When I think back to graduating from University forty years ago in April 1968, I start feeling very old. However, our side trip to Nalanda helped me feel relatively young.
Nalanda is the site of the world’s oldest University. It was the birthplace and site of nirvana for one of the great disciples of Buddha in the 6th century BC. There is evidence of its existence as a monastery for oriental learning as far back as the 5th century BC. Students came from far away as China and there are descriptions of the monasteries, shrines, and the life of the monks in ancient Chinese texts. In the period AD 685 – 762, as many as 10,000 monks lived and worked here at any one time. Theology, astronomy, metaphysics, and philosophy were some of the courses studied.
Nalanda contained extensive libraries. So many books were stored here that when the Mughals (Muslims) dominated the region and attempted to erase the Buddhist influences, the libraries were said to burn for six months. The bricks in the rooms, where the books were stored, still show evidence of the fires.
This was my third visit to Nalanda and I was happy to see that the site has been upgraded extensively by the Archaeological Survey of India with funds provided by the Japanese. Visitors are still able to walk along the restored sections of the residence quarters but the main amphitheatre and stupas are roped off from the crowds to preserve them properly. There are two other ancient structures that are currently undergoing excavation. Artifacts are stored in a small museum across the road from the university site.
As we left Nalanda we were brought abruptly back into the 21st century, or perhaps it was really the 20th century still. Two young men were washing their old Ambassador car in a lake along the road. At the far side of the lake, other men were watering and washing their water buffalo.