I felt a strange sensation when I visited the Nalanda University, like when you visit a college you couldn’t secure admission to. As the visit to the world heritage site unfolded, that strange feeling turned into a shock brought on by the ruinous sight.
From the entry queue, to the site entrance, was enchanted by the long covers of well-maintained gardens. Then I saw it. What used to be one of the first residential universities of the world, an architectural masterpiece in its time, had been divested by time until just stacks of bricks remained.
Now serving, among other things, as a milestone for the start of decline of Buddhism in India, this building drove me to enquire into history as to what went wrong.
The institution was established during the Gupta Emperors in 450 AD. Built with a capacity to house up to 10,000 students and 2000 teachers, the complex had numerous compounds, dormitories for students, temples, meditation halls, a library and almost every other possible educational infrastructure. Researchers and archaeologists believe that the colossal library had a collection of around 9 million volumes. Conceptually, the institution was clearly ahead of its time.
The University is said to have been at its pinnacle when the complex was put on fire in 1193, reportedly by an army led by Bakhtiyar Khilji.
The guide took us to the dormitories to show the remains of students’ rooms. Stone beds and study tables, with small circular pits at one corner, which were probably used as ink pots. In the basement lay the kitchen. Archaeologists believe that it was the kitchen because of the burnt rice found in the structure. The rice grains are kept at the Nalanda museum with other items salvaged during the excavations.
As I explored further, I stepped into a gateway, from which winding stairs took me to a long corridor. There were rooms on either sides of the corridor which I assume, must have been the classrooms. This is the only place in the whole structure with the roof intact.
I tried imagining how it must have been with all the students, kind of like my school’s corridor used to be. As I was leaving the premises, I looked at the ruins one more time, and completed the imagination with what it could have been like to look at the campus in its glory.