Nalanda University! The very utterance of this name will transport you to the ancient terrain of knowledge. This ancient center of higher learning, located in Bihar, is India’s second oldest university after Takshila. Spread over an area of 14 hectares, it was a principal seat of learning from fifth century CE till (the Turkish invasion of) 1193, attracting students from as far as Tibet, China, Greece, and Persia.
Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish chieftain, in 1193 AD. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have housed more than 9 million books which burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it. They ransacked and destroyed the monasteries and drove the monks from the site.
Bakhtiyar Khilji was in the service of a commander in Awadh. The Persian historian, Minhaj-i-Siraj in his Tabaqat-i Nasiri, recorded his deeds a few decades later. Khilji was assigned two villages on the border of Bihar which had become a political no-man’s land. Sensing an opportunity, he began a series of successful plundering raids into Bihar. He was recognized and rewarded for his efforts by his superiors. Emboldened, Khilji decided to attack a fort in Bihar and was able to successfully capture it, looting it of a great booty.
Minhaj-i-Siraj wrote of this attack: “Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress, and acquired great booty. The greater number of the inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted [with the contents of those books], it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar.”
Minhaj-i-Siraj also wrote in his book Tabaquat-I-Nasiri about thousands of monks being burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword. The burning of the library continued for several months and ‘smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.’
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 CE at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal). In Tibet he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivadin lineage to complement the two existing ones.
When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197–1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students. During Chag Lotsawa’s time, there was an incursion by Turkish soldiers that caused the remaining students to flee. Despite all this, “remnants of the debilitated Buddhist community continued to struggle on under scare resources until c. 1400 CE when Chagalaraja was reportedly the last king to have patronized Nalanda.”
Ahir considers the destruction of the temples, monasteries, centers of learning at Nalanda and northern India to be responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy.
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Featured image courtesy: Masterstudies.