By Ankita Singh
Last Sunday morning, I was overjoyed to read that the Nalanda ruins had been included in the Heritage List of UNESCO. This took me back to the time when I got the opportunity to visit these massive, dilapidated ruins in all their awe-inspiring beauty.
As a kid from a middle-class family, I had never gone on real vacations or trips. With just adequate income for a family of four, travelling was never on the priority list. In fact, it was considered to be an unnecessary luxury. The focus was always on studies. Ironically enough, it was these very books that gave birth to the travel bug in me.
I built a travel list which included ‘off the radar’ tourist spots in India. By the year 2011, I had saved enough to embark on a sojourn to ancient places associated with Buddhism. What was initially intended to be a solo trip, was crashed by my mother and Aunt. However, having my Aunt along was a treasure, as she had studied ancient Indian scriptures for her masters and had in-depth knowledge of these areas.
The Nalanda Experience
The next six days were spent covering the length and breadth of Bihar (including the Barabar caves which were used as the setting by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India) in a white Wagon R and savouring the local cuisine. The seventh day was designated for Nalanda. As we neared our destination, it seemed that even the Gods wanted us to witness the ancient seat of learning in all its glory. The weather was picture perfect and there was almost no crowd. It was indeed an ideal day to visit the monuments.
As soon as I stepped into the compound, my mind and body were filled with calmness, peace and humility. It was a sentiment that only knowledge can inspire. All illusions of pride and ego are shredded when one stands before these awe-inspiring structures. These ruins have braved odds of nature and mankind to remind us of human endeavours to seek and impart knowledge and truth.
The complex, which was unearthed by the colonial archaeologists after years of digging and excavations, is divided into eleven monasteries and six major brick temple structures. Spread over 12 hectares, the systematic layout of these structures and the architecture of the viharas is amazing. The most imposing structure is that of Temple 3. It was built upon more than seven times and has a flight of stairs right to the top. Temple 1 is the oldest structure. More than nine layers of construction have been unearthed till now.
Heritage and History
The ASI guide accompanying us said that there might be more layers of unearthed construction. He explained that it was not possible to dig in further, considering the frailty of the centuries-old structures.
The rooms in viharas, or the dormitories, were so immaculately planned for the stay of monks that they could rival any modern day universities’ dorm rooms.
According to historians, the complex was attacked thrice. The ultimate blow was the attack by Bakhtiyar Khilji, who set the place ablaze. It is said that the library, which could rival the one in Luxor, Egypt, housed so many scrolls and manuscripts that the place continued to burn for three months following the attack. The soot in the viharas and ransacked structures bear testimony to the brutal destruction of this place of learning. It is said that the palace was once frequented by students from as far as Korea, Japan, Iran and Europe.
It is heartwarming to see how the ASI and the Government of Bihar, with the help of experts and capital from other countries, have made continual efforts to rebuild and maintain the complex. Given the difficulty of maintaining these fragile ruins from the wonts of nature and human carelessness, it is a wonder to see them standing and inspiring humankind to seek knowledge.
A lot of work is still required to excavate more structures, maintain them and preserve them. However, the inclusion of the site on the Heritage List will undoubtedly help in carrying the momentum forward. Hopefully, this experience will stay intact for the generations to come.
Ankita is currently working with the Standard’s & Poor Global Market Intelligence in the data science and M&A research domain for more than half a decade now. She is an Economics Graduate and is passionate about penning down her thoughts.