What is some archival information about Nalanda University?

We were driving in Vadodara. When suddenly I could not let go of the board. It caught my eyes. Further, it read Nalanda Academy for Chemistry. As soon as we see Nalanda, the first thing that comes to our mind is the great Nalanda University. Unfortunately, we deleted this from our very own history. There are very few people who can shed light on this topic.

Nālanda University is one of the oldest universities in the world. The history has given credit to Gupta’s, specifically Kumargupta (400 CE). He was also called Śakrāditya. However, it continued to survive until 1200 CE. when Bhakitiyar Khalji burnt and destroyed the whole place, including the monks and students.

Ancient Nalanda University

We can see Nalanda University ruins in Bihar, India. It is about 95 km. southeast from the city of Patna. In our culture, we used to learn at Gurukuls. They used to concentrate more on life skills with academics. However, for people who wanted to study further, the universities were an option. Other universities were famous too. Like Takshashila, Vikramashila to name a few.

The connection between Guptas and Nalanda University

Guptas built a big beautiful university. This could help students in advance studies. Gupta’s were known for their futuristic thinking. However, there are early establishments of some buildings that were constructed in the Mauryan Empire, by Ashoka the Great (273 – 232 BCE).

Who were the Guptas?

India has witnessed many great kings and kinsmen. In addition, the great poet Kalidasa in his book Raghuvamsham has mentioned a lot about Guptas. This has inspired many historians to take a peek into this golden period of Indian History. There are a lot of historical facts to support this. Archaeological department and literary sources, both have supported this claim.

As part of the Archeological Department:

  • excavated coins from this period
  • a lot of inscriptions from the period have also been found

Gupta Empire Elephanta

The Literary sources throwing light on the period are:

How was Nalanda University Founded?

Kumaragupta, a Gupta ruler (415 -455 CE) is also known as Mahendraditya. Mahendra was another name for Indra. The name Indra inspired him. He also mixed the word Aditya from Vikramaditya, his predecessor. Shakra is another name of Indra. So, his name in some places is also mentioned in the name – Shakraditya. All these names refer to Kumargupta I.

Kumargupta had two wives, Anantadevi and Devaki. Anantadevi was a princess whereas Devaki was a commoner. Anantadevi did not want Devaki to stay in the same palace of hers. So, Kurmaragupta insisted Devaki to stay in a different palace. However, she refused and told that she wanted to stay in a small house where she can treat patients. Kumargupta had her sent to a newly built hospital, where she can serve patients, assisting the doctors.

This further led to another idea of building a place for higher education. Devaki knew about the big university erected at Takshashila. The university had produced not only great teachers like Chanakya but also great students like Chandragupta Maurya. Though Gurukul’s imparted very good education, there were no specializations in the subjects. So, higher education would certainly help. The very same day, a Buddhist philosopher came to meet Kumargupta. He also came up with the same idea. He further said they will have to teach Buddhist Philosophy along with the Vedic Philosophy.

How was Nalanda University planned?

Nalanda University Plan

The immediate action points that Kumaragupta acted upon are:

  • discussion held about the place
  • maintaining once it is build
  • how to select students
  • the capacity of the university
  • accommodation for both staff and students

After deciding upon this, he called Buddhist and Vedic philosophers. Along with them, eminent doctors, philosophers, and scientists had a brainstorming session about the university. The king boiled down on the place. He decided that the university be built near the Nalo Stupa. Hence, it would be called Nalanda University, deriving its name from the Stupa.

It was also decided that the university will be a huge complex, with quarters for teachers and dormitories for students. The capacity of the university will be about ten thousand students and accommodating about two thousand teachers. It would be a multi-storied building surrounded by a high wall, made of red bricks. There will be a garden and some lakes inside the campus. Students and teachers can meditate here with meditation halls and temples built inside.

They further decided that it would have three libraries, covering books from every other topic. However, admission will be restricted to students strictly on the basis of merit. Entrance tests will be conducted and students clearing the tests will be allowed to study. Men with very good command over their subjects will be teaching here. Local revenue from the neighboring villages will be used to maintain the university. Kumargupta summoned the best architects to construct the university.

How was Nalanda University Constructed?

Construction of Nalanda University started soon. Kumargupta was all excited and wanted it to be completed soon. Meanwhile, the two queens of Kumargupta gave birth. While Anantadevi’s son was named “Purugupta”, Devaki’s son was named “Skandagupta”. Both of them were very different in their own ways.

Purugupta was more interested to be alone and had no intentions of making friends. He was very silent. His favorite pastime was watching birds, trees, sky, etc. Skandagupta, on the other hand, was more social. Firstly, he was always surrounded by people. Secondly, he was very talkative and always made sense while he spoke. Lastly, he made friends and used to play a lot. When he played, he was always the king and his friends were ministers. The qualities required to rule the kingdom could be seen in Skandagupta, right from his childhood days.

