The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives

The daily routine and conduct of Nalla Pillai, the schoolmaster of Kelambakam offers an extraordinary glimpse into a one-man institution of nation-building, which has now become extinct.
The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives

In this Series

The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives
Life in an Indian Village: The Story of Kelambakam
The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives
Vignettes from Life in Kelambakam: How Well Do We Know our Purohitas?

Nalla Pillai is the schoolmaster of Kelambakam, and he is next in importance to the Purohita, Ramanujachariyar. The Nalla Pillai of Kelambakam was named after the fabled Nalla Pillai, the author of the sacred Mahabharata written in Tamil. He knows by heart all the fourteen thousand stanzas of that great book. He preserves with pride and pleasure the style with which his illustrious ancestor wrote his great work, and the style is worshipped in his house every year on Ayudhapuja.

Nalla Pillai's school is located in the spacious portico of his house. The attendance is between twenty and thirty, and even boys from the neighbouring villages come here to be instructed. The boys are seated in two rows on a raised basement in the outer part of the house, and the master is seated at one end of the portico.

Method of Teaching

There is a huge difference between the system of instruction imparted in English schools and that in vogue in these village seats of learning. In English schools, great deal of time and effort is saved by having a number of boys conveniently arranged into classes so that they may be all taught at the same time. In the village school, the teacher goes through the lessons with each boy separately.

In the school of Kelambakam, three or four young boys aged between five and seven, are seated in a row, learning the letters of the alphabet by uttering them aloud and writing them on sand strewn on the floor. Two boys practice the letters on cadjan leaves. Another boy reads in a loud voice words from a cadjan book, while another reads short sentences. A third works out sums of arithmetic. Yet another recites poetical stanzas in a drawling tone, and still another boy reads verses from Nalla Pillai's Mahabharata before the master. After some verses are read out, the master explains their meaning to the boy.

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A boy is said to have completed his education if he is able to read and write accurately anything on a cadjan leaf and know the simple and compound rules of arithmetic and simple interest, and this proficiency is typically attained after four or five years of study in the village school.

Daily Routine of the Schoolboys

The boys go to school before six in the morning, return home for breakfast at nine, go back to school at ten, and remain there till two. Then they are allowed to go for their midday meal. After this, then return to school at three, and remain there till it gets dark.

Thus, Nalla Pillai, the schoolmaster is at work from early morning till evening, going through the lessons of each individual boy. The school is closed for four days in the month: on the new moon day and its succeeding day; on the full moon day and the following day. The school is closed on festivals as well.

Nalla Pillai is paid cash remuneration by the parents according to their affordability. There is no fixed fees. Cash income apart, he also gets some extra income in the form of money, new clothes, vegetables, fruits, etc, when marriages and festivals take place. New clothes, coconuts, and fruits are given along with cash when the boy is first admitted to school.

The schoolmaster is expected to look after the children of the villagers and to take an active interest in their welfare not only in the school but in their homes as well. If it is reported that a boy is ill and that he refuses to take medicine, the master is expected to go to his house and see that the medicine is administered. If a boy throws a tantrum and refuses to eat food, if he becomes mischievous, and troublesome after school hours, his parents immediately invoke the assistance of the teacher, who must go to the house of the errant youth and see that such things do not recur. In this manner, the village master is constantly sought after by the villagers, and he is their most useful friend and guide.

But Nalla Pillai like all his teaching brethren in south India, makes it a special part of his duty to give Dharmic and spiritual education as distinct from the “moral education” taught in English schools. The school unfailingly commences and closes each day with hymns to Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, and Vighneshwara. A ll the boys are expected to memorize these hymns and repeat them aloud. The children are also made to learn by heart during holidays, scores of poetical stanzas containing moral and ethical maxims on cadjan leaves. Atop each cadjan leaf is inscribed some sacred symbol such as Om or the Swastika followed by a short paean such as: Sri Rama Jayam or Sarvam Shivamayam. These maxims are derived from a wealth of such literature including Subashita, Thiruvalluvar, etc. The boys are always taught to fear Ishwara, to be honest and truthful, to venerate their parents and superiors, and so on. Thus this profound Dharmic teaching forms an inseparable part in the work of such village schoolmasters.

Punishment given to naughty children is rather mild.

The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives
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After he finishes schoolwork, Nalla Pillai, late in the evening turns to the one thing he relishes so much in life: reciting verses from the Mahabharata and explaining their meanings to the villagers who eagerly gather around him. It was a familiar scene, rekindling this verse by an old poet:

And oft at night when their toil was ended,
The villagers with souls enraptured heard him
In fiery accents speak of Krishna's deeds
And Rama's warlike skill, and wondered how
He knew so well the deities they adored.

From ancient times, the village schoolmaster occupied this exalted mantle in the Hindu social life because he commanded it by the sheer dint of his learning, conduct, character and profound simplicity. He was honoured and respected by the people, and regarded by them as their friend and counsellor. Nalla Pillai would cheerfully assist them in reading and writing letters and in settling disputes akin to a benevolent judge who bestows but does not punish. He was freely admitted to their homes and invited on festival days as an intimate member of their own family.

Nalla Pillai did his work, day after day, month after month, year after year, in an unostentatious and quiet way, enjoying the esteem and goodwill of all the villagers and the love of his pupils.


The village schoolmaster was in reality, a true nation-builder in the sense of laying an ennobling foundation where it truly matters: raw, malleable minds. The value of a nation is the collective value of the kind of education its children receive. From that perspective, every village schoolmaster of the bygone Sanatana society was a one-man institution embodying and permeating the lived values of our Purusharthas, and their fount.

One recalls an anecdote narrated by the inimitable DVG.

The Extinction of the Sanatana Village Schoolmaster: A Glimpse into their Profound Lives
DVG as the Cultural Chronicler of Bharatavarsha in Two Anecdotes

A village schoolmaster once wrote a letter to DVG requesting his help in getting a transfer. He was a widower with two young daughters and an aged mother, teaching in a remote village school. The village’s infrastructure was pathetic. He had to walk about six kilometres to fetch water, then get his daughters ready, cook, and look after his mother. His complaint was not about the sheer physical ardour of this routine. He was anguished that at the end of the day, “I have absolutely no time for Svadhyaya (self-study).”

“Modern” education has not only ensured the heartless extinction of such schoolmasters but has scorched the Sanatana soil so thoroughly that no more Nalla Pillais can perhaps be born.

To be continued

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