Since ancient times, India had been a seat of education and religious studies. This has not only been proved time and again by the various discoveries and inventions that took place in India but also by the number of important universities that were an important part of the Indian culture.
The Nalanda University, which was regarded as one of the world’s foremost seats of modern learning, was one such place.
Spread over an area of 14 hectares, the Nalanda University was a principal seat of learning from fifth century CE till the Turkish invasion of 1193. The premier institution attracted students from not only the various Indian kingdoms but also from as far as Tibet, China, Greece, and Persia. Needless to say, this world renowned multicultural seat of learning was also known for its expansive library, which housed nine million books – some of which were regarded as rare even in those days.
But alas! These books were not to pass onto future generations because Turkish looters ransacked and destroyed the entire University in 1193 AD. Bakhtiyar Khilji was in the service of a commander in Awadh, when Nalanda University was destroyed. There is a saying that the library was so huge that it took three months to burn the nine million books housed in the library!
We get to know this from the Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj’s book ‘Tabaqat-i Nasiri’, where he recorded the deeds of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a few decades later. According to the book, Khilji was assigned two villages on the border of Bihar which had become a political no-man’s land. Sensing an opportunity, he began a series of successful plundering raids into Bihar. He was recognized and rewarded for his efforts by his superiors. Emboldened, Khilji decided to attack a fort in Bihar and was able to successfully capture it, looting it with a great booty.
As per the documents penned down by Minhaj-i-Siraj:
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Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress, and acquired great booty. The greater number of the inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted [with the contents of those books], it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindu tongue, they call a college Bihar.
In his book, the Persian historian also recounted how thousands of monks were burned alive and beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword. The burning of the library continued for several months, with “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 CE at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa. It was there that he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivadin lineage to complement the two existing ones.
When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa (1197–1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students. During Chag Lotsawa’s time also, there was an incursion by Turkish soldiers that caused the remaining students to flee. Despite all this, “remnants of the debilitated Buddhist community continued to struggle with scare resources until c. 1400 CE when Chagalaraja was reportedly the last king to have patronized Nalanda.”
It is considered that had Nalanda been allowed to flourish, the ancient Indian scientific thoughts in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy would have made India the leader of the world today!