Dashavatara Temple in Nalanda University

While the university was still under construction, Kumargupta’s brother came to meet him. He was also very happy about his brother building a secular place of learning. He was sure that it would be very famous. Further, he said, he wanted to see a Vishnu temple built inside the campus, having the ten incarnations. Kumargupta was happy about this idea. Subsequently, he transferred his brother from Vaishali to Ujjain as the governer. So, his brother could build the Vishnu Temple inside the campus. No wonder, the temple was beautifully built. It looked spectacular. This way, Kumargupta involved more or less everyone who was interested in serving the society and gave them apt responsibilities.

Who inaugurated Nalanda University?

Finally, Nalanda University’s construction was completed. Kumargupta himself appointed the close associate that he trusted as the head of the university. The head, in turn, appointed many good teachers. Many student aspirants applied. There was a very tough test conducted and only those who qualified were admitted. It was a magnificent multi-storied building. There were nine floors. A huge ground to play and a big library for the students. There were several classes and dormitories to help students.

Kumargupta himself inaugurated the university. He even went and sat in the first class. The level of ownership that he showed is unparalleled. He was sure that the university was going to be world-famous and he was right. It indeed became world-famous.

The decline of the Guptas

  • Purugupta married against the wishes of his father and went on to become a monk
  • Skandagupta was an extraordinary king
  • Kumaragupta grew old, was kidnapped and brought back by Skandagupta, he died later of high fever
  • Pushyamitras and Hunas were together in a war against Guptas
  • More wars, less money and economic crisis in the empire
  • Skandagupta did not increase taxes
  • He sold some parts of the royal property to rich merchants for the sake of the kingdom
  • He missed his father Kumargupta for suggestions
  • The gap between Skandagupta and his son (also Kumargupta) grew due to his mother’s suicide
  • Kumargupta became a drunkard and lost both his balance and responsibility
  • Purugupta’s interest was never to become a king
  • The untimely demise of Skandagupta
  • Weak Purugupta’s rule
  • Kumargupta joined Hunas
  • Hunas defeated the Gupta empire easily

Post Gupta Era

After the Guptas, there was a large succession of kings who continued protecting the university in their own ways. Some of them even built big walls as a way to protect the university. Maukhari Dynasty king erected an 80 feet copper statue of Buddha. Harsha, the converted king, also took good care of it in the 7th century. All of this is known based on the travelogues of Chinese monks, Xuanzang (Si-Yu-Ki) and Yijing.

Who destroyed Nalanda University and why?

Bakhitiyar Khilji

Nalanda University has been destroyed thrice, based on different invaders at different times. In the first two invasions, the university could be restored. But the final destruction became a setback for both Buddhism and the University for hundreds of years.

  • Hunas and Mihirakula in collaboration, attached and destroyed Nalanda for the first time in around 455-467 CE. However, Skandagupta’s successors could restore the library and improve it with extra protection from the enemies
  • Gaudas in the seventh century invaded the university for the second time. The Buddhist king Harshavardhana in around 606-648 CE, renovated the university and improved it further
  • There was this destruction, that was the third and last one. In the third one, Nalanda university and the people inside were very badly hurt. Following this, the university could never be restored until recent developments. Muslim army led by the Turkish leader Bakhtiyar Khilji attacked around 1193 CE. Due to this attack, Buddhism as a major religion had a setback for years to come. It is said that the big libraries built, had so many books about Ayurveda and Buddhism. It took months for the fire to burn the books into ashes.

Why Bakhitiyar Khilji destroyed Nalanda University?

Bakhtiyar Khilji was a fanatic Islamist, who did not believe in any other opinions or texts. He was not keeping well for a few days and the doctors in his court failed to cure him. Rahul Sri Bhadra was the principal of Nalanda University then. He was advised by one of the ministers of Bakhitiyar to treat him. Initially, Bakhtiyar was reluctant to get treated by him as it was against his religion. But, when the disease further deteriorated, he had to summon the principal.

Bakhityar, however, agreed on a condition and they arranged the treatment. The condition is that the principal should cure without any medicine. The principal then asked Bakhitiyar to read some pages from the Koran, which cured the illness to everyone’s surprise. This disturbed Khilji. He thought Indian scholars and teachers knew more than what the doctors at his court knew. So, Khilji decided to destroy the roots of knowledge. He set fire to the great library of Nalanda University following the massacre of both teachers and students. He burnt down approximately nine million manuscripts.

Unfortunately, we have a town built in the name of Bakhtiyar Khilji called Bakhityarpur.

We have to learn from history as there is a famous saying: Forgive but never forget history. We should make sure that we don’t repeat these parts of history. These thoughts mingled in my mind for that whole day.