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University tales

The remains of Nalanda University’s masterful architecture take hugh & colleen gantzer back in time to its days of glory as a unique centre of learning

They stood silent, dotted across many broad green acres, mysterious structures from another civilisation. Brick mushrooms thrust out of sunken floors, cells stretched in a serried row, a massive hunched pyramid brooded enigmatically against the sky.

For 800 years, it had been entombed: just another hillock rising out of the scrublands and fields of Bihar. Sometimes, ploughs had turned up images which were cast aside. But, as the fields grew, more and still more images emerged. In 1861, excavations began. Slowly, inch by reluctant inch, Nalanda rose out of the past, and what an incredible past it was!

We were standing in the heart of the world’s first residential, international university. Nalanda had been created in the 5th century AD and for 600 years it had covered every discipline of learning known to the ancient world. It had inspired an entirely new architectural style that has spread across Asia, and it had given birth to the metaphysical traditions of Tibet. It had even given a name to the state in which it had been established: its residential schools were called vihara, a variation of which is Bihar.
Rational ratio

But why had Emperor Kumaragupta brought an estimated 10 viharas together in one place? These monastic establishments generally stand independent of each other, teaching their own variations of the faith. Then, when we learnt that Nalanda had once held 2,000 teachers instructing 10,000 students, it struck us. The teacher-student ratio was an amazing 1 to 5. That was the ideal ratio of the guru-shishya system, in which students grew up in the homes of their teachers and absorbed not only their knowledge, but their attitudes and way of life too. Kumaragupta had replicated this traditional and revered system of education in a large and skilfully structured manner. Also, by bringing these varied schools under one organisation, he had encouraged the free flow and cross-fertilisation of ideas and methods in a syncretic way. The guru-shishya system had restricted students to the wisdom of a single seer.

Here they were free to choose from the varied insights of a number of savants. It was the access to this wide-spectrum acquisition of knowledge that gave Nalanda its formidable reputation.

Students from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia and Turkey flocked to this unique centre of learning. Nalanda had the same magnetic draw, 1,600 years ago, that some American Universities have today, and for the same reasons.

We began to view Nalanda in a new light, as we explored its manicured grounds. A group of shaven-headed, maroon-robed, Buddhist monks walked around enchanted. Their predecessors had once filled the air with sonorous chants, wafted the fragrance of incense through the spreading groves of mango trees and across the blue lotus lake that wound through the complex. The lake that had cooled Nalanda has gone, but the old architects had designed other systems to keep the students cool. In Monastery No 6, we saw courts at two levels with the cells of the students facing an open yard. According to Archaeological historian Satish Grover, “Each subsequent higher storey was stepped back from the previous one to create open air terraces for the cells.” Since most of the upper storeys were made of wood, they have collapsed, but Chinese pilgrim, student and travel writer Hiuen Tsang wrote, “The upper rooms tower above the clouds.” The highest rooms were, apparently, reserved for the most senior students who had earned the comfort of their cool retreats.

In Monastery No 4, there was a teacher’s platform in front of a shrine facing the courtyard. The careful juxtaposing of the guru and murti emphasised the reverence due to the teacher. This also underscored our idea that Nalanda was an evolution of the guru-shishya system into an educational corporate body: the world’s first.

To ensure its financial independence, Emperor Kumaragupta had gifted many villages to the university. Some of this income went into beautifying Nalanda. In Temple No 3, the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) drew our attention to the beautiful stucco images placed in the niches of the exterior walls. Hieun Tsang wrote of ‘dragon projections and coloured eaves, the pearl-red pillars carved and ornamented, the richly adorned balustrades and roofs covered with tiles that reflect the light in a thousand ways’. These no longer exist in Nalanda but we have seen them in the Forbidden City in Beijing and believe that the architecture of that ancient capital was inspired by that of Nalanda. We have also seen its influence in the architecture of Tibetan temples in our land and the rest of the world.

Towards the second half of its history, Nalanda had gone far beyond what is accepted as orthodox studies today. Initially, it had offered courses in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, anatomy, philosophy and Vedic and Buddhist scriptures among others. Mathematician and pioneering astronomer Aryabhata was a product of Nalanda’s exceptionally high standards. Towards its latter half, the university had begun to explore the secrets of the mind including metaphysics and tantra. Tibet’s psychic master, Padmasambhava, was a graduate of Nalanda. He was invited to Tibet to control the powers of the ancient Bon priests. He did so and got them to accept the Middle Way of Buddhism. In this process, he seems to have added some of the beneficent practices of Bon to create Vajrayana Buddhism.

Sadly, after reaching across and having a lasting impact on the cultures of the ancient civilised world for six centuries, Nalanda was attacked, pillaged and destroyed. In the 11th century, invaders from the North believed, as many have before and after them, that by attacking wood, brick and stone they could eliminate a faith. In fact, they gave it a greater resilience. Nine centuries after it had been attacked, the challenging ruins of Nalanda were revealed by the ASI.

Nalanda is no longer enigmatic. Its message of the liberating power of inclusive knowledge has come out of the distant past to guide our immediate future.

Fact file

  Getting There:

* Fly to Patna International Airport from where Nalanda is 125 km by road.

* Take a train to Patna and then reach Nalanda by road under 100 km, or take a rail.
Nalanda offers no hotel facilities. Accommodation at Patna is recommended. Here are three:

Hotel Mayura. Contact: 0612-2203040;

Hotel Patliputra Ashok, Beer Chand Patel Path. Contact: 0612-2505270 to 76;

Kautilya Vihar, Beer Chand Patel Path. Contact: 0612-2225411, 2216219.

For further information, contact The Directorate of Tourism, Govt. of Bihar, on 0612-2217163 

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