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Nalanda: Testimony to Greatness
By Manish Pant
Source: Indian Airlines - Swagat Magazine

(The red brick ruins of Nalanda seem to echo the footsteps, voices and stories of those who thronged the portals of this once renowned seat of learning. And even 800 hundred years later Nalanda has the power to overwhelm the visitor……)

Students came to Nalanda from all parts of the country, from distant China and South East Asia. But only a few could manage to get in as candidates had to clear a rigorous oral entrance test as the university’s gate. The competition must have been intense!

But how did the rise of Nalanda come about? The answer to this question is closely related to the birth and spread of Buddhism and Jainism.

Much before Buddha, the university at Taxila – now in Pakistan – had contributed to learning in a significant way. Still, the hub of all educational activity was the gurukul or teacher’s home. With the establishment of Buddhist and Jain monasteries a change crept in. The monastery took over from the gurukul. And some like Nalanda developed into prestigious institutions of learning in the medieval period.

Nalanda is located not too far to the northeast of Gaya – the place where Siddharth became the Buddha (the Enlightened One ). Buddha is believed to have visited Nalanda on many occasions during his lifetime. The place assumed significance as his first disciple, Sariputra, was born and died here. The famous Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, later erected a stupa to honour Sariputra’s memory. Ashoka also became a patron of the monastery. Nalanda was also visited by Vardhamana Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. So for the followers of both Buddha and Mahavira, Nalanda took on a special importance.

Nalanda, however, flourished into a varsity in 5 AD- the time Kumargupta of the north Indian Gupta dynasty. Nalanda was then meant primarily for the study of Mahayana Buddhist doctrines. With the beginning of the Christian era the orthodox as well as the followers of new ideas among Buddha’s followers had parted company. The former were known as the followers of Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle and latter of Mahayana or the Greater Vehicle. Mahayana incorporated many ideas current at the time thereby making itself more approachable and popular among a large number of people in the country.

But the Hinayana, and Brahmanical doctrines from Hinduism were taught here too. The syllabus covered mainly philosophy, logic, grammar, medicine and the science of arts and crafts.

Donations poured in from abroad: Balputra of Shrivijaya- modern day Sumatra, Indonesia- funded the construction of a monastery. The monastery was meant for students coming from Shrivijaya. The Pala King Dharmapala (c.a. 770-810) gifted this monastery with five villages towards its upkeep. During the seven centuries of its existence Nalanda came under various dynasties. But the prevailing political climate did not diminish its growth or importance.

The education at Nalanda was free. The iniversity depended on the largesse of its patrons. A school of art was opened in Kumargupta’s time. Harshavardhana, the King of Kanauj, is said to have gifted it with a 26 metre high statue of Buddha. Gradually Nalanda acquired, in donations, control over many villages. Revenue obtained from these was utilised in meeting maintenance expenses.

Much of what is known today about Nalanda has come to us through the records kept by one of its well-known products- Hieun Tsang. This Chinese traveller, a comtemporary of Harshavardhana, has described Nalanda in detail in Si-Yu-Ki or The Record of the Western Kingdom i.e. India. He puts the student strength in Nalanda at 10,000 trained by a 2,000 strong faculty.

Students were admitted into the university for a period of 10 years. But those who wished to be ordained had to remain for a longer period. The teachers were highly regarded for their learning. Sometimes, their expert opinion was sought in the raging debates of the times. Lively discussions led to active participation from the students. The winner of a debate was honoured by being taken around the campus on an elephant. Many well-known names were on the university’s rolls. The logician, Dinnaga and the Brahmin scholar Dharma-pala taught there. Hieun Tsang, an alumini, also served it as Vice Principal. And the 8th century figure Padmasambhava, who converted Tibet to Buddhism, was associated with it. Today, a memorial hall commemorates Hieun Tsang’s stay.

The excavated remains of the university campus are spread over 14 hectares bringing to light some temples and monasteries. It was from a raised platform in a monastery that a teacher addressed his students. A pathway running from north to south, separates temples from monasteries. It is claimed that each monastery was four-storey high housing a dozen rooms in each storey.

All the rooms were well-ventilated. Then there was the huge library. Called Dharmaganj, meaning the Abode of Dharma, the library is thought to have been large enough to be sub-divided into three main sections.

But the most striking landmark in the campus is the Great Stupa which was originally built on an elevated base with small stupas at the four corners. It was successively enlarged, especially during the Gupta and Pala times as is evident from the steps leading to what remains of the pinnacle. Today, in its dilapidated condition it more or less resembles a pyramid.

For almost seven centuries, Nalanda kept the beacon of scholarship burning bright. Then in 1197 AD a mercenary Mudhammed-Bin Bhakhtiyar Khiliji attacked the university. The damage done by man was complemented by nature and soon the place was forgotten and buried beneath foliage and traveller’s records. It was only in the initial decades of this century that the first systematic efforts were finally made to bring Nalanda’s past to light.

Today, as a result of the excavations a little more is known about the place. In 1951 an international centre for Buddhist studies, Nav Nalanda Mahavihara, was set up near the archaeological site. The center has many rare Buddhist manuscripts in its collection.

Just across the road from the entrance to the university is the museum. A number of objects from different periods of Nalanda’s history are on show here.

And so Nalanda lives on – testimony in stone to what once was the greatest seat of learning in this part of the world.



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