Pathshala pre-modern local elementary education centre imparting secular instructions geared to meet the practical needs of the community, such as zamindari accounts, mahajani accounts, weights and measures, document and letter writing etc. The pathshala was usually set up by an instructor called guru, who ran the centre as his private concern. There were also pathshalas established, though rarely, at the initiative of the community, but the guru's predominance in the management of the pathshala was unchallengeable. The guru based pathshala system in Bengal was in existence from very early times and it continued until the system began to erode under the pressure of the new education policy of the colonial government in the nineteenth century.'

The pathshala was an open air institution having no paraphernalia like permanent structures, furniture and staff. A pathshala carried no name. It was usually known to people by the name of the guru who ran it. The pupils sat on the ground. They were, however, free to bring from home their own gears to sit on, such as small-sized mats made of cane, bamboo reeds, barks, leaves etc. The guru maintained his honour and difference with the rest by sitting on a wooden stool, which was again brought from home. As the guru maintained the pathshala all alone as an enterprise, he admitted students to the limit he could well manage. The gurus mostly came from the Hindu Kayastha caste, which was socially specialized in teaching and serving in state and business establishments. The pathshala was open to students of all religions and castes, though predominantly Hindu students attended pathshala and Muslim students maktabs.

Traditionally, the maintenance cost of a pathshala came from the voluntary subscriptions of the guardians of students and donations from philanthropic neighbours. A guru's monthly income, as is gathered from some surveys conducted in the early nineteenth century, varied from place to place. On an average the income varied from Rs. 5 to 12 in the early nineteenth century. It was a respectable income for the time in the sense that this sum, which could buy in normal seasons two to three maunds of rice in the rural areas, was rarely surpassed by officers of similar qualifications engaged by government, zamindars and commercial concerns.

The pathshala syllabus included reading, writing, arithmetic, letter-writing, rudimentary Sanskrit grammar, religious tales, zamindari, mahajani and commercial accounts and correspondence. The pupils received instructions not only from the guru but also from the select senior students who were given considerable leverage to maintain pathshala discipline. They were called sardar podos. The gurus saw to it that all attend the pathshala regularly. As a disciplinary measure, the sardar podos were sent out to bring back the long absentee students from their homes who were normally severely punished for the default. The gurus and sardar podos maintained strict discipline and order among students by inflicting harsh punishment when normal shouting and warning proved ineffective.

The pupils entered school normally at the age of five and stayed there from six to nine years depending on attaining efficiency in the pathshala curricula. Lessons were given in two sessions, one in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. No book was used or prescribed for students. Instructions were orally given in the form of oral transmission. The guru imparted a lesson aloud and students responded to it in chorus. Often sardar podos did this job on behalf of the guru, while the guru only observed' with a cane in hand. The students practiced writing initially on the sand, then on palm leaf followed by plantain-leaf. Students of the highest form wrote on paper. No certificate was given for finishing pathshala courses. Who came from whose pathshala was the social testimony of the attainment of a pupil. The pathshala system of education operated in traditional manner until the mid-nineteenth century, when the classical pathshala system came under increasing pressure in view of the introduction of the modern education system.

Until 1854, the pathshala system of education virtually continued without any interference from the government. However, the situation changed following Woods Education Dispatch of 1854. The Bengal government now gradually became concerned about the quality of instruction imparted in the pathshalas and began to devise ways and means of extending government control over pathshalas. Government grant-in-aid was now given to those pathshala gurus who agreed to introduce government reform measures in their pathshalas. They now had to use printed books, blackboards, attendance registers, classrooms, routines, annual examinations, etc. Scholarships were given to select students of those pathshalas which imparted education in accordance with government rules for primary education. The reformed pathshalas also received grants from the local government bodies. There were, however, many pathshalas which did not accept government interference and continued their operation in traditional way. But wealthy guardians generally tended to send their wards to reformed schools, rather than to traditional pathshalas, mainly on the ground that the new education offered better opportunities for higher learning and jobs in the state and business establishments and legal practice in the courts. The students who got new education upgraded themselves to higher social class while the traditional pathshala students could hardly join the upward social mobility. Eventually it turned out that the poor and conservative families tended to send their children to traditional pathshalas, which were cheaper, and even free, while the richer and liberal families sent their wards to aided pathshalas which used printed books in teaching and followed prescribed government curriculum. Thus the government pathshalas gradually got integrated into modern schools while the traditional pathshalas eventually faded out. [Kazi Shahidullah]