Land of the jewelled lotus
The ancient town of Nalanda was a monastic university of international repute. Today it lies in ruins, that are nevertheless impressive. SRIMATI KRISHNAKUMAR goes back in time.
A vast and planned expanse.
THE history of Nalanda, the ancient university town of Bihar, goes back to the days of Buddha and Mahavira in the Sixth Century B.C. The town was home to Nalanda Mahavihara, a monastic university of international repute.
There are many versions of what the term nalanda means. One is that nalam (lotus) and da (to give) combine to mean "giver of the lotus". Since the lotus is supposed to represent knowledge, Nalanda means "giver of knowledge". The university of Nalanda, a suburb of Rajgir in ancient times, is just off the main road from Rajgir to Patna.
Both Buddha and Mahavira often stayed at Nalanda during the rainy season. Buddhist scriptures reveal that they once stayed at Nalanda at the same time, but there is no record of them meeting one another.
Ancient Buddhist sources say that Asoka, the Mauryan emperor (Third Century B.C) built a temple at Nalanda. It was a flourishing hub where the philosopher and alchemist, Nagarjuna, studied and taught in the Second Century A.D. However, excavations have not revealed anything to suggest that the site was occupied before the Gupta period (Fifth Century A.D.), the earliest finds being a copper plate of Samudragupta and a coin of Kumaragupta (414-455 A.D.). Fa-Hien who visited in the Fifth Century A.D. makes no mention of the massive monastic establishments at Nalanda. But Hiuen Tsang who came in A.D 637 during Harsha's reign (606-647 A.D.) refers to the great monastery that Harsha endowed with liberal grants.
The ruins of Nalanda university were discovered by Francis Buchanan in A.D. 1812 when he surveyed the area, having heard of a vast complex of ruins in the vicinity.
The main stupa ...
Though he did not identify it as Nalanda, he made a record of the different versions of the place given to him by the locals. The Brahmins told him that it was Kundinapura, the birthplace of Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna, while a Jain priest told him that it was the region inhabited by Raja Srenika, a Jain, and his ancestors.
Buchanan decided that the ruins were a place of worship and royal residence, which seemed to fit in with what he saw the several heaps and images pointed to religion while the dimensions of the place and the large number of courts suggested a palace or royal dwelling. It was Sir Cunningham who identified the sprawling complex of ruins as the long forgotten, once renowned Buddhist Monastic University or the Nalanda Mahavira in 1861-62.
At Nalanda, we debated on whether or not we needed a tour guide. The matter was decided when a tall elderly man attached himself to us in a mild and diffident manner. The other option of using an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) book to help us find our way about was ruled out as it was, as usual, out of print.
To our surprise and delight, our guide was excellent. He was an expert in his area, an M.A. in the Pali language and quite an authority on Buddhist history. Nalanda was the biggest residential university in ancient India and the largest archaeological site in India spanning several square miles. At the height of its glory, Nalanda is said to have accommodated 10,000 students and 1500 teachers. It had three magnificent libraries. It was a renowned centre of Buddhist theology and scriptures and on diverse subjects such as logic, grammar, medicine, and later on, even purely texts like the Atharva Veda. Excavations have uncovered nine levels of occupation and six monasteries. Nalanda is a massive complex of stupas, chaityas (temples) and viharas (monasteries). It has been rebuilt extensively at different times. One can identify the levels built by the Guptas (Fifth Century A.D.), the Sungas (Ninth Century A.D.) and the Pala kings of Bengal (12th Century A.D). Out of respect for religious sentiment, each dynasty covered up what had been built earlier and built afresh over it instead of destroying earlier constructions, which are clearly visible. The sheer expanse of the site and the planned and manner in which the blocks have been neatly laid out is astounding. The bricks are much larger than normal size and are of excellent quality that is evident from the fact that they have survived the ravages of time. The brick walls were plastered over with lime of which some traces can be seen.
The monasteries have been built in neat blocks with cubicles of either single or double occupancy for the monks. Niches have been built in the walls for books, lamps and other equipment. The walls are of brick and six feet thick, meant to insulate the room from extreme weather conditions. In addition there are lecture halls, granaries and laboratories. Several little stupas liberally dot the area, built in memory of teachers who passed away. A display board put up by the ASI has an enlarged photograph of the site as it stood in 1861. It was just a cluster of mounds overgrown with grass and with a large mound where the main temple once stood. A series of photographs show how the accumulated soil and dust of centuries was removed, layer by layer, over several decades to reveal the site.
... and the student's hostel at Nalanda.
Legends say that a fire that destroyed three great libraries of Nalanda was started by the supernatural powers of tantric ascetics enraged by the pranks of students. There is evidence of large-scale destruction by fire, some charred walls and samples of burnt rice that are displayed in the museum. When the Muslim invasion of Bihar took place in A.D. 1197, Mohammad Bakhtiyar Khilji is supposed to have destroyed monasteries at Nalanda and killed a number of monks. A few fled to Nepal, Tibet and South India. A rich collection of stone and bronze objects are displayed at the Archaeological Museum. A number of images of the Buddhist creed, and a few from the Hindu pantheon, have been found.
Resurgent Hinduism resulted in a kind of tantric cult in Buddhism. One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum which contains its usual quota of Buddhas in various mudras and Bodhisattvas is the stone image of Trailokyavijaya, a Buddhist god trampling on Siva and Parvati lying prostrate, a tantric mala of human heads round his neck, his face a picture of rage and fury. Another fascinating one is of Aparajita, a female deity trampling on Ganesha. She is tended to by Indra holding a parasol. These and other latter day Buddhist sculptures throw light on later trends in Buddhism. By then, Hinduism was on the upswing and state patronage for Buddhism was beginning to decline. The sculptures portray the Buddhist attempt to keep Hinduism at bay.
Nalanda's decline coincided with the eroding popularity of Buddhism in most parts of India, loss of royal patronage and the vigour with which Hinduism, under the likes of Shankaracharya, made a spirited comeback. The Muslim onslaught was the last nail in the coffin, and huge tongues of flames, the source of which is disputed, licked the last traces of life from the once flourishing township.
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