Takshashila and Modern Universities

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~ Suhasi Khanna

Takshashila University is supposedly considered one of the oldest and earliest international universities of the world, established around the sixth and fifth century. Being the oldest University of India, it was an important Hindu/Vedic and Buddhist learning centre for scholars and leaners around the globe.

History and Ancient myths

The real origin of the name “Taksha” is still unclear, but there are numerous stories of origin and it is mentioned in ancient books. According to the Indian epic, the city name Taksasila came from Taksa, son of Bharata who was the younger half-brother of Lord Rama (not the Emperor Bharata). Taksa is believed to be the founder of the city Taksasila and the first ruler of the kingdom Taksa Khanda. Also, mentioned in Mahabharata, Takshaka is one of the Nagas mentioned in Hinduism and Buddhism. Takshaka is known in Japanese and Chinese mythology as one of the “Eight Great Dragon Kings” (Hachi Ryū-ō). Buddhist Jātaka tales written around the 5th century have tried to describe Taxila. In this text, Taxila has been mentioned as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara. In another story, Taksasila is related to Takasaka, which means ‘Carpenter’ in Sanskrit. Chinese travellers like Fa Hian (Faxian) and Huien Tsang (Xuan Zang) also wrote about Takshashila in A their writings.

University and life

It all began to develop as a loosely connected group of buildings where scholars learned, taught and resided. With time, additional buildings were built as rulers made donations, and more scholars migrated to reside here. Gradually, a campus took shape in Takshashila and became a centre of learning in the ancient world.

The students came from various countries like Arabia, Greece, China, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The curriculum was vast and consisted of around 68 elective courses, including law, state-craft, linguistics, warfare strategies, defence, philosophy, 18 arts (music, dance, fine arts, archery, hunting, elephant lore, etc.), astronomy, astrology, mathematics, plant & herbs, medicine (Ayurveda, Ayurvedic acupuncture, etc.), and surgery. Some of these courses were even taught for a period of seven years.

There were approximately 10,500 students from all across the world who came for higher studies. The admissions were admitted at the age of 16 after the completion of their primary education in their local institutions. It was done on the merit basis, or an entrance exam which was considered to be very competitive as only 1 out of 3 students were selected. They paid for their own expenses, but if they weren’t able to pay, they could work as a teacher to support themselves. The designation “Taksha” symbolises the abiding ideals of solid and deep-rooted respect for teachers, unfettered freedom of thought, learning of different streams of knowledge, excellence in education, and extraordinary discipline, that prevailed at the ancient University.

The University gained a lot of fame in its lifetime. Takshashila reflected grandiose with its state of the art lecture halls(300) with stone benches for sitting, laboratories, an observatory called Ambudharaavlehi for astronomical research, a massive library called Dharma Gunj or Mountain of Knowledge consisting of three buildings named Ratna Sagar, Ratnodavi and Ratnayanjak. Takshashila is best known for its association with some of the greatest minds of our history. Takshashila’s famous researchers, teachers and students include:


The city achieved heights in terms of Pragati under the reign of King Asoka of the Maurya Empire. It became a centre of learning in the next 200 years, and its prosperity can be attributed to its position at the junction of three great trade routes. The city faced brunt attacks and invasions from the north and the west. Destructive marks were left by the Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Shakas and Kushanas on the institution. Being famous as an important centre of learning, it attracted Alexander who took many scholars from Takshashila with him to Greece around the fourth century. The city and institution were severely damaged because of the invasions by Hephthalite (White Huns) in the second half of the fifth century. It never recovered
again and was gradually abandoned by its inhabitants during the 7th century. Takshashila was excavated by Sir John Hubert Marshall in the 1920s after years of search. It was listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1980.


Takshashila faces several controversies regarding being called as the oldest formal university of India with Nalanda University. The system of schooling or syllabus in Takshashila wasn’t centralised, unlike modern universities. It followed no course of examinations and provided flexibility to the education system, which was modified according to the capabilities of the students. The teachers followed complete autonomy and formed their own rules, manner of functioning and school of learning. The University fulfilled the objective of imparting knowledge, but the style of functioning makes it questionable for us to determine, whether it can be considered a modern university or not, in the modern sense.

Read more about: Homeschooling and formal schooling

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