Nalanda Monasteries: A myth of Muslim invasion


The Abbasid Caliphate under Caliph al-Musta’sim, had 50,000 troops at its disposal to guard its capital. However, these troops were cobbled together in a hurry, leaving them ill-equipped and disorganized. The Caliph had the right to summon forces from other sultanates to defend the caliphate, but he did not do so. His arrogance had cost him the Mamluks’ loyalty, as they were the only forces with the strength to fight at the time.

To no avail, the Muslims were no match for the Mongol army who ran amok in the political and economic centre of the Muslim world. Just five days after the battle, the Muslims surrendered to the Mongols.

This, however, turns out to only be the beginning of the tragedy as the Mongols entered Baghdad around a week after the surrender. They burnt and destroyed everything in sight, slaughtering everyone like cattle, not sparing even children.

Some eyewitnesses from the time even say that the number of books that were thrown into the river created a bridge that would support a man on horseback. The intensity of the murders and massacres was so horrendous, it is said that the Tigris river turned black from all the ink of books and it turned red from the blood of scholars.

Nalanda monasteries image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Muslim invasion of Nalanda remains a popular myth promoted by secular and Hindutva ideologues in India.

It is very well known that Nalanda monasteries was destroyed by the Turkish Muslim invader named Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khiliji in an attempt to uproot Buddhism from the regions he conquered — mostly encompassing Eastern India. Or was it? Whenever Muslims mourn on the internet over the loss of Baghdad to the Mongol invasion, Hindus are quick to point out “Muslim hypocrisy”. We will explore the invasion of Nalanda in this article and all the myth it entails in this article.

The destruction of Baghdad is a well known tragedy. We have discussed it’s beginnings, endings and its achievements as an economic, cultural and intellectual hub at the heart of human civilisation in our previous article. Click the link below to read.

Nalanda myth and Muslims as scapegoat

The Nalanda myth, being supported by secular and extremist historians alike in India, have led to Muslims being at the receiving end of ridicule for being “barbarians with zero appreciation for knowledge and culture”. It would have to some extent, been reasonable if the so called “Muslim invasion of Nalanda”, or as we call it, the “Nalanda myth”, was actually attributable to Muslims in the first place.

“But Bakhtiyar Khiliji destroyed the university and monasteries of Nalanda which was an even greater centre of knowledge and contained thousands of years of history. 9 million books were destroyed.” Indian outlets such as the Times of India even boast it as “a flourishing centre of knowledge, and attracted students from as far as Persia, Turkey, Greece, China and Tibet.”

In one of their articles, they mention that Nalanda was razed to ashes because there came “a marauding army of Turks under Bakthiyar Khilji”.

Nalanda and its origins

Nalanda is a place located at the heart of Bihar, southeast of Patna and north of the city of Rajgir. According to local traditions as per 7th century Chinese traveller Xuanzang, the city is named after an Indian serpent deity in folk religions. Scholars of history differ upon what the actual origin of the name is. Its beginning is traced to the early 1st millennium.

According to the Buddhist scripture Nikayasamgraha, Emperor Ashoka erected a vihara (monasteries) at Nalanda. However, archaeological excavations to date have found no monuments from the Ashoka period or the 600 years following his death. Nalanda’s recorded history seems to show signs of appearance during the Gupta period.

Nalanda however began flourishing as a monastic university under the patronage of the Buddhist Pala dynasty from the Bengal region. The Pala dynasty also had a more esoteric Buddhist philosophy compared to their prior counterparts. King Dharmapala and Devapala were maximal patrons of Nalanda, attracting scholars, traders and pilgrims from all over South East Asia.

Nalanda’s monasteries were the seat of international Buddhist culture at the time, and the Pala monarchs maintained a high standing in the Buddhist world as its protectors and patrons.

Invasion of Nalanda and all myth entailing it

Although it is widely and frequently claimed that Nalanda was sieged and totalled by Bakhtiyar Khiliji, there are pieces of evidence that indicate Nalanda’s monasteries was subject to invasion by Hindus long before Khiliji. As Nalanda was a religious and intellectual centre exclusive to Buddhists across the entirety of the East, the Hindus were heavily marginalised. Even Brahmins had to live as poor and destitute for centuries. It hence comes as surprising that the establishment in India has chosen to hardwire the Nalanda invasion myth into their education system.

On the other hand, it has been perpetuated that Muslim invaders drove away the monks and devastated the monasteries, although this is not supported by the facts. Without thoroughly reading the text, the entire story of the Muslim invasion has been weaved on the basis of Minhaj I Siraj’s “Tabaqat I Nasiri.” The following is the text:

“Bakhtiyar Khalji organised an attack upon the fortified city of Bihar and he advanced to the gateway of the fortress with two hundred horsemen in defensive armour and suddenly attacked the place. Muhammad I Bakhtiyar Khiliji, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the palace, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven, and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information regarding the import of those books; but the whole of Hindus were killed. On becoming acquainted with the contents of the books, it was found that the whole of that fortress and the city was a college called Vihara.”

Tabaqat I Nasiri

The main sources that Indians use to prove that Khiliji did invade Nalanda and destroy its monasteries cite Persian historian Minhaj I Siraj’s book titled “