At its prime, Nalanda had 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers from across the world and the education imparted here was free of cost. Somen Sengupta has more to say

In 1861, while excavating an enormous mound almost submerged in the ground and covered with wild vegetation in a nondescript village of Bihar, named Bargaon, a British archeologist suddenly found several plaques with an inscription written as “Nalanda Mahavihara Arya Vikshu Sanghasya”. Alexander Cunningham, the legendary director of Archeological Survey of India, soon announced that the travelogues of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang were not mere a figment of imagination. Once there really stood a gigantic university called Nalanda.

Nalanda Mahavihara was the world’s first international residential university which flourished due to the patronage of various Indian kings as well as the rulers of Java and Sumatra. For more than 600 years, Nalanda played an important role in spreading education and ideas across Asia. In 1193, before it finally burnt down by barbaric Islamic invaders who had no respect for other religions, Nalanda was a giant institution. Indeed the word “naalam” means lotus or wisdom and “da” means “giver”. So, it means a place which provides wisdom.

History takes us back to the sixth century to remind us of one Kumargupta who was the first known patron of Nalanda. It, however, took the shape of a vibrant university during the reign of the legendary Harsha of Kannauj (606-647 AD). Last, it was backed by the Pala dynasty that ruled Bengal and Bihar. So, the university was funded by both Hindu and Buddhist kings in different centuries. Interestingly, the Palas provided patronage to three more universities — Vikramshila and Odantapuri in Bihar, and Somapura Mahavihar in Paharpur (now in Bangladesh). All these universities had a common network leading to regular exchange of student, teachers, books and many more. As per Tibetan sources, at one time Vikramshila gave a serious competition to Nalanda.

At its apex, the infrastructure of Nalanda was just unimaginable. It had 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers from India, China, Tibet, Siam, Persia, Korea, Java, Sri Lanka, Japan, Sumatra, Nepal and Greece. The education was free of cost as the revenue collected from 200 villages were meant for its expenses. Its campus was always agog with vibrant intellectual discussions and debates. All subjects that were relevant in that era — theology, logic, mathematics, philosophy, grammar, metaphysics, astrology, tantra, medicine, language, etc — were taught. The admission system was strict and a student was only allowed if he could satisfy the gatekeepers with his merit and intellectual vibes. One Nagarjuna was the first principal of this university. Vasubandhu, Asanga, Silabhadra, Dharmakriti and Aryadeva were some of the eminent teachers of this institution. Even Hiuen Tsang taught here after completing his education.

There were 11 hostels with more than 3,000 residential rooms. It had a central assembly hall with various prayer halls and votive stupas almost everywhere. There were parks, pavements, rest halls and water canals flowing inside of the campus, which also had a central kitchen. A student’s room had stone bed, locker and book shelves with a provision of meditation. The central library was nine-storied and had some of the finest Buddhist and Hindu literary manuscripts. Such was the collection of this library that it took Muslim invaders six month to burn it down completely.

The decline of Nalanda started during the early 11th century when the influence of tantra engulfed Buddhism, especially in Tibet, Nepal, Bihar and Bengal. After the decline of the Pala dynasty, the Senas came to rule Bengal; they more sympathetic towards Hinduism. The final nemesis came in 1193 when Bakhtiyar Khilji, one of the generals of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, invaded east and destroyed Nalanda and Vikramshila. It is said most of the students and monks were burnt alive or beheaded .The entire complex was vandalised beyond imagination. The library building, with invaluable manuscripts, was set on fire. Only few were salvaged by some monks who fled to Nepal, Tibet and south India. Overnight a glorious history of 700 years was destroyed and buried.

People soon forgot this great institution, which was discovered as late as in the early 19th century. The rediscovery of Nalanda is a watershed in our history and we must be indebted to our former rulers for this. Ever since the university was destroyed, the entire area was deserted and soon the complex went under deep jungle. Even the name Nalanda was forgotten and a village named Bargaon came up. Around 1820, British geographer Buchanan Hamilton visited Bargaon village and found many Hindu and Buddhist stone images scattered all over the place. Based on his study, Sir Cunningham did scientific excavation in 1861. He explored countless number of inscriptions, coins, copper plates, statues, etc.

This was followed by many other excavations — first in 1872 and then in a bigger way from 1915 to 1936. In each of these excavations, a plethora of artifacts like Buddhist and Hindu images, coins, inscriptions, copper plates, murals, plaques, university seal, murals, terracotta, etc, were found. Most of these are today kept at Patna, Nalanda and Calcutta museums. Post-Independence, between 1974 and 1982, another round of excavation was conducted in Nalanda.

What we see today is not even a pale shadow of its original glory. Yet, the central mound known as temple 3 built in the Kushan architectural style makes us euphoric. Apart from this, we find an amalgamation of two different architectural schools classical Gupta and Pala. The huge central brick mound is surrounded with decorated votive stupas. It was built in seven phases. It was a typical Pancharatna style of architecture where the central building was surrounded by four subsidiary smaller temples in each corner. There is a large chamber which might have contained a Buddha statue. Most of the stupas are embellished with curving in stucco or terracotta. Buddha in various forms performing a penance-like lotus position or bhumisparsha is the main subject of all statues. Still almost every small chapel contains half-broken Buddha statue. The basement of ruined hostel with stone beds of the students in quadrangle cells and their recreation places are really amazing.

So in its town planning, Nalanda was a masterpiece. It is a testimony to the quality of life and wisdom that India offered to the mankind in an era when most of the contemporary civilisations were still in their primitive stages. No wonder, Nalanda is today an UNESCO world heritage site and a place one must necessarily visit.

This article was published on 15th December, 2013 in The Pioneer

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