Takshshila- The great seat of learning in Ancient India

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

For the Indian subcontinent Taxila stood as a light house of higher knowledge and pride of India. Taxila was undoubtedly the most important and ancient seat of learning in Ancient India. Taxila was very famous, this  can be deduced from the fact that it is mentioned in several languages: in Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila, which may be interpreted as “prince of the serpent tribe”; in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila (Ταξίλα), which the Romans rendered as Taxilla; the Chinese called it Chu Ch’a-shi-lo. Taxila is a vast complex of ruins.  The ruins are some 30 kilometers northwest of modern Islamabad in Pakistan, which includes a Mesolithic cave (Khanpur cave), four settlement sites (Saraidala, Bhir, Sirkap and Sirsukh), a number of Buddhist monasteries of various periods and above Giri, Muslim mosques and madrasas of the medieval period. The Bhir mound is the earliest historic city of Taxila and was probably founded in the 6th century BC by the Achaemenids, according to legend by a son of the brother of the legendary hero Rama. The first town was situated on a hill that commanded the river Tamra Nala, a tributary of the Indus. It was an important cultural centre and it is said that the Mahabharata was first recited at Taxila. Stone walls, house foundations and winding streets represent the earliest forms of urbanization on the subcontinent.

Taxila is known from references in Indian and Greco-Roman literary sources and from the accounts of two Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang. Literally meaning “City of Cut Stone” or “Rock of Taksha,” Takshashila (rendered by Greek writers as Taxila) was founded, according to the Indian epicRamayana, by Bharata, younger brother of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The city was named for Bharata’s son Taksha, its first ruler. The great Indian epic Mahabharata was, according to tradition, first recited at Taxila at the great snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya, (NAGYAGYA ) one of the heroes of the story.

According to early Christian legend, Taxila was visited by the apostle Thomas during the Parthian period. Another distinguished visitor was the neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana (1st century CE), whose biographer Philostratus described Taxila as a fortified city that was laid out on a symmetrical plan and compared it in size to Nineveh (ancient city of the Assyrian empire). Among the languages taught at Taxila may have  been included a training in Greek processes of coinage  and sculpture. There was as yet no prejudice  against foreign culture. It is quite possible that Greek  dramas may have been performed in the courts of  some of the numerous Greek princes and princelings.  Some Indians also may have read and appreciated by  Sophocles and Eurepedes. The working knowlege of  Greek language may have been possessed by several  classes of society, as it was the language of the  conqueror.  From the romantic history of Apollonius of Tyana by  Philostratus we learn that in the 1st century A.D. Indians and  Greeks ab Taxila knew each other’s pretty well and ‘that the villagers  around the Gandhara capital could understand and speak Greek.  There may be some exaggeration in this picture, but recent excavations  at Taxiia have confirmed some of the topographical details given by  Philostratus (Guide to Taxila by Sir John Marshal, pp. 15 & 97).  We may, therefore, conclude that his information about Indians’  acquaintance with Greek language and literature may be at least  partly true. Greek studies, therefore, must have figured in Taxila,  curriculum during the Greek rule.

Greek orientation in Taxila studies could  not however have been considerable. Indo-Greek rulers themselves were cut off from their mother country, and  many of the conquerors soon succumbed to the culture  and religion of the conquered. It is, however, a  great pity that the historian of ancient Indian education should still be unable to supply authentic  information about the precise extent of Greek influence  on the system of education at Taxila.  literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandharaand as a great centre of learning. Gandhara is also mentioned as a satrapy, or province, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian (Persian) king Darius I in the 5th century BCE. Taxila, as the capital of Gandhara, was evidently under Achaemenian rule for more than a century. When Alexander the Greatinvaded India in 326 BCE, Ambhi (Omphis), the ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city and placed his resources at Alexander’s disposal. Greek historians accompanying the Macedonian conqueror described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed.”

Within a decade after Alexander’s death, Taxila was absorbed into the Mauryan empire founded byChandragupta, under whom it became a provincial capital. However, this was only an interlude in the history of Taxila’s subjection to conquerors from the west. After three generations of Mauryan rule, the city was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria. It remained under the Indo-Greeks until the early 1st century BCE. They were followed by the Shakas, or Scythians, from Central Asia, and by the Parthians, whose rule lasted until the latter half of the 1st century CE.

Taxila was taken from the Parthians by the Kushans under Kujula Kadphises. The great Kushan ruler Kanishka founded Sirsukh, the third city on the site. (The second, Sirkap, dates from the Indo-Greek period.) In the 4th century CE the Sāsānian king Shāpūr II (309–379) seems to have conquered Taxila, as evidenced by the numerous Sāsānian copper coins found there. There is little information about the Sāsānian occupation, but, when Faxian visited the city at about the beginning of the 5th century CE, he found it a flourishing centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. Shortly thereafter it was sacked by the Huns; Taxila never recovered from this calamity. Xuanzang, visiting the site in the 7th century CE, found the city ruined and desolate, and subsequent records do not mention it.

