(Last Updated on : 22/05/2014)
Agraharas were abodes of the ancient times meant for brahmanas. The kings of South India of almost all the dynasties donated land, sometimes whole villages called agraharas, brahmadeyas and chaturvedimangalams to brahmana scholars and these areas blossomed into centres of traditional education. They are institutions of great antiquity which flourished in the ancient and medieval days and a few survive even now, although they are not well endowed as they once were.
Agraharas are well described in the ancient literary works and in the inscriptions of the various kings.These agraharas, which were fertile areas situated by the banks of rivers or large tanks, were primarily established for providing shelter and food to learned scholars to help them live in comfort to learn and teach the scriptures. Sometimes two or more small agraharas were joined together to create a large one, which was then renamed.
These villages usually bore the names of the kings, queens or royal officials who were responsible for their formation. Inscriptions mention the subjects which were taught at the various agraharas and some teachers who specialized in a particular subject contributed to the fame of a particular agrahara. Some of these villages even had libraries for the benefit of the teachers and their students. In the ancient Karnataka country, the brahmanas of the agraharas were known as the mahajanas. The residents of these villages enjoyed many privileges of various types. One of these was the restriction imposed on some government officers from either visiting these agraharas or restraining them from acting at these places as they did in other villages.
While the inmates of these villages enjoyed such an exalted status, they had to abide by certain rules and regulations, which were very strictly imposed on them. In many cases, they were not allowed to sell dieir land and since these were educational institutions of repute, the people residing there were to lead exemplary lifestyles. Any deviation from the given rules was stricdy punished. An inscription from Karnataka gives a list of offences and the fines to be paid for disobeying die rules.
These villages had their own administrative assemblies called sabhas in the ancient Tamil country. The Chola inscription at Uttaramerur (Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu) gives a clear picture of the functioning of a sabha. These assemblies were representative in character and elections were held for the different committees of a sabha, which were set up to look after tanks, gardens, roads, etc. The responsibility of looking after the local affairs of an agrahara rested almost entirely upon the residents.