By Majid Sheikh
Dawn, Sunday, 24 January 2010

When the British conquered Lahore in 1849, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor
General, declared that he would educate the “wild illiterate Punjabis” in a
new system of Anglo-Vernacular education. When they started the East India
Company Board was shocked by what already existed.

The board was amazed to find that the literacy rate in Lahore and its
suburbs was over 80 per cent, and this was qualified by the description that
this 80 per cent comprised of people who could write a letter. Today, in
2010, less than nine per cent can do this, while 38 per cent can sign their
name, and, thus, are officially ‘literate’. If you happen to read Arnold
Woolner’s book ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab ’ you will come
across some amazing facts we today just do not know. To understand the
situation it would interest scholars to go through the ‘A.C. Woolner
Collection in the Punjab University Library. My review is a scant one. But
studying other similar pieces provides a picture of the educational system
as it existed in Lahore in 1849 when the British took over.

The publication ‘The Marquis of Dalhousie’s Administration of British India’
provides an amazing quote (page 345): “The board discovered to its surprise
that the incidence of literacy in Punjab was higher than any other place in
India . In Lahore city alone there were 16 elementary schools for girls
alone, and to our amazement we discovered that co-educational schools were
aplenty”. Mind you another fact is also mentioned by the great Sir Aurel
Stein, a former principal of the Oriental College , Lahore , in his research
on the ‘great game’ *where he described the teaching excellence of the Vedas
and Dharma Sutras in the Hindu educational institutions of Lahore . The Sikh
schools, the Muslim ‘madrassahs’ and the Hindu schools catered to the latest
developments in mathematics and astronomy, all of which assisted the Sikh
rulers maintain an edge over the British in the rest of India .
We also know from the book ‘Punjabi Grammar’ compiled by Dr. Carry of Fort
Williams College , Calcutta , in 1812, that it based its grammar from the
farmed ‘Punjabi Qaida’, which was made compulsory for all Punjabi women to
read during the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Every village ‘lambardar’
made sure that every female in every village had a copy of the ‘qaida’,
which made sure that literacy was in-built into the Punjabi State at the
family level. After taking over, the EIC Board allowed the ‘madrasahs’ at
even the village level to continue to operate. However, to enforce the
English language as the base for all State functions, which seemed the
sensible thing for the English to do in order to rule effectively, central
schools for higher education were set up. The model for this came,
initially, in the shape of the Rang Mahal School by Ewing , and then by the
Central Model School at Lower Mall.

But the most detailed study of the educational system in place in Lahore
before the British took over came in the shape of the research undertaken by
Dr. Leitner, the first principal and founder of Government College , Lahore
and the Punjabi University . The eminent linguist described in some detail
how the ‘Punjabi Qaida’ was removed from the scene, at even the village
level, after the events of 1857, when it was felt that unless Punjabi was
removed as the language of first choice, the ‘wild Punjabis’ would soon
overcome the British. Both Leitner and John Lawrence disagreed with this
strategy, while Henry Lawrence, Dalhousie and Montogomery wanted a *military
solution to “end Punjabi educational dominance once English was introduced”.
In the de-militarisation of the Punjab , “over 120,000 cartloads of arms and
swords were confiscated”, and in the process, says Edwardes and Merville in
their publication of 1867 (page 433-34) it was thought important *“to make
sure militant Punjabis – Sikhs, Muslim and Hindus – and their language, were
crushed by removing not only all arms and swords, but more importantly their
books, which were all burnt”.* Sir Aurel Stein described how a wealth of
books on mathematics and astronomy were lost in this ‘action’. For those
still interested, samples of those books can be found in the Punjab Public

But which sort of schools and ‘madrassahs’ and ‘shawalas’ existed in Lahore
before the British came in 1849 to ‘civilise’ the people of this ancient
city? The Muslim ‘madrassahs’ were located at every ‘guzzar’ and the
madrassahs opened by the family of fakir azizuddin were considered among the
most modern in the entire subcontinent. They not only taught Punjabi,
Arabic, Persian and Urdu languages, they also, at the elementary level,
excelled at mathematics. Thus the basics of the logical transfer of
knowledge had already been laid at the basic level. It now seems that the
British, against the popular belief, actually destroyed this structure, to
forever dent the ‘formal learning institutions’ available to the Punjabi

*Higher mathematics and astronomy, as well as chemistry and physics, not to
mention history and geography, were taught in these’ madrassahs’.* The
Punjab Public Library has a few beautiful leather-bound books of that time
period in the reference section. Just for the record, these were bound in
the square opposite the mosque of Wazir Khan, now consumed by illegal
structures. For those interested in the classics, you will know that the
British Museum Library has ample examples of ‘Lahore Classics’, all
hand-written and those edges are painted in floral designs.

The research carried out by Lord Osbourne (1804-1888) in his description of
the “Court and Camp of Ranjeet Singh’ describes how well-educated his
camp-followers were. The same can be seen in the article on the subject by
Sir Henry Griffin. The Dogra brothers who ruled the Punjab in important
positions were leaders in setting up Hindus schools, just as among the Sikhs
the Majhathia Malwai and Dhanna Singh families led in the setting up of
schools for Sikhs, which also admitted Muslim and Hindu students. A few of
them were co-educational, which was revolutionary for their concept at that
time. It seems the French influence was also a reason for this.

*In the years 2010 when the teaching of history is no longer allowed, where
the exact sciences are deliberately avoided in the official syllabus,* and
where the system of examinations have created two distinct social and
economic classes – Urdu and English medium – a study of our past in terms of
its educational achievements needs to be undertaken by every child, so that
we can pick up where we left off almost 160 years ago.


  1. If it is all true then the Pakistan Federal and Provincial Governments from 1947 till present have been traitors of the highest order for betraying the people of the Punjab. Looking forward, let us join heads and make an effort for revival, failing which our coming generations would rightfully curse us.

  2. Javaid A. Choudhary

    We all are responsible for not advocating enough as what Lahore is all about. It is not just the place only. It is a city with a special aura around it , that cannot be described and expressed in words. To love Lahore one has to come to this extraordinary town on this earth and feel its ambience.

    Some organizations like APNA and others too are doing a lot for revival of punjabi Language its culture and its people. I think Lahore Nama and APNA is a good platform to do something positive for our “Dharti”

  3. Let me start by saying that I found this post very useful and informative.

    I would love more posts that talk about education in the pre-British sub-continent.

    I looked around for the book “History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab”. The only thing I found was “History of indigenous education in the Punjab: since annexation and in 1882” by G. W. Leitner.

    A.C. Woolner seems to have been the vice-chancellor at Punjab University for some time and has the Woolner Collection named after him.

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