Even the sun seems to linger wistfully behind the altar which must have once supported a giant statue of the Buddha, but is now bare and exposed to the cobalt skies. Its golden rays cast a cascade of chiaroscuro patterns on the votive miniature stupas that resemble baby elephants in a herd. The perfect stillness of the evening is rent by the screech of an owl. A couple of koels on the giant banyan tree take the cue and start an argument which begins on a low teasing pitch, but soon reaches a raucous crescendo.

At Nalanda, nature’s very own sound and light show is being played out today, entirely for your benefit. There is magic in the moment. It transports you 1400 years back in time when Nalanda used to be an ivy-league institution – perhaps the most ancient residential university in the world! The campus is sprawling – its lecture halls and conference rooms would put today’s institutions to shame not just for their sheer size, but for the stimulating debates, workshops and colloquiums that were organised here frequently. Like the ivy-league schools of today, Nalanda was truly international in character, attracting scholars from as far as China, Cambodia and Ceylon. The spacious conference halls must have resounded with animated arguments about philosophy and religion, but today their silence is eerie.

The sacred Buddhist texts in Pali will tell you that you’re standing on a land where Buddha himself had stood thousands of years ago. At that time there was no university, only a mango grove called Pavarika which used to be Buddha’s favorite haunt! You have it on the authority of Taranatha’s history of Buddhism, a seventeenth century Tibetan work. That explains why Emperor Ashoka decided to establish the university here. Now the mango trees have been replaced by a grand banyon whose tangled aerial roots remind you of the locks of a rishi.

Fa Hien and Hieun Tseung, the inveterate Chinese travellers separated by a few centuries had both visited Nalanda. Fa Hien who came in the early fifth century did not speak of the monastic establishments at Nalanda, but Hieun Tseung who came 250 years later did find a flourishing university. It is possible that the schools of learning established by Ashoka had declined during Fa Hien’s visit only to be revived a hundred years later by Harshavardhana. You have it on authority that Nalanda had many distinguished alumni, among them, Nagarjuna, the famous Mahayana philosopher and alchemist of second century A.D, Suvishnu, his Brahmana contemporary who built 108 temples at Nalanda, Aryadeva, a philosopher of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism of the early fourth century, Asanga, a philosopher of the Yogachara school of the fifth century, Vasubandhu, the high-priest of the Nalanda temple and finally, Hieun Tseung himself, who spent twelve years as a resident scholar. Reads like a who’s who of ancient Buddhist history doesn’t it?

As you wander silently through the ruins, you are almost startled by the reverberation of wooden sandals on brick and stone. You turn back, expecting to see a maroon-robed tonsured monk hurrying back to his spartan quarters after the day’s lessons. It’s only a bullock cart ferrying some bricks to repair a damaged portion. The bricks have been carefully made to match the original ones.

Three flights of stairs lead upto the altar in the temple complex – an altar that is exposed to the blue skies and is bereft of the deity. But the pedestal gives you an idea of the height of the deity. Buddhists everywhere have always exhibited a penchant for the big and the burly and Nalanda must have been no exception. In fact, Hieun Tseung writes that he saw here a 24.4 meter high copper image of the Buddha raised by Purvavarman, the last king of the race of Asoka raja. The stairs which must have been trampled by thousands of bare feet climbing up to pay their obeisance are now trampled by sometimes as many as 5000 pairs of tourist feet. The shape of the stairs are tell-tale. The darkened rounded steps were built in the earlier century and the other two are latter-day additions. In fact, you’ll be surprised to know that the temple complex which must have served as the main point of congregation for the entire campus had more than one storey. The top storey has vanished with the times, but the basement is still in tact. The alcoves must have hosted sculptures, but they have been lost somewhere along the way.

The view from the top is breathtaking. Row after row of cubicles dot the landscape as far as eyes can see. That’s literally the tip of the iceberg –  oops, monument. The Archeological Survey of India which has conducted the excavations and maintains the monument finds itself unequal to the task of excavating all the ruins since they would require several decades to do so, and of course tons of money. The adjoining Baragaon village itself has been built over the ruins. Each set of cubicles surrounding a courtyard represent a monastery – the equivalent of a hostel block in modern institutions. The cubicles are an interesting study in hierarchy with the teachers occupying the larger beds. There are shelves in each cubicle to accommodate the books and study materials. The courtyard must have doubled as the students’ common room as well as a lecture or dining hall.

There is a spartan kitchen on one side with a raised platform where the monks must have prepared their frugal meals themselves. Most of the monasteries have their own water supply from a well which is inside the premises. The wells most of them circular, but a few octagonal, have been found in tact. You can visualise a monk bending over the well to draw water. Would you have imagined that monasteries meant for female monks – or would you call them nuns –were toilet-attached?

Although believed to have been established by Ashoka in the third century B.C. Nalanda must have peaked during the Gupta period. Many of the structures you see today are of the Gupa period. Hieun Tseung also mentions Kumaragupta I & II as the patrons of Nalanda. After Ashoka and Harshavardhana, the Gupta kings were the patrons of the university, gifting the revenue from entire villages for the upkeep. Secret storage chambers found at the site indicate that the monasteries received expensive gifts from kings and visitors. Hieun Tseung’s accounts of his stay at Nalanda tell ecstatic tales of the scholarly ambience of the institution.

The excavated ruins as they appear to the present-day visitor are a mess of strucutres, mostly stupas of various dimensions and overlapping and clinging to each other. The three stairways and the pedestal open to the skies form the central piece of this mess denominated as Site No.3 by the Archeological Survey of India. A closer examination will reveal that they have been built over several times over the centuries so much so that the original six stupas were subsequently encased in a massive temple built subsequently to preserve them. The fifth stupa is distinctive in character,extensive in proportion with four corner towers, decorated with well-moulded stucco figures of the Buddha and the Bodhisattava. The imposing temple must have commanded a stunning view of the plains surrounding it. Hieun Tseung says it was built by Narasimha Gupta Baladitya.

All the structures in Nalanda are not uniform. Temple No.2 for instance, is a stone structure – the others are made of brick. It is a squarish plinth built entirely of stone. On the plinth are found traces of a large temple with a sanctum of about 52 inch square. There is a dado of 211 sculptured panels symmetrically arranged over the moulded plinth. The carved panels date back to the 7 th century A.D. Now you know why it is called the Golden Age of the Guptas. A plaque at the site tells you that the entire campus was burnt down by Mohammad Baktiyar Khalji in the twelfth century. The turks, according to Taranatha, not only destroyed the structure, but also the precious collection of literary works at Nalanda. A Tibetan monk, Dharmasvamin who was an intern at Nalanda has left an eyewitness account of the turks’ second attack. But the inveterate monks had repaired the premises. A Tibetan text Pag-sam-jon-Zang gives you an account of what happened subsequently. During a religious sermon in the restored temple, two brahmanical mendicants came to visit. Some naughty young novice monks threw dirty washing water on them playfully. The furious mendicants ran away for the moment, but vowed to destroy the place. They came back after a few years, with the embers from the sacrificial havan and set fire to the library complex. And thus came to naught the most priceless collection of books and palm-leaf manuscripts in Ratnodadhi, one of the libraries of Nalanda!

Nalanda at twilight hour is enchanting. You just sit there and sink in the serenity. Before dusk envelopes the ruins in its dark folds, a crescent moon emerges from behind the temple complex. You leave reluctantly, for the Archeological Survey does not allow you to stay beyond sunset, but you know you’ll come back.