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Ancient university nears rebirth

KeralaOnline, Friday, December 21, 2007

Scientists from the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) are conducting a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey in Bihar's Nalanda district to trace the location of the buried ancient structures of University of Nalanda which was established 450 CE under the patronage of the Gupta emperors. Officials of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Patna circle, said Thursday. A five-member team of scientists from the NRSA has begun a four-day GPR survey in Nalanda. The GPR survey is being conducted for the first time in Bihar. GPR survey has proved beneficial across the world in exploration of archaeological structures. The survey, whose main purpose is to locate ancient buried structures, would be conducted on two mounds - Garhpar and Rukministhan - located in the vicinity of Nalanda town, ASI sources said.

The survey was launched Wednesday. Tourism and Culture Minister Ambika Soni, during her visit to Nalanda in April 2006, had mooted use of satellite imagery for exploration in the area. The state government had earlier asked the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to help explore the ruins in and around the ancient Nalanda University for further excavation. For long, archaeologists were in a dilemma over carrying out the excavation due to lack of proper scientific details.

Last February, a team of archaeologists of the Archaelogical Survey of India discovered the main entrance of this prestigious institution at Badagaon near the standing ruins of the university. Badagaon is also known as Paragan, a nearly 1,200-feet-high mound popularly known as Dhamma Khand. Nalanda was one of the world's first residential universities. Spread over an area of 16 km-sq, historical studies indicate that the University of Nalanda was established 450 CE under the patronage of the Gupta emperors, notably Kumaragupta. However, till now hardly 1.6 square km of the ruins of the 2,500-year-old university have been excavated.

This university was totally built in red clay bricks. The Nalanda University attracted scholars from all over the world. Even Chanakya or Kautilya was once, a student of this university. It was from this university, the seat of knowledge for the world that the light of knowledge spread all over. In this first residential international university of the world, 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world lived and studied. Courses were drawn from every field of learning, Buddhist and Hindu, sacred and secular, foreign and native. Students studied science, astronomy, medicine, and logic as diligently as they applied themselves to metaphysics, philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Veda, and the scriptures of Buddhism. They studied foreign philosophy likewise. Education was provided free, as the University was supported by the revenue from surrounding villages, and by the benefactors such as the 8th century king of Sumatra.

Today, only the remnants of those glorious days remain which are well preserved. According to literary tradition, Nalanda, 10 kms north of Rajgir and a suburb of the ancient city, was visited by Buddha and Mahavira. Ashoka is said to have worshipped at the chaitya of Sariputra., But the excavations, which were conducted here from 1916 onwards, have not revealed any pre-Gupta remains. By the time of Harsha (A.D. 606-48), Nalanda had become the principal centre of Mahayana learning and a famed university-town with numerous shrines and monasteries, which attracted scholars from far and near. The Chinese pilgrims, Hiuen Tsang (玄奘) and I- Tsing (一行) studied at Nalanda and have left accounts of the settlement and its life. But its disintegration started along with the disappearance of Buddhism from India during the 12th century, the university was in decline. In 1193 the Nalanda University suffered a final blow after the complex was sacked by Muslim armies under Bakhtiyar Khilji. This event is seen as a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India.

The Excavations

The elaborate excavations at the site have revealed nine levels of occupation, dating back to the time of Lord Buddha and Lord Mahavira, in the 6th century. The ruins provide staggering evidence of the strength of Buddhist civilization, in its prime. The remains of the stupas, temples and eleven monasteries, most aligned north to south, with their thick walls impressively intact, are strewn all over the place.

Nalanda had a planned layout with an almost symmetrical row of monasteries facing a row of temples, with wide spaces in between. The temples were solid rectangular structures of two tiers, the sanctum being placed on the upper tier, which was approached by a grand flight of steps. The facades of both the tiers were plastered and embellished with elegant pilasters and niches containing images. Temple 3 was more than 31 m high and consisted of seven successive accumulations of which the latest two belonged to the 11th and 12th centuries and the fifth one dating from circa 6th century, was notable for its sculptural wealth.

The monasteries were imposing rectangular buildings, each with an open courtyard, enclosed by a covered verandah, which leads into cells, arrayed on the four sides. The cell facing the entrance served as a shrine. Nalanda was an important centre of Pala sculptures and bronzes and has yielded seals and sealings of great historical significance.

source: http://www.keralaonline.com/news/news_inner.php?id=14

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