The ruins give traces of three different  city sites occupied at the beginning of the Baktrian,  Scythian and Kushana periods. It is quite possible  that these political vicissitudes may have told upon  the city’s prosperity, which may in turn have affected  the cause of education. Every successive power,  however, continued to maintain its provincial head-  quarters at Taxila ; this circumstance must have soon  obliterated the ravages of war. The Persian and  Greek occupation must have affected the curricula of  schools and colleges ; we have, however, only circumstantial evidence on the point. Epigraphical testimony  shows conclusively that the Persian occupation resulted  in the replacement of the national Brahml script by  the foreign Kharoshtri alphabet. The Scythian and  Kushana conquerors had no culture or civilisation of their own, but the Indo-Baktrian rulers were the  inheritors of the rich Greek civilisation. Their rule in  Taxila extended over a century and a quarter, and  must have made some impression on the educational  system of the place. It is quite possible that a few of  the ‘world renowned’ teachers of Taxila may have learnt  and opened classes in Greek language and literature in  order to facilitate the appointment of their students in  government services under the Greek administration.

Due to geographical situation and prosperity, Takshshila had to suffer the disasters of foreign invasions. It saw many ups and downs. As a result of these political changes the educational atmosphere of the “Gurukul‘ was also influenced, resulting in changes in the system. This place was conquered by Persians in the 6th century B.C., in 2nd century B.C. by Greeks, in 1stcentury B.C. by ‘Sakas‘, in 1stcentury A.D. by Kushans and in 5thcentury A.D. by Huns. The ruins of the city prove that it was destroyed and rebuilt many a times.  As a centre of learning  the fame of the city was unrivalled in the 6th century  B. C. In those days communications were so difficult  and dangerous that when their sons used to return  home, parents used to congratulate themselves on  having seen them returning during their own life  time.  Aryl yet we find students flocking to Taxila from far off cities like Benares,  Rajagriha,   Mithila  and Ujjayini.  Kuru and KoSala countries sent their  quota of students. One of the, archery schools at Taxila had on its muster roll, as we have seen already, 103 princes from different  parts of India. Heir-apparents of Benares are usually seen being educated at the same place in the  Jatakas. King Prasenajit of Kogala, a contemporary of the Buddha, was educated in the Gandhara  capital.  Prince Jivaka, an illegitimate son of  Bimbisara, spent seven years at Taxila in learning  medicine and surgery.  As Panini hailed from  Salatura near Attok, he also must have been an  alumni of Taxila university. The same was the case  with Kautilya, the author of the Arthasastra.

“The Jatakas contain 105 references to Takshasila. “The fame of Takshasila as a seat of learning was, of course, due to that of its teachers. They are always spoken of as being ‘world-renowned,’ being authorities, specialists and experts in the subjects they professed. It had many famous teachers to whom hundreds of students flocked for higher education from all parts of northern India. But these teachers were not members of any institutions like professors in a modern college, nor were  they teaching any courses prescribed by any central body like a modern university. Every teacher assisted by his advanced students, formed an institution byhimself. He admitted as many students as he liked. He taught what his students were anxious to learn.  It was the presence of scholars of such acknowledged excellence and widespread reputation that caused a steady movement of qualified students from all classes and ranks of society towards Takshasila from different and distant parts of the Indian continent, making it the intellectual capital of India of those days. Thus various centers of learning in the different parts of the country became affiliated, as it were, to the educational center or to the central University of Takshasila, which exercised a kind of intellectual suzerainty over the world of letters in India.

Takshshila was also not an organized university. It may be observed at the outset that Taxila did not possess any college or university in the modern sense of the term. It was  simply a centre of education. It may be called an educational centre of different special subjects where special and higher studies were carried on . Jatakas usually state that the ‘world renowned’ teachers of  Taxila used to have five hundred students under their charge. This figure seems to be more  conventional than real.  We get only one instance in the Sutasoma Jataka   of what appears to be a real number of students reading under one teacher. Under the ‘world  renowned’ teacher of this Jataka, we are told that 103 princes from different parts of the country were  learning  archery. This teacher may have had very probably many assistants under him. Normally  speaking, however, the number of students working  under one teacher does not seem to have been more  than 20. The excavations at Taxila have  not so far unearthed any extensive buildings, which  can be taken to be big hostels or lecture halls,  necessary for big colleges having 500 students on their rolls.

Students  used to go to Taxila only for higher education. They  were usually 16 when they came to seek admission  there. Normally the students in Takshshila resided with their teachers in boarding houses, but some lived outside too.  As a general rule, they stayed in the  houses of their teachers. The well-to-do students used to pay their lodging and boarding expenses along  with their fees, sometimes even at the beginning of their course. Some of them, who were very rich  like prince Junha from Benares, used to engage special houses for their residence . Poor students,  who could not pay any fees, used to work in their teacher’s house by day ; special classes were held for  them at night.

