HistoriCity | Nalanda: How an ancient Buddhist vihara became a multicultural centre of learning - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | Nalanda: How an ancient Buddhist vihara became a multicultural centre of learning

Jun 23, 2024 09:00 AM IST

Nalanda, a preeminent centre of Buddhist and Indian learning, was renowned for its integration of Buddhist and Indian educational systems

A new campus of Nalanda University was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, a little over 10 kilometres from where the eponymous Buddhist centre of learning stood. Considered amongst the greatest centres of learning in the ancient world, the erstwhile university has steadfastly remained a symbol of knowledge, demonstrating the successful and syncretic assimilation of Buddhist and ancient Indian pedagogical systems, planning, architecture and art, which has influenced large regions of the Asian subcontinent. Beyond this recent inauguration, Nalanda’s rich history and heritage begs a study.

A view of the ruins of Nalanda in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, now Bihar. (Parwaz Khan /HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
A view of the ruins of Nalanda in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, now Bihar. (Parwaz Khan /HT PHOTO)

The origins of Nalanda

Nalanda, though a University, was originally a Buddhist vihara or monastery. According to UNESCO, the archaeological site of the Nalanda Mahavihara as a monastic-cum-scholastic establishment dates from the 3rd century BCE to the 13th century BCE. Various theories exist on the origins behind its name. Well-known Chinese traveller and a student of Nalanda himself, Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (602 CE - 664 CE), offers many: that it may be named after the Naga (serpent deity) of a tank close to the monastery, or (and this he finds more plausible), that the place was named after a king who delighted in charity, and therefore the name was a derivative of Na al, lllam dā or “charity without intermission”.

According to Hiranand Sastri, who led excavations on the site in the 1920s, the term Nalanda is a distortion of ‘Nalendra’ and comes from the word nalas or lotus stalks, found in abundance in the area. From a seal discovered during Sastri’s excavations, we know that Nalanda Mahavihara was founded in the first half of the 5th century by Shakraditya (also identified as Kumaragupta I). However, HD Sankalia, a noted archaeologist, in his work The University of Nalanda, offers that long before Sakraditya, emperor Ashoka had chosen this site to build a temple and a vihara, owing to its proximity to Rajgrha, the capital of Magadha Kingdom; offering both students and monks easy access to thickly populated places. He adds that it saw expansion as a site of educational prominence, under his heirs – Buddhagupta raja, and Tathagatagupta raja, only to be destroyed by Mihirakula (502-532 CE).

The rise of a centre of learning

Unlike medieval European universities such as those in Salerno and Paris, Sankalia asserts that “the period that preceded the rise of the Nalanda University was characterised by a fervour unknown to the history of any country”. Interestingly, he adds, both in Europe as well as in India, monasteries began to evolve as temples of learning; however, there grew a divergence in the dissemination of knowledge. In the former, educational activity was passed out of the hands of monks to a more secular clergy, while in India, the monks retained this control. However, they initiated reforms, opening their doors for not only those who had forsaken the world but also allowing students to leave the monastery and resume the life of a householder upon completing their education. In the decades following Buddha’s death, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, viharas were no longer centres that primarily propagated Buddhism, instead, as Sankalia states, “the pursuit of secular knowledge…became an ideal of monasteries”.

The subjects covered were Grammar, medicine, logic, alchemy and of course Buddhist philosophies of Mahayana, as well as other sects.

Excavations beginning in 1916 have so far discovered eleven monasteries, six temples and a giant stupa beside the library at Nalanda which has come to symbolise both, Nalanda’s greatness and its destruction allegedly by a Muslim invader. As Namit Arora writes in Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation, “At its base may have been the famous library of Nalanda, though a Tibetan source speaks of a library with nine storeys, which seems implausible for the building technology of the day. In any case, the library’s location remains uncertain. It held the sorts of manuscripts that the Chinese pilgrims came in search of (at least eight finely illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts created at Nalanda during the Pala period still survive)”.

The Nalanda Mahavihara gained international repute under Baladitya who also erected a grand door in 515 CE. Scholars were also known to have gone on exchange programmes to Tibet and China during the reign of the Pala king, Dharmapala (770-810 CE).

…And it’s decline

Nalanda, however, wasn’t the only centre of its kind. Four others existed in what is now Bihar, namely Telhara, Odantapuri (now Bihar Sharif), Vikramshila, and Jaggadala. All of them, interestingly, competed for royal patronage much like today’s universities vie for funding. However, according to DR Patil’s Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, around the beginning of the first millennium CE (11th century), Nalanda had become a straggler, while neighbouring Odantapuri was flourishing under the patronage of the Palas of Bengal.

The eventual decline, or destruction, of the Nalanda Mahavihara remains a tale with varied reasons. The most popular is that it was burned down by Afghan ruler and invader, Ikhtiyaruddin Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji (1150 - 1206 CE). This is said to be evidenced by archaeological evidence of ash and charcoal heaps on the uppermost excavated layers, indicative of damage caused by fire. This kind of historiography was, of course, influenced by the divide-and-rule policy of the British, who designated Muslims as invaders destroying religious structures to engineer religious divisions.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Bakhtiyar exploited Buddhist viharas and monastic towns, notably the Vikramshila Mahavihara and Odantapuri in Bihar. However, in 1232-36 CE, when Dhammasvami (1197- 1264 CE) visited Magadh, he found Nalanda still functioning, though damaged. Another Tibetan account indicates that repairs were initiated by a monk Mudita Bhadra, and then by Kukuta Siddha, a Magadha minister.

Interestingly, the 18th-century Tibetan text Pag sam jon zang by Sumpa Khan-po Yece Pal Jor references an incident where a few young Buddhist monks threw washing water at two Brahmin beggars who, enraged by this, proceeded to set fire to three shrines within the university – including the nine-storeyed temple called Ratnodadhi, which contained the library of sacred books. This text is indicative of the strained relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism at the time.

Historian Anand Singh proffers another theory for the decline of Nalanda: Buddhism depended heavily on patronage by monarchies, nobles and others. Nalanda, for instance, according to Hiuen Tsang, was purchased by 500 merchants for 10 kotis (crores) of gold, and then gifted to the Buddha. The “nature of patronage…changed the character of Buddhism in Nalanda and other parts of the middle and lower Ganga Valley. The over-feudalisation of the monastic system and aloofness from laity made them a self-sufficient unity”. However, the compounding of Pala's patronage of other centres of learning, with North Indian rulers like the Gahadwalas shifting their patronage to Hindu establishments meant that the economic base of Nalanda eroded over time. As Buddhism itself waned centres like Nalanda too were forgotten and came to a less dramatic but tragic end. For India to become a vishwaguru again would require more than grand gestures to regain lost glory.

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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