Friday, November 6, 2009

Destruction of the Mahavihara

Nalanda Mahavihara was a university that shared a very close bond with the community and that is the reason for its extreme popularity and for its survival for centuries. The ties between the local people, the patronages from the kings and queens and the contributions of the businessmen created a very taut support system that made it invincible for several centuries but something happened in the 12th century that not just damaged the infrastructure but severed the spirit of the people and that made it impossible to bounce back to its full potential and led to a slow decay.

There are many theories on how this great establishment came to an end but there is no sufficient archaeological evidence to confirm any theory of its destruction. The decline of Nalanda Mahasanghrama was not a single isolated incident; many small, medium and large monasteries went to oblivion together. There were more than 20 medium and small monasteries in 15Km radius of Nalanda Mahavihar. All the monasteries have followed a similar sequence of patronage, Gupta + Pala or Pala alone.
If we carefully observe the pattern we find that the Buddhist monastic order here had reached a unique understanding with the locality and it is evident in the archaeological evidence littered in villages. With royal patronage of Guptas’, monasteries flourished in Nalanda and around. In later centuries we find new monasteries were established and they continued to flourish during Pala period too and then there are evidences of more villages with only Pala influence. This reflects the quality of students and education which attracted royal patronage and also a general ambience of peace and prosperity; the strong value that society placed in knowledge and respect for wisdom.
The tradition started by Guptas’ found acceptance with the local population and local traders and merchants extended patronage and it was not totally dependent on royal patronage alone. In post Gupta period merchant and affluent class extended support to such establishment even Nalanda Mahavihara had about 80 small monasteries further north.

In its 800 years long history this symbiotic association of Buddhist monastic order and local population must have seen many ups and downs together but it had the resilience to bounce back and biggest evidence to support this thought is that all monasteries (villages) in surrounding villages continued to flourish even when the dynasties changed from Gupta to Pala and it is quite evident from the remainders of art and culture from the period. Anything that started during the Gupta period reached its final culmination with Pala. Many new centers were founded in Pala period as we find many villages with only Pala influence.
Over the centuries Buddhism assimilated with the local religions. And this assimilation of cultures is reflected in the new iconography very peculiar to this region. Biggest evidence of this confluence is the sculptures lying in temples of the villages in region. The possibility that the Buddhism had lost its support with local population doesn’t concur with the archaeological evidence which say a different story. Though this thought is based on the surface findings and only an intensive research can reflect the deep truths.
Monasteries in villages and Nalanda survived the “sankracharya effect” and outlived it by 250 years. The composition of sculptures from the late Pala period accommodating gods and goddesses from Hindu pantheon seemed like a direct consequence of such cross culture interchange.

There are several theories about what might have caused the destruction of such a resilient education system; fire, draught, flood, loss of local support and royal patronage but none of these seem to be plausible reasons the sudden disappearance or in other words not being able to bounce back.
It seems possible that the onslaught of Bakhtiyar Khilji was coupled with one such lean period among many other in past 800 years after which the university could not revive back to its golden days.

Something strong happened that didn’t let this rebound, this subjugation of the resilience was slow and gradual process. A single onslaught of Bakhtiyar Khilji with small army was not sufficient to raze a culture of 800 years which had taken roots in local ambience.
With the attack of Bakhtiyar Khilji came a new settlement that was averse to the idolatry. The high structures provided them good ground to support their military pursuits. Most of the new settlement in this area was at places with rich Buddhist remains. The biggest of the mounds have Mazars over top. The building materials were reused to build mosques. And the Idols were not crushed but most of the times they distorted the face or chiseled off the Nose. The settling of new population at such centers never let it rebound again and a rich culture disappeared.
Buddhism was based on monastic order and with the loss of monasteries, Buddhism was lost and since Hinduism had its own inbuilt systems it survived. Hindu population was the new custodians of this rich heritage. Buddhist fled the scene to further north carrying with them the scriptures but the sculptures were too heavy to carry along. Later all the sculptures in whatever shape, size and form were established at some common place within the village which can be seen till date in the villages.
The onslaught did extend the immediate damage by killing the distinct looking monks and setting up monasteries on fire but this was not the end.
Dharmasvamin who visited Nalanda in 1235AD provides the best contemporary description of the “Resilience factor” and local support.
After the Khilji onslaught, Nalanda Mahavihar did bounce back to function with two monasteries and 70 students at place. 900 years of survival instincts were on test. In past there were instances of persecution by kings, but it was warded off by supporting kings. As in the past this time yet again there was help from neighboring Buddhist countries to revive the traditions but it didn’t prove to be adequate. There are evidences in Tibetan source Pag-sam-Jonzang of its revival effort but they were all short lived.

This onslaught had a different character compare to any previous attack; invaders were outsiders and wanted to settle here. There was no strong king left to rescue them and local support could not save the very noticeable monasteries and monks for a long time. The 800 year old tradition had very little time to adjust to the new set of challenges and could not cope up. There are evidences where the locals tried their best to keep things going but the bonds were severed time and again by the invaders until they gave up. Dharmasvamin’s accounts talks about a lay Hindu patron who was put behind bars at odantpuri (now Bihar Sharif) for supporting the monks. While in jail he smuggled the information of impending attack of the Turks on the Nalanda monastery. This little story conveys the precious relationship that the local population and the monasteries must have shared and there must be many more such incidents associated with the various monasteries that would remain unknown to us but in the end we gather that the strong legacy of support and compassion died within span of 50 years and almost no monastery big or small could handle such betrayal of faith

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