Visiting Nalanda is like visiting Oxford. Both are great seats of learning and one feels knowledge dripping from the walls. The difference is that Oxford is beautiful but Nalanda is a ruin. But beauty is subjective and the ruins of Nalanda are beautiful in their own way. They are evocative of what once was a great and renowned place of Buddhist learning.
It is easy to see why the first great university of India had to be Buddhist and not Hindu because the latter never believed in knowledge for the masses. Knowledge had to be within the hands of a few and it was the sole prerogative of the Brahmins. Had something like this happened for Hinduism who knows what form the religion would have taken today.
The excavated complex is vast. It is arranged in a line in the North-South direction with temples on one side and monasteries on the other. The monasteries all bear the same general layout with minor variations – a central courtyard, a pillared corridor around it, a shrine on one side, an entrance on the other, monastic cells built all around the courtyard. Wells, ovens, skylights and brick mouldings on lintels are some other details. Sometimes they are on two levels. Most stone pillars are gone except in one monastery where they survive in fragments. The main stupa is a magnificent ruin surrounded by votive stupas and beautiful stucco work from later period. The earliest surviving parts of the complex are from 5th century AD.
In one monastery I am standing in a vast courtyard. In one side is a drain. I walk towards it. My footfalls are echoed in this empty space just as the greatness of Nalanda is echoed in these walls today. I try to imagine the days when monks would offer their prayers, commune for worship, chant in the vihara and return to their cells for silent meditation. I try to imagine the large handwritten books in the library and monks pouring our the words in deep learning. Building activities at Nalanda continued till 12th century AD when it was burned down by Khilji. It is said that the books in the library burned for six months.
I have lunch and then visit the museum. It has a model of the university ruins as they stand today. There some superb idols of Avalokiteshwara, Buddha and one of Shiva-Parvati. Sculptures are mainly of basalt and sandstone. There is a terracotta jar with multiple sprouts, a clear evidence that the Dutch did not invent this. In the first gallery is a pair of massive terracotta jars. There is interesting miniature of nagas worshipping a linga in a circle.
I head out in search of a black Buddha. After a long slow walk I find it. Some vendors have setup a couple of stalls with their goods right outside the shrine. One of the vendors is playing holi music loudly. The music can be heard at least half a mile away and it is deafening where I stand. Worse still, holi music is not particularly nice to listen. The image of the Buddha is beautiful in Bhumisparsha Mudra. It is covered with cloth and garland.
‘This is hardly a temple,’ I tell the guy who has been following me for sometime. I point to the loud music.
‘Many Buddhists come here. Sometimes Thai Buddhists offer prayer for an hour and a half here,’ he tells.
I return to town and go in search of Sari Chak. Apparently this is a place linked to Sariputra, one of Buddha disciples. It is a delightful walk across potato fields and sarso fields with their colourful yellow flowers. After many enquiries I arrive at what is said to be Sari Chak. A handwritten note on a door says that this is the birthplace of the monk. The door is locked. Two numbers are written below it. I call each number. I get error messages. The numbers do not exist. I just sit there looking at uninteresting brick structures and a locked door. This just about completes my visit of Nalanda.
I take a shortcut to the main road. I walk on bunds separating field from field. I pass village settlements. Mud walls are stuck with cowdung cakes left to dry. One woman is shredding hay into bits. Such bits are mixed with cowdung to make kitchen fuel. They are also used as cattle feed after mixing it with cut grass. A man is on his charpoy taking an afternoon nap. A couple of cows are drinking from a large earthern bowl. In one house I find the entrance wall decorated with a little shrine of mud plaster. I have not seen this anywhere else.