tibet, Korea, Persia and Mongolia.
Chinese monk and scholar Hieun Tsang who visited Nalanda in early 7th century underlined in his accounts the strict admission process followed at the university. Of those seeking admission, only 20% or less were admitted as a tough examination screened out a large portion of aspirants.
The library of Nalanda, known as Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth) or Dharmagañja (Treasury of Truth), was the most renowned repository of Buddhist and Vedic knowledge in the world at the time. It is reported to have housed over 9 million scrolls and manuscripts in various languages.
Many traditional Tibetan sources explain that the great library burnt for 3 months after the Turkic invaders set it ablaze at the end of 12th century. With the destruction of ancient manuscripts, the progress of the Indian scientic reason in areas such as mathematics, astronomy and anatomy also stalled.
VIKRAMSHILA UNIVERSITY (800 AD – 1203 AD)
The Indian state of Magadha (now Bihar) was home to another great seat of learning. Vikramshila alongwith Nalanda formed the era’s powerful duo of knowledge and education.
Vikramshila was said to be founded by King Dharmapala at the end of 8th century.
Unlike other ancient places of learning, Vikramshila opened its gates to only those who wished to become Buddhist monks. After attaining their education, these monks traveled to far-off lands to spread Buddhism.
It is stated that Vikramshila campus had six different colleges with each one imparting a different specialization. Subjects such as Sanskrit grammar, Logic, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Buddist Tantra and Ritualism were in vogue.
As per the accounts of Tibetan pilgrim monks, it was at Vikramshila where the culture of awarding degrees and recognition first started.
The titles of Mahapandit and Pandit were accorded as per merit to those who completed their education. The extraordinary alums had their portraits painted on the walls of the college.
In 1203 AD, Vikramshila met the same fate as Nalanda.
In many ways, the fates of both universities were entwined. In addition to being exceptional universities, both enjoyed great royal patronage in their time, both had astonishing libraries, both were ransacked and burnt to the ground by the same Turkic invader, Bakhtiyar Khilji.
Vallabhi University (600 AD – 1200 AD)
This ancient Indian seat of learning was situated in Vallabhi (modern-day Bhavnagar) in Western India. Like other universities of that time, Vallabhi also benefited from royal endowments. The lineage of Maitrak dynasty became the patrons of the university and helped in building its infrastructure.
By the middle of the 7th century, Vallabhi had become famous for teaching Buddhist philosophy and Vedic sciences. The other main subjects taught at the university were Statesmanship, Economics, Book-keeping, Business and Agriculture.
The University continued to function until 12th century despite being at the centre of the Arab invasions around late 8th century. It can be deduced that the attacks weakened the influence of patron kings and their financial ability to support the great institution.
NAGARJUNA VIDYAPEETH (600 AD)
Named after famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna Vidyapeeth was situated in South India on the banks of the Krishna river. Archaeological evidence suggests that the university and its library flourished in the 7th century.
Its library housed in the top floor of the five story building of the university had an enormous collection on the Buddhist philosophy, science and medicine.
The enormity of the collection in this library is borne out by the fact that it not only had works on the Buddhist literature, but also works on several branches of scientific knowledge, such as, Botany, Geography, Mineralogy and Medicine.
It was a great attraction for scholars from other ancient Indian universities and from other countries, like, China, Burma and Ceylon.
JAGADDALA UNIVERSITY (1084 AD – 1207 AD)
The Jaggadala Vihara in Varendrabhumi (now Bangladesh) was also an important centre of learning in the early 11th century. It was established by the king Kampala, who ruled from 1084 to 1130 A.D.
According to Tibetan works, it was at Jagaddala where many sacred Sanskrit texts were either translated in the Tibetan language.
Not much is known about why the university ceased its operations, but evidence indicates that Jagaddala may have also fallen to an invasion some time in the early 13th century.
KANTHALLOOR UNIVERSITY (1000 AD – 1300 AD)
Recent excavations near Valiyasalai in the Southern Indian state of Kerela revealed the existence of an illustrious ancient university.
Known as the Nalanda of South, the Kanthalloor Shala was once a famous centre of knowledge and due to the quality of education provided by this ancient university, it attracted scholars from other parts of India and Sri Lanka.
What set Kanthalloor apart from other ancient Indian universities of that era was the diversity in the subjects it offered.
At Kanthalloor, students were taught subjects such as Vedas, Astrology, Chemistry, Goldsmithy, Medicine, Music and even Atheism and Magic which until then were considered taboo in other universities.
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Apte, DG (c. 1950). Universities in ancient India. Baroda: Faculty of Education and Psychology, Maharaja Sayajirao University
Mukherjee, R.K. (c. 1969). Ancient India Education. Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Das
Misra, Jogesh (c. 1979). History of Libraries and Librarianship inModern India since 1850. Delhi: Atma Ram & Sons