And there I stood..right at the main gate. On the path leading into the realms of the bygone era..The eyes firmly fixed on the whirlpool of red bricks..The mind hoping to unravel the mysteries attached with the spot, once a a sacred site of an uninterrupted transmission of knowledge over a period of 800 years !!! ..And the heart hoping against hope to turn back the sands of time, and become a part of the legends and folklores that inspire educationists and knowledge hunters to throng to the ancient site in probably one of the remotest parts of the modern world !!!
Being an ardent history lover and a retrophiliac by heart, the ruins of Nalanda had always tantalized my conscience, weaving a web of a relentless desire to explore and roam around the legendary site, and experience the marvel of the most ancient University of the Indian Subcontinent !! After all, the present day ruins of Nalanda were a centre of learning from the 5th century to 1200 AD.
A serene sight of the well manicured gardens, merging with the ruins in red bricks, welcomed me as I set my foot into the heart of the compound, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight !!! I hired a Govt approved guide to understand the intricacies attached, and extract some relevant meaning out of the pile of those red bricks of one of the first residential universities of the world !!
As we walked across the campus, my imaginative mind could not stop drawing a picture of what this place might have have looked in its heydays !!! An architectural masterpiece to say the least !!
Nalanda’s existence can be traced back to the 5th-6th century BC, as both Buddha and Mahavira are said to have visited and delivered lectures in the village !! In fact, Nalanda was perfectly placed on the trade route connecting the nearby town of Rajgir, the then capital of the mighty Magadh empire. According to some sources, Emperor Ashoka built a great temple in the village during the 3rd century BC !!
But the noted history of Nalanda began under the glorious Gupta empire. The foundation stones of the university are said to have been laid down by the 5th century Gupta Emperor, Kumaragupta I (415-455 AD). Many additional monasteries and temples were gradually constructed by his successors. Post the Gupta Empire, Harsha, the 7th century Emperor of Kannauj, is attributed to have taken important steps to maintain the University’s appeal !!
The guide further elaborated that during its zenith, the Mahavihara (University) contained upto 10,000 students and 2000 teachers !! The subjects taught ranged from Economics and Political Science to Metallurgy and Logic !! Such was Nalanda University’s aura and appeal that it saw students and scholars from Turkey, Korea, Japan, Persia, China and Indonesia flock to its revered environs to grasp knowledge in its most purest medium !!
We roamed around the campus soaking in the aura and coming across ruins of numerous hostels, temples, monasteries classrooms and meditation halls. I even made my way inside a small room with a dark spot on the ceiling. “It used to be the kitchen”, told my guide !! “The students used to cook their own meals during those days “, he further elaborated. The rice grains are still kept preserved at the Nalanda Museum, located right opposite the entrance.
I still remember the goosebumps I experienced the moment I stepped into a student’s room !! The stone bed and study temple can still be seen. There was a small circular pit at one corner of the study table, which are assumed to be ink pots !! Standing in the mddle, I could visualize the room lit with a lamp and a student totally engrossed in his studies !! Didn’t want to act as a hindrance to his concentration, so we decided to step out and continue with my exploration !!
“But how did it all end”, I enquired my guide. Its a question that had been burning inside me since the last few minutes. Since I started realizing the impact and the sheer importance the University held all around the world in those days. I wondered how could something of this nature could suddenly cease to exist ??
I learnt that the decline and the subsequent end of the Nalanda University happened hand in hand with that of Buddhism in those times. Since the 7th-8th century AD, the gradual rise of Hindu philosophy led to the waning of Buddhist following among the common Indian.
And the final blow came in the form of the Muslim invasion across Northern India during the 13th century. According to legends, around 1200 AD, a Muslim ruler by the name of Bakhtiyar Khilji, on his plundering spree, presumed the large University structures and the legendary Nalanda University Library to be a fort. He attacked the university and set the library on fire, gutting its believed collection of around 9 million books !!! The colossal library kept burning for months to come !!
It was evening by the time my tryst with the ancient Nalanda Mahavihara approached its highly unwanted end. As the slanting golden rays of the sun announced the fast approaching twilight, I stood still in the middle..watching the red bricks erupt in a shade of honey glaze..Wanting to narrate the glorious stories from the past..Singing the lullabies of something mightier than power…Knowledge it is !!