Nalanda University: When History Is Not History

By M Naushad Ansari

Nalanda University, which was set up at Rajgir in Bihar in 413 AD during the Gupta dynasty, had emerged as a world seat of learning before it was destroyed sometime in the 11th century.  External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj along with Bihar’s Chief Minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, formally inaugurated the new Nalanda University on 19 September this year.

The creation of new varsity started in 2010 through an Act of Parliament seeking to recapture the lost glory of its earlier avatar.

Many of the dailies published reports on Nalanda’s past glory, decay, theories of the uprooting of Buddhism etc.  Unfortunately, most of them carried fabricated stories about the destruction of the ancient seat of learning, peddling a perverse perception of the Indian past. The most amusing was to read ‘Nalanda varsity set to capture erstwhile glory in new avatar’ in Hindustan Times, Patna, on 1 September, 2014.  The report stated that ‘the university fell upon hard times when it was overrun by the Huns under Mihirakula during the reign of Skandgupta (455-467 AD).  But it was restored by his successors.  The university was destroyed again by the Gaudas in the early 7th century but was restored again by king Harshvardhana (606-648 AD).  But it could not recover from the third and final blow dealt in 1193 AD by Bakhtiar Khilji, a general of Qutubuddin Aibak, out to uproot Buddhism.  The Turkish invaders set ablaze and destroyed the huge library of the university, said to rival one at Luxor in Egypt’. On 15 September, 2014 the same daily, reiterated that “the original Nalanda University……was burnt down by an army of Turkish invaders in 1193”  (‘Nalanda varsity set to capture erstwhile glory in new avatar’, Hindustan Times, Patna, 15 September, 2014).

Another leading daily of Patna, The Times of India, in its 20 September, 2014 issue stated that ‘Nalanda Mahavihara was reduced to ruins by foreign invaders’.  Daily Pioneer from Delhi, on 20 September 20, 2014, reported that ‘Nalanda University was burnt down 800 years ago by a Turkish army’ (20 September, 2014). Without mentioning name, these dailies have indicated that it was none else than Bakhtiyar Khilji who destroyed Nalanda University.   

Such falsification of history, with a clear design of creating hatred and ill-will in the society, misleads readers and pulls wool over their eyes while the fact is that historical evidence proves that much before the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji, Nalanda University had been reduced to ruins because of the rivalry of Hinayana (simple Mahayana) and Mahayana Buddhist sects influenced by the ideas of Brahminism.  Indeed, there was another Mahavihara in Odantapuri (modern Bihar Sharif in Nalanda District) inside the fort of the local king which was partially affected in the course of the battle between the forces of Bakhtiyar Khilji and the local king in 1197 or 1198 AD.  The chronicle, Tabaqat-i-Nasiri of Minhaj Al-Siraj Juzjani, which is usually referred as the historical record of the time, apparently refers to this place and does not even mention the name of Nalanda.  Presumably, Nalanda was then a desolate place.  

The fortified monastery which Bakhtiyar captured was “known as Audand-Bihar or Odandapura-vihara” (Odantapuri in Biharsharif, then known simply as “Bihar”). Minhaj does not refer to Nalanda at all.  He merely speaks of the ransacking of the “fortress of Bihar” (Hisar-i-Bihar). This is the view of many historians and, most importantly, of Sir Jadunath Sarkar, whose credibility is honoured even by right wing historians (History of Bengal, B.R. Publishing Corp., 2003).

KP Jaiswal Research Institute, Patna, was established in 1951 by the Government of Bihar with the object, inter alia, to promote historical research, archaeological excavations and investigations and publication of works of permanent value to scholars.  The research work titled ‘The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar’ by DR Patil, published as a ‘Historical Research Series’ by the Institute in 1963 reveals that: “…no Mohammedan Makhdum, Pir or saint of great repute happened to grace the tops of the Nalanda mounds with their tombs or mosques.  This is a feature, which, it should be noted, is commonly to be observed all over Bihar at sites of celebrated and important sanctuaries.  At Bihar Sharif itself many of such Muslim monuments still exist; but their absence at Nalanda, hardly six or seven miles away, is rather surprising.  Had Nalanda been a living institute of great repute or importance at the time of the invasion of Bakhtiar Khilji in 1197 or 1198 AD, we should expect the Muslim chronicles of the event to have known and mentioned the name of Nalanda.  The place, said to have been destroyed by the invader, is described to be a great city and a place of study then known as Bihar, which would more appropriately be a reference to the modern Bihar Sharif, which also had a monastery, and not to Nalanda, near which there existed no big city worth the name.  As is known, one of the Pala rulers had established a monastery at Odantapuri or Bihar Sharif itself which may have affected adversely.  All these would indicate that, quite before Bakhtiar Khilji’s invasion, Nalanda had perhaps fallen to decay or ruins already; but how and when actually this happened is still a mystery to be unravelled’ (page 304).

The research further indicates that “….there is, therefore, reason to believe that Nalanda had met its final end sometime in the 11th century, i.e., more than a hundred years before Bakhtiar Khilji invaded Bihar in 1197A.D” (page 325).  This historical research series was published under the patronage of the Government of Bihar in 1963.  

Furthermore, D N  Jha, former Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi, in his article “Grist to the reactionary mill” (Indian Express, 9 July, 2014) on the destruction of Nalanda University, quotes that:  “Tibetan monk and scholar, Taranatha, writes in ‘History of Buddhism in India’: ‘During the consecration of the temple built by Kakutsiddha at Nalendra [Nalanda] “the young naughty sramanas threw slops at the two tirthika beggars and kept them pressed inside door panels and set ferocious dogs on them”. Angered by this, one of them went on arranging for their livelihood and the other sat in a deep pit and “engaged himself in suryasadhana” [solar worship], first for nine years and then for three more years and having thus “acquired mantrasiddhi” he “performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around” which “immediately resulted in a miraculously produced fire”, consuming  all the eighty four temples and the scriptures some of which, however, were saved by water flowing from an upper floor of the nine storey Ratnodadhi temple’ (History of Buddhism in India, written in the 17th century, English tr. Lama Chimpa & Alka Chattopadhyaya, summary of pp. 141f).This should mean, he continues, that “the idea of Brahminical hostility to the religion of the Buddha  travelled to Tibet fairly early and became part of its Buddhist tradition, and found expression in the 17th-18th  century Tibetan writings”.  

As regards uprooting of Buddhism, there are various theories put forward which seek to explain the tragic eclipse.  Even today, Gaya is often in news as Buddhists are still struggling to wrest control of their most holy shrine from Brahmins. The age-old conflict between Buddhism and Brahminism, it seems, is yet to be resolved.

But the effort to associate Bakhtiyar Khilji with the destruction and burning of the University of Nalanda and of the uprooting of Buddhism from its place of birth is a glaring example of the wilful distortion of history. Certainly such biased historians and their ilk are always free to falsify historical data but this only reveals the lack of any serious historical exercise. The truth is sacrosanct and history needs to be preserved and presented without making it a victim of the prejudices of any kind.

The author is Secretary, Peace Foundation, Patna. He may be contacted at

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 December 2014 on page no. 11

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