Letters tell interesting tales of the times they are written in. Here are two letters that provide a wealth of information.
Day 16, Month of Chaithra, 637 CE
To the Illustrious Emperor, the Sun of Virtue,
Nalanda. Ah, how it pleases me just to utter that name! As to the welcome extended to me, a common traveller, by the great teacher Silabhadra, Most Venerable Master of the University — words fail me when I try to recount the way monks, followers of the great Buddha came to Bodh Gaya, to ask me to visit their university. Monks from far-flung places such as Korea, Turkestan, China, Mongolia and Tibet!
One hundred monks escorted me to Nalanda, while 1,000 lay persons surrounded them, with banners, parasols, flowers and incense. The entire community awaited my arrival — all 10,000 inhabitants! Several monks coached me in the right way to approach the great master, whose fame is such that he is referred to only as ‘Treasury of the Righteous Law’. I crawled on my hands and knees before him, kissed his revered feet, and touched my head to the ground, paying my respects as though in a Chinese court.
Impossible for me to describe what followed next! Apparently, the venerable master had had a dream, in which my arrival was foretold. I could barely control my amazement and joy. My one duty and wish in this world is to learn, after all.
I have been given new quarters. And as I know that you appreciate descriptions, I shall furnish you with one:
I am currently in a room on the fourth floor, from where I can look my fill upon the extensive gardens. A brick wall surrounds the whole complex. The towers are richly adorned; and the turrets seem almost like the work of fairies. The observatories are so tall that to me, they seem lost in the clouds! The clouds move across my vision, producing beautiful forms, and I can see both the sun and moon, as they rise and set, from my windows.
There are deep, translucent ponds that hold the blue lotus, mingling with rich red Kie-ni flowers — the Kanaka, as you call them. And there are Amra groves among them, offering cool shade.
Monks move slowly, smoothly, dressed in their orange robes, going to and from the eight lecture halls, the numerous stupas, five temples and many monastery complexes and spacious libraries. And of course, I have the pleasure of watching the building of a new brass temple — which you have commissioned.
I have a few simple pleasures as well, even among these lofty monasteries and great teachers: each day, I am given 120 betel leaves for chewing, areca nuts, cardamoms, an ounce of camphor, and about one and half pounds of Mahasali rice! Their grains are quite as large as black beans, and have an exquisite scent and flavour.
A – four strokes of a drum, and conch blows, and there are two more strokes! It is the noon hour, and I must take leave. That is strange, isn’t it – to bid you farewell, when I have not even met you once?
PS: I wish you will give up this habit of addressing me by grand titles and just call me just by my given name, or even Hiuen Tsang. It feels uncomfortable.
Day 29, Month of Chaithra, 637 CE
Most revered Jewel of the Empire,
I was delighted to receive your long letter. Alas that I am here, in Kanauj, surrounded by matters of court and administration — while my heart yearns to be in your exalted company, and spend the rest of my life in learning.
Your descriptions of your abode and food are pleasing; I am reminded of the great gifts and wealth bestowed upon Nalanda by emperors before me, such as Ashoka and Kanishka. I have tried to follow in their footsteps. One hundred villages in the vicinity have been charged with supporting the needs of this great monastery, after all, and two hundred householders contribute several hundred pounds of rice, butter and milk, clothes, bed, and medicines.
I hope you have two servants, as is usual for inhabitants of the monastery? Also, as a special guest, you have the privilege of travelling in a palanquin. When we meet, dear friend, I shall ensure that you ride around in an elephant. I shall also gift you with a royal mount, on your journey home to China.
I need not tell you that I look forward to meeting you, finally — that we may converse at ease, and share our thoughts.
PS: If you will insist on addressing me as Great Emperor, instead of my given name, Harshavardhana, or even Siladitya, what else am I to do, but return the courtesy?
Historical Note: Hiuen Tsang and Emperor Harshavardhana were both connected to one of the oldest international residential universities in the world: Nalanda. It was situated roughly 80 km south east of today’s Patna. Nalanda flourished, seven centuries before Hiuen Tsang’s visit, to 1197 CE, with 1500 teachers and 10,000 students. Subjects taught included religions, history, law, linguistics, medicine, public health, architecture, metallurgy, pharmacology, sculpture and astronomy. All the details mentioned in the letters above, about Nalanda, are historically accurate. Today there is even a memorial hall for Hiuen Tsang, commemorating his travels, his life, and the teachings of the Buddha.
The Nalanda University Act was passed in 2010, “for the establishment of the Nalanda University in the state of Bihar, an international institution for the pursuit of intellectual, philosophical, historical and spiritual studies.”