Students were admitted according to the decision of the teacher. The students were taught the subjects of their own choice. They completed their education according to their sweet will. There was no examination system prevalent. No degree or diploma was awarded to the students who completed their education. Only higher studies were conducted in Takshshila and so the students of more than sixteen years of age were admitted in the University. Perhaps the fees were also realized in the beginning. This fee was about 1,000 coins current at that time. Those students, who were not able to pay fees, had to pay it in the form of manual labour. Sometimes, the students were allowed to pay the fees even after finishing their education. Those students, who were unable to pay fees in any form, were educated out of charity. Some meritorious students without proper resources were awarded the government scholarships. In Takshshila poor and the rich all kinds of students were given opportunity to study.

Taxila  provided only higher education and students went  there for specialisation only. Jlvaka had gone to the  city for studying medicine and surgery and two youths  from Benares  had repaired there for studying  archery and elephant lore. The three Vedas, grammar,  philosophy and eighteen silpas were the principal  subjects selected for specialisation at Taxila. Among  the latter were included medicine, surgery, archery  and allied military arts, astronomy, astrology,  divination, accountancy, commerce, agriculture, conveyancing, magic, snake charming, the art of  finding treasures, music, dancing, and painting. There were no caste restrictions on the choice of subjects ;  Kshatriyas used to study the Vedas along with Brahmanas and the latter used to specialise in archery  along with the Kshatriyas. A Brahmana royal priest of Benares had once sent his son to Taxila not to  learn the Vedas but to specialise in archery .

As Takshshila was the centre of higher education so its education system may be divided into two categories – Literary or General and Scientific or Industrial education. In Literary or Arts departments, all the religious literatures were included. Besides Atharva Veda other three Vedas, Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sam Veda were the foundation-stone of the education. Learning of Vedas, Vyakaran, Philosophy, Literature, Jyotish etc., the Brahmanical literature, the Buddhist literature were also taught in this centre. The Jatakas constantly refer to students coming to Takkasila to complete their education in the three Vedas and the eighteen Sippas or Arts. Sometimes the students are referred to as selecting the study of the Vedas alone or the Arts alone. The Boddisatta (Buddha) is frequently referred to as having learned the three Vedas by heart. Takshila was famous for military training, wrestling, archery and mountain- climbing.

In regard to Scientific or Industrial education,  handicrafts and technical subjects like Greek architecture and arts were taught. The 18 arts were  – Ayurveda, surgery, archery, warfare, Jyotish, prophesy, book-keeping, trade and commerce, agriculture, chariot-driving, mesmerism, snake-charming, hidden treasure investigation, music, dancing and painting. Practical experiments were also conducted in scientific and industrial education. The students had to prove their practical ability and efficiency. Some evidences are found to prove that some of the students, as university scholars (graduates) gave public demonstration of their skill going from one place to the other.  The Jatakas mention of subjects under scientific and technical education. Medicine included a first hand study of the plants to find out the medicinal ones. Takkasila was also famous for some of its special schools. One of such schools was the Medical Schools which must have been the best of its kind in India. It was also noted for its School of Law which attracted student from distant Ujjeni. Its Military School were not less famous, which offered training in Archery. Thus the teachers of Takkasila were as famous for their knowledge of the arts of peace as for that of war. Much attention was paid to the development of social and cultural activities in all possible ways. Dancing and dramatic groups, singers and musicians and other artists were given encouragement and offered employment. During the Sangam epoch in South India, the three principal arts, Music, Dance and Drama were practiced intensively and extensively throughout the country, and the epic of Silappadikaram contains many references to the practice of these arts.

Later History and Destruction : We know very  little about the educational activities of Taxila subsequent to the beginning of the Christian era.  But it is very probable that it continued to flourish down to the end of the Kushana rule (c. 250 A. D.)  The Little Yueh-chis, who succeeded the Kushanas in the government of Taxila, were barbarous  chiefs, as their coins indicate, and the cause of education must have suffered under their unenlightened  administration. At the beginning of the 5th century A. D. when Fa Hsien visited the place, there was  nothing there of any educational importance.

Worse days, however, were in store for this Queen of Learning, The Huna avalanche came at the middle of the 5th century A. D. and ruined whatever was left after the Little Yueh-chi depradations. At the time when Yuan Chwang visited the city in the 7th century A. D., it had lost all its glory and importance.

The famous monastery of Kumaralabdha, where that  celebrated Sautrantika scholar had composed his expository works, was in ruins and the condition of  the vast majority of the remaining Buddhist establishments was no better.  When it is  remembered that the inhabitants of Taxila at this time were plucky and devoted adherents of Buddhism,  the sad plight of their monasteries will at once convince us that the city was completely wrecked  by the Huna invasions. Gone were the days of its former educational glory, never to return.


Radha Kumud Mookerji :Ancient Indian Education -
A. S. Altekar Education in Ancient India -
Swami Tattwananda: Ancient Indian Culture at a Glance -
Benoy Kumar Sarkar: Creative India
Gurumurthy. S: Education in South India
Radha Kumud Mookerji : Hindu Civilization –





This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.