Doorway to Ancient India

, Detour

Founded in the 5th century AD, Nalanda, Bihar, is one of the world’s oldest living cities, still flaunting the Kushan style of architecture

When I planned a trip to Bihar, almost all my friends asked, ‘Why’. No answer was good enough for them; even the ones who shared my love for travel weren’t convinced. I had nurtured a dream to visit Nalanda ever since I saw the ruins of this ancient university on the cover of my history textbook in school. It took two decades and a wedding in Patna to turn that dream into reality, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go.

An uneventful road trip from Patna to Nalanda brought me face to face with the ruins of what once was the epicentre of Buddhism in India. There are a couple of theories about the origin of the name, Nalanda. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) believes the name came from “nala” meaning lotus stalks, that are found in abundance in the area, attributing Nalanda to be the giver of lotus-stalks. Another theory dives in the fact that lotus is symbolic here, and Nalanda refers to the giver of lotus that represents the gift of knowledge. Some texts also suggest that Nalanda represents a snake God named Naga Nanda. Though the theories are all interesting, it is sad that we couldn’t figure out which one is true because what remains of this epic university is nothing but ruins.

The story of Nalanda dates back thousands of years ago when it was a prosperous village on a major trade route that ran through the kingdom of Magadha. A university soon flourished, under the patronage of the Gupta Empire and later under Harsha, who was the emperor of Kannauj. It became a cultural hub that attracted scholars from all over India as well as from far off places like China, Japan, Tibet, Korea and Indonesia. It is believed that Nalanda hosted around 2,000 teachers to impart knowledge to as many as 10,000 resident students from all across Central Asia. According to the texts recovered from the site by the ASI, the Jain tirthankara Mahavir spent 14 years in Nalanda. Gautam Buddha is also said to have spent some time here, imparting knowledge to Shariputra, who was one of his two chief disciples. If we were to believe local legends, they say that even the security guards of this great university were so wise and learnt that they were given the responsibility to decide which student gets admission to the coveted university.

Today, multiple rows and columns of broken brick buildings are the testimony to what was once there – a hub of knowledge ranging all subjects imaginable; from grammar, literature and languages to mathematics, science, religion and many more. Local legends boast of the great Indian Mathematician Aryabhatta to be a student of Nalanda University. Such was the greatness of this university but sadly it couldn’t stand the test of time. Delhi Sultanate’s then ruler Bakhtiyar Khilji wreaked havoc and destroyed Nalanda in what is presumed to be a jealous rage. It is believed that the library (which hosted many rare Buddhist texts) burned for months before all the ‘gyan’ turned to ash. Many a lives were lost and what remained got buried deep under layers of ash and debris of a once prosperous town.

Much of what is known about Nalanda is from the texts left by a Chinese monk and scholar named Hiuen Tsang. The site of excavation today roughly ranges around 12 hectares but according to the texts left behind by the Chinese Monk, the Nalanda Mahavihara occupied a far larger area, almost as big as an entire city. The excavations began as early as 1931 under the British rule. 11 temple complexes, many truths and legends that one can witness today are a result of the hard work of Indian archaeologists spanning through decades. Each Mahavihara or Monastery is believed to be specialised for certain field of study, but all built in a way to encourage community learning through the day. The private chambers for the monks to retire for the night were also a common feature of the monasteries. It is very interesting to note that these chambers were small rooms, lined all near each other with an artistic symmetry. Though close by, they were aesthetically designed so each student could get the privacy they need for study/meditation. It’s an irony that what was once an ancient centre of knowledge is now buried under layers of modern civilisation.

The ASI has done a commendable job in excavating and protecting the remains of Nalanda. The ASI Museum near the World Heritage Site hosts the artefacts that were excavated along with the temple complexes. One could just look at these ancient items in awe and wonder about the past era and how these objects have survived centuries. Statues of Buddha in various poses, utensils, seals, coins, tools and even a bowl of burnt rice – everything is preserved perfectly behind the glass walls of the ASI Museum.

Nalanda or the remains of it leaves one in awe of what was one of the greatest universities ever known. A UNESCO World Heritage Site today, it is testimony to a glorious past, which rubs shoulders with the present and manages to leave you awestruck. I was lucky to visit Nalanda during the World Heritage Week when Nalanda campus also hosted a small exhibition of the pictures of the World Heritage Sites across India. I was pleasantly surprised to see many schools had organised day trips for students, to teach them history not just through boring books. Sometimes baseless apprehensions keep us from great experiences, and Nalanda was a well-in-time learning that Bihar has much more to offer than what the news channels make us believe.

Words: Akanksha Dureja

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