Nalanda and the death of Buddhism

Muhammad of Ghor was the Sultan of the Ghurid Empire from 1173 to 1206. The empire at its peak stretched from Afghanistan and covered almost the entirety of northern India. The Ghurid dynasty were of an eastern Iranian descent and were Buddhists until their conversion to Sunni Islam after the conquest of Ghor by Mahmud of Ghazni of the Ghaznavid dynasty.

The Ghurids defeated the last of the Ghaznavids in 1186 when Muhammad of Ghor took Lahore – then the capital of the Ghaznavids. And thus began the territorial expansion from Afghanistan to Bengal in eastern India. The Sultan was nicknamed Jahanzos, the ‘World Burner’. Under the generalship of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who would go on to establish the Mamluk Dynasty and rule over the Sultanate of Delhi, the Ghurid Empire were infamous for the death and carnage they spread wherever they went.

Muhammad of Ghor

The Sultan’s chronicler, a Persian named Sadruddin Muhammad Hasan Nizami describes his master’s exploits in detail:

“He purged by his sword the land of Hind from the filth of infidelity … and the impurity of idol-worship, and left not one temple standing … When he arrived at Mirat [Meerut] all the idol temples were converted into mosques. He then marched and encamped under the fort of Delhi.

“The city and its vicinity were freed from idols and idol-worship, and in the sanctuaries, mosques were raised by the worshippers of one God. The royal army proceeded towards Benares, which is the centre of the country of Hind, and here they destroyed nearly one thousand temples.

“The temples were converted into mosques and abodes of goodness, and the ejaculations of bead-counters and voices of summoners to prayer ascended to high heaven, and the very name of idolatry was annihilated.”

On one wintery campaign in 1193, a regiment of 200 armed personnel mounted on horses crossed the Ganga to Varanasi (Banares) in search of plunder. They were mostly Khilji slaves who were led by a man called Muhammad bin Bhaktiyar Khilji a seasoned military commander under Qutb-ud-din Aibak who was himself a slave of Muhammad of Ghor.

The Gangetic plains and its peoples were going through mass proselytizing to Islam and the Mujahideen under Bhaktiyar Khilji pushed further south to secure Islam’s dominion. So they set their sights on Bihar – the seat of the last of the Pala dynasty of kings.

The word Bihar is derived from the Buddhist viharas or monastic centres. Bihar was also the abode of the Mahavihara of Nalanda or the Great Monastery of Nalanda known throughout the Buddhist world as the Dharmaganja or Treasury of the Moral Law.

Statue of Buddha, Nalanda

Nalanda was a centre of learning from 700 BC to 1200 AD. It was a global university that attracted students from Central Asia, China and even Mesopotamia. The students studied Mahayana and Hinayana as well as the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine and Sankhya. Chinese scholar and traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited the university on two occasions between 630 and 643 AD and spending two years in the monastery describes Nalanda in vivid detail:

“Moreover, the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle (of the Sangharama). The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapours (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.”


Hiuen Tsang was personally tutored by Silabhadra the venerable Buddhist monk and philosopher and the head of the institution at that time.

Hiuen Tsang

Nalanda was decidedly the foremost institution of learning in Asia in that era and housed three multi storeyed libraries that served as repositories for the most extensive texts and scriptures of Buddhist learning:

  • The Ratnasagara or Sea of Jewels
  • The Ratnadadhi or Ocean of Jewels
  • The Ratnaranjaka or Jewels of Delight

By 1193 Nalanda was long past its glory days but it still attracted students from all over the world.

If Muhammad Bhaktiyar was known for anything, it was his expertise in the ‘surprise & terror’ attack that he implemented in his savage campaigns over the years. It was not long before he turned his eyes towards the great institution of Nalanda. But before attacking its walls, he sent a messenger to enquire if the institution harboured any Qurans. Unfortunately, the library shelves were not graced by a Quran. Upon learning that, Muhammad Bhaktiyar ordered his men to destroy the centre of learning and everything that it contained.

Muhammad Bhaktiyar 

It is said that it took the raiders several months to put the three libraries and all its books, scriptures and texts to the torch. The smoke from the burning hung over the sky like a dark pall for days.

Following Nalanda, the monastery at Odantapuri was destroyed. Then Vikramashila, and in the decade that followed, Muhammad Bhaktiyar effectively obliterated any hopes of Buddhism ever maintaining a strong presence in Northern India.




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