Nalanda is world’s second oldest University. To be technically correct it was a Mahavihara – Budhhist monastery where Buddhist monks lived and studied together. In fact, Bihar gets its name from the word Vihara. Established sometime in fifth century it was the revered destination for those seeking knowledge and learning. Thanks to travelers like Fa Hien and Hsuan Tsang, we know a lot of about the lives and times of Nalanda University and for that matter India of those days. All the history books intrigued me and I wanted to see how this first generation university would be. All the pointers said – it is all ruins and there is no point visiting it.
My curiosity was so strong that I did plan a trip to Bihar – a place not particularly known to be favourite with tourists. To my pleasant surprise, I found some of the cleanest monuments in Bihar – be it the Mahabodhi temple complex at Bodh Gaya or ruins at Vaishali and Rajgir. In fact, as we drove through the villages of Bihar I saw some of the cleanest roads and homes.
Coming back to Nalanda, we drove to Nalanda from Bodh Gaya and I could feel goose bumps all over as soon as I saw the ruins in bright red bricks. We hired a tour guide, even bought a slim volume of guide written by him on the monument. Our guide started narrating the details about Nalanda but what I remember clearly is his description of the three multi-stories libraries – Ratna Sagar, Ratna Uday, Ratna Ranjika that existed within the University. He described how even the security guards posted on the gates of Nalanda were learned men and would ask intelligent questions to any student who landed here. Literally an entrance test for the University. It speaks volumes about the standards followed by the University then. Its popularity and prestige could be understood from the fact that students from around the world came here to study. So, it was a truly global university of its time.
Co-existence of Nalanda, Takshila and Dharamshila Universities in ancient India tells us that education was so well organised, and we just had to step inside the ruins of Nalanda to get a feel of it.
We walked in to see the narrow corridors connecting various parts of the campus. There are larger rooms with an equivalent of lecture rooms and then there are living quarters for students. At its peak close to 10,000 students studied here. As you walk through these rooms and dormitories, you get an overwhelming sense of connection to a rich scholarly past. You realise you are walking on the footprints of unknown scholars who were the best in their times.
What we see as Nalanda today is only a small part of the whole University, so you have to use your imagination to visualize the whole campus. In fact, you would see many mounds around the Nalanda ruins and it is said that most of these mounds have some parts of the University hidden inside them. As per the texts, there were 108 units in the University and each unit comprised of a hall, 30 rooms, washrooms and a well.
There are also big and small stupas. The most prominent one is that of Sariputra. This also happens to be the oldest part of Nalanda, and is said to be from the time of Ashoka. There are thousands of small stupas and these are more often than not votive stupas, or the stupas that devotees erect when their wish is fulfilled. What is awe inspiring about the structures of Nalanda is the red bricks that it is made up of. These 1600 or so years old bricks look like they were baked yesterday. If somewhere we could locate a worn out brick, we noticed that it was a new brick used to replace an old one. We saw bricks carved in various shapes for the outer layer of the buildings, so one can see overflowing pots or puran ghatak or floral patterns carved in clay all around.
Recently a Hsuan Tsang Memorial has been built and it documents the life of Nalanda’s most well known student. His works are the major source of information about Nalanda. A map depicts his journey from China to Nalanda and back and as a traveller you cannot feel smaller looking at that map. There are glimpses of his work and I clearly remember one that mentions nine types of greetings that people of India used, and it took care of all kinds of social hierarchies. I wish they had his translated works in the memorial for visitors to pick up.
Nalanda University has been set up again in nearby Rajgir. Hope it lives up to its name and glory associated with its past.
(Writer is a leading travel blogger from India. You can read her stories at www.IndiTales.com and reach her on twitter