Nalanda: Ever Exciting

Nalanda is the symbol of the knowledge focus of Indian cultural history and a place of national pride. Its history proves that India had been attracting the intellectuals of many countries who wished to get updated with the latest in knowledge in good old days. Think of Hiuen Tsang. How did he hear about Nalanda in those days in remote China? How did he travel thousands of kilometers to reach Nalanda? How hard did he work to learn and master the language of India? How much pain he took to live in Nalanda, so far away from his home town for long many years first as student and then as teacher?

I visited Nalanda in December 1966. I had only a faint memory of that visit. Recently I had been writing about Nalanda and the proposed dream project of Nalanda International University. Twice when we were in Patna for the marriages some years ago, I wanted to visit Nalanda again, but it didn’t happen. I had an intense interest in visiting Nalanda this time too. The heat of the summer was dissuading. Janardan, my host also was discouraging me to take the arduous traveling by car, though it takes about 2 hours from Patna. Kamlesh failed to arrange the driver for his Maruti 800. It proved to be a boon, as Janardan then arranged a better comfortable air-conditioned ‘Indica’ (Tata Motors). I could also persuade Janardan to join us in the trip. Yamuna could see Nalanda for the first time.

The driver took Phatua route to Biharsarif for saving time, but he didn’t know that the road is under construction for widening and upgradation. When we entered the imposing entrance of Nalanda, the unauthorised and unregulated hutments, shops, and residences pained me. However, this is the condition everywhere in India. We reached the excavation site. The place has undergone total transformation . The garden and lawn all around are well done and well maintained. The guides expected us to take their assistance to understand Nalanda’s story. But I was interested in getting the authentic information through the publication of the archeological department, and fortunately, I could get one. However, when we went inside, one of the guides was just concluding with a family of Sri Lanka. I decided to take him along with us. He claimed himself to be a postgraduate in history knowing number of languages and trained by archeological department to work as guide. I found him satisfied with his earning as guide. He earns about Rs 1 lakh a year. Perhaps, he has mastered the art of satisfying his clients.

Rajgriha was the older city, capital of Vimbashar and his son Ajatshatru, and associated very closely with both Buddha and Mahavir. Nalanda is near that, and the place of birth of Sariputra, one of the main disciples of Buddha. Nalanda means ‘charity without intermission’. Asoka erected a temple here, that may be the Nalanda Vihar. Nagarjuna studied at Nalanda and became its high priest too. Dinnaga, a southerner, founded the mediaeval school of logic here. Mahayana philosophers, Aryadeva, Asanga, and Vasbandhu were also among the high priests of Nalanda. Gupta kings furthered the institution. Hiuen Tsang saw a 24.4 metre high copper image of Buddha. Harshavardhana (606-647) was constructing a monastery of brass, when Hiuen Tsang visited Nalanda. Hiuen Tsang has mentioned the details of the different monasteries, the working of the institution, and the courses of study that included besides the Buddhists scriptures, hetu-vidya (Logic), sabda-vidya (grammar) and chikitsa-vidya (medicine), as well as such purely Brahmanical texts as the Vedas including the Atharva-veda. Hiuen Tsang studied under Silabhadra. The foreign visitors continued coming. Within 30 years of Hiuen Tsang departure, no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travelers are known to have visited Nalanda. And in 673 came I-Tsing whose work records the minute details about Nalanda. He has extensively written about Nalanda, and mentions of the daily life of the monks regulated by a water-clock.

The end of Nalanda was disastrous and shocking. Buddhism slowly decayed. Kumarila and Sankaracharya re-established the glory of Brahamanical philosophy. Muslim invaders, according to their own accounts destroyed monasteries. Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji destroyed Nalanda. Another attack on Nalanda came in the summer of 1235. A Tibetan Dharmasvamin has left an eye-witness account of the attack. As per one another Tibetan text, Ratnodadhi, one of the libraries of Nalanda as consumed by the rage of two very indignant Brahamanical mendicants.

Nalanda got lost in history. The civilized world got an account of Nalanda only in the first quarter of nineteenth century when Buchanon-Hamilton visited the place and found some Hindu and Buddhists images. Alexander Cunningham identified the ancient Nalanda and after few years AM Broadley carried out some excavation. Nalanda is still not fully discovered.

It was hot and difficult for Yamuna and Janardan to live up to my expectation. But I wanted to know as much more and see as much more it was possible. If Yamuna would not have been there, I would have taken the guide to all the corners of the excavated sites, even the latest ones. Nalanda was cluster of temples and monasteries. Monasteries served the purpose of hostels as well as lecture theatres.

We finished the visit sooner than I expected. But thereafter we visited the museum that has some wonderful artifacts. Before leaving for Rajgrih, we visited the recently inaugurated Hiuen Tsang Temple too that has been built in a separate area, China contributing the most. A month back some Chinese had tracked the route traveled by Hiuen Tsang and reached Nalanda to participate in inauguration.

I would have loved to see the site that will have Nalanda International University. A bill has been enacted by the Bihar assembly. Amartya Sen has agreed to be the head of the advisory body of the university. Nitish Kumar wishes to see the project through. Will it come up?

While returning from Rajgrih that is in absolute ruins, we stopped to buy the original ‘Khajhha’ of Silaw for the friends of Yamuna in Noida. We visited Pawapuri too where Mahavir got cremated after Mahanirvan. The temple is in a big water tank. Did Afgan Emperor took inspiration from it for his tomb at Sasaram?

Time and again, a dream haunts me. Can some government soon enough stop any further unplanned construction in these places of India’s heritage history that are mushrooming and becoming eyesores for visitors?

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