India surprises you, and it holds true when you accidentally discover an unexplored historical site. And when you learn about its rich history, you just wonder how such a glorious history is so easily ignored. One of such places is the ruins of Nalanda University in Bihar, India
Recently, while in rural Bihar, villagers asked us if we have visited the ruins. Wondering what everyone was talking about, we reached the location of the “ruins”, which turned out to be the remains of the “first” “residential” international university of the world. By no means, it was an ordinary university. Built in the 5th AD, at its peak, this University housed around 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers, and endeavored for both knowledge and academic excellence. It offered an enormous number of subjects in the Buddhist tradition- Vedas, mathematics, economics, language, philosophy, Sanskrit and medicine. It is said that Hsuan Tsang, the renowned Chinese traveler of the 7th century also spent some time in this university as a student. In his writings, he had specifically mentioned about the entrance examination system of the University. Each student that reached Nalanda had to go through an oral examination with the erudite gatekeepers. Only if he was able to answer, he was allowed to enter the gate. It is said that, at any time, 7 out of 10 students were turned away. At that time, it was a matter of great privilege for all to have studied at Nalanda University.
The University functioned for more than 600 years. By the 11th century, influence and importance of Buddhism had started to decline in India. The university was destroyed in 1193 by a Turkic General, Mohammad Bakhtiar Khilji. Story goes that he was apparently enraged that its library may not have contained a copy of the Koran. The invaders burnt and destroyed libraries that had a great collection of works and manuscripts produced through centuries of scholastic studies. Monks were either killed or they had fled. By the end of the 12th century, the powerhouse of knowledge was in ruins as you can see today (pictures).
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “People die, but books don’t die..” Today, led by the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, the Government of India has decided to revive this famed establishment by instituting a new Nalanda University, alongside the ruins of the old one, with the same overarching vision. The Nalanda University (Amendment Bill), 2013 was introduced that allows the Government to meet the university’s capital and recurring expenditure. As interesting as this initiative sounds (especially since it is led by eminent economist Amartya Sen himself), however, nothing works in India without corruptions and controversies. Recently, the Ministry of Finance has raised questions about the privileges being extended to the construction of the university. Last I read, Chancellor Amartya Sen has threatened to quit after the queries on the financial management. Many of us do not know about the existence of the old University and worse, many of us are not aware about its revival plan. Millions and millions of our (tax-payers) money are being invested in this plan and some have already started raising questions about the scam in the name of revival. Perhaps, many of us will also never know about the termination of the plan one day. But we can truly hope that we – our generation- will witness the magnificence of the Nalanda heritage once again. Let us just hope politics and corruptions do not kill such an illustrious plan.
Do not miss this documentary about this place.
How to reach: You can take a train from Patna to Rajgir. From Rajgir, you can either take a bus or a car to Nalanda, which is around 15 kilometer away from Rajgir. A bus ride could be difficult for those who are not used to traveling in rural areas of India, particularly Bihar.
Where to stay in Rajgir: There are many guest houses in Rajgir, but they are not in good condition. We stayed at Siddharth Hotel, which is one of the better hotels in Rajgir. The hotel is located in a nice area and staff members are very polite. There is a 5-star hotel “The Rajgir Residency”, but it is almost $100 per night. That way Siddharth Hotel is cheaper (around Rs 1,500-2,000 or $30-50 per night), and better than most of the guest houses.