When Muhammad Bakhtiar Khilji set ablaze Nalanda University in the winter of 1193-94, he wouldn’t have guessed that he was uprooting the idea of “university” itself from the Indian subcontinent. It would take another 600 years before the idea of university got seeded in India again. It has been a couple of weeks since our visit to the ruins of Nalanda, but I still can’t get over the 600 years long burial. Is it really fair to hold Muhammad Bakhtiar responsible for the “killing”? History tells us that it is not. Then what else is responsible for the prolonged hibernation of the concept of college? Let’s see in this article.
Nalanda was established in 5th century and at its peak had 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers. For centuries it had been the most important seat of learning in Asia. It had three multi-storied libraries. Most of what we know of Nalanda comes from the travel accounts of the Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzhang who spent a couple of years at Nalanda. Xuanzhang studied logic, grammar, Sanskrit and Yogacara school of Buddhism during his time at Nalanda.
Nalanda is about 90km from Patna and we reached there by car in less than two hours. Archaeological Survey of India has done a good job in maintaining the site as well as the museum next to it. Our guide at Nalanda was a sixty year old gentleman and in this business for over four decades. He had picked up Japanese and was enthusiastic about his forty-five minute tour of the place. His version of the story of the destruction of Nalanda had an interesting twist. According to his story, when Bakhtiar arrived near Nalanda he asked the locals if this place had any loot. The Brahmins were prompt to point out that the place had something far more important than the loot and strongly advised him to destroy it. Apparently the smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days.
If the act of commission – burning the place down – was an important cause of Nalanda’s destruction, an equally if not more important cause was the act of omission by Brahmins. Historian Charles Allen writes following in his book, “Ashoka: The search for India’s lost emperor” – The most striking evidence of Brahmanical hostility towards Buddhism comes in the form of silence: the way in which India’s Buddhist history, extending over large parts of the country and lasting for many centuries, was excised from the historical record.
photo credit: Gauri Dabholkar