Nalanda University WikimediaCommons
Who says only fear and emotions give goose bumps? Strangely, I felt them while visiting Nalanda University. Visiting the site of Nalanda University in Bihar came as a shock rather than the excitement of a historical tour. As I stood in the queue to take the entry tickets I could see long green lawns embellished with blossoming flowers. I was enchanted by the green environs, well-maintained gardens on either side of the passage that played its perfect role in leading my way to this ancient learning centre’s entrance, where I got the first glance of the ruins.
What used to be one of the first residential universities of the world stood in ruins. The university building that was once considered an architectural masterpiece was sacked to stacks of bricks. One of the greatest universities in history and the finest Buddhist learning centre lay still in front of me…silently… as a milestone for the decline of Buddhism in India. Shooing away my disturbing thoughts, I joined a group of tourists who were following a guide, to know what went wrong.
Nalanda University was an epitome of architecture as it was of learning and education. It was established under the reign of Gupta Emperors in 450 AD. Built with a capacity to house 10,000 students and 2000 teachers, the complex had numerous compounds, dormitories for students, temples, meditation halls, a laboratory, a library and almost every possible infrastructure that one seeks in an educational institution. It won’t be preposterous to assume that the concept of such an educational institution was surely ahead of its time.
The university had a library with nine floors. Researchers and archaeologists believe that the university library had a mammoth collection of 9 million incredible volumes! Nalanda University was in its pinnacle of glory days when the decline struck in the end of 12th century. This epitome of learning was burnt to ashes, never to rise again. The complex was put on fire in 1193 by Islamic invader, Bakhtiyar Khilji.
The thought that if we had such a library today, how rich India would have been in ancient manuscripts, left me feeling the great loss.
The guide took us to the dormitories to show the remains of students’ rooms. The full structure is no more there but what has emerged from the excavation is marvellous. Stone beds and study tables by the bed side survived the fire that engulfed the whole building. The tables have small circular pits at one corner, supposedly used for putting ink.
Stepping delicately on the ruined bricks, further took me to the basement where lay the kitchen. People came to know that it was kitchen by the burnt rice found there during excavation. Later, I saw a few blistered rice grains kept along with other stuffs found during excavation in the Nalanda museum.
Wandering along a gateway caught my attention. I stepped up its winding stairs and was surprised to find an entry to a long corridor – seamlessly and symmetrically constructed. There were rooms on either sides of the corridor. I assumed these rooms were classrooms, as even these days’ classrooms are constructed in the same manner. It was unbelievable to see the only construction in Nalanda University left with a roof, for these were in the basement. Rest all had become a part of the crust that was excavated.
I felt like running through the corridor the way I used to run on my school’s corridor. With the sound of air gushing across my face, I felt as if I was going back in time. It was actually a journey into the epic era!
As I came out of the premises of the ill-fated institution, I was preoccupied with the thought that nothing can bring back the lost legacy of Nalanda University – not even UNESCO’s declaration that Nalanda University is a World Heritage Site. I turned back and look at the ruins for the last time… though this was poignant and full of pathos.
Text – Sanskrity Sinha