It is said that the fire that engulfed Nalanda raged for six months. Such was the size of the university and the books that it contained. The mammoth structure was built of wood and bricks and both were burnt to the ground. As I stood at the ruins, I could see the burnt mark over the bricks. Such was the heat, that some of the bricks had even melted.
However, the story of Nalanda is not be remembered for the attack that it had to suffer. All things great will come to and end. We should rather be proud if such an institution that existed in the place and try to answet pertinent questions that it poses to our present society.
Nalanda is a portmanteau of two words. Nalin means lotus, which is a symbol of knowledge in Buddhism and Hinduism. Da means to give. This Nalanda is the place where knowledge was given. The present ruins are only a shadow of what was present during the glory days. It is said that the majority of the university might be still lying under the nearby villages unexcavated.
The walls of the university were so thick that it served as an natural air conditioner. The original entrance must be somewhere in the unexcavated areas and therefore the current entrance into the complex is cut through the walls of the monastery by ASI. As you enter the first monastery you find niches that used to hold statues of Buddha. As you proceed you are presented with big bathrooms, the study rooms of the monks, meditation rooms, lecture halls, kitchen etc. The elaborate drainage system also draws your attention. This is the layout of one monastery. Likewise there used to be 100 monasteries ( of which only 11 have been excavated) You may think of each monastery as a department in a college where a dedicated subject was taught.
As you move around Nalanda ruins, your admiration only grows larger. There were 9 storied buildings which housed books, lecture halls etc. The Sariputra stupa must be the most identifiable structure in Nalanda because all popular pictures are of this Stupa. This was dedicated to Sariputra, a disciple of Buddha. In most of Nalanda you can see three layers of brick construction each distinctly different from the other. One by Guptas, then Harsha and the Palas, each progressively trying to better the other.
The question Nalanda raises to us is very involved. Why is it that a place that produced such a great institution does not have a single great institution of learning to name at present? To reach Nalanda you pass through villages some of them really representative of the deplorable conditions in the state. How is it that a people which were so great fell into such despair? And hope come they are not trying to get back to their greatness?
Bihar, as I am witnessing in my travels is at least 10 years behind the rest of India, especially the southern States. I would be the most happy if that changes. Let’s hope that Biharis would rise up to the challenge and change it for the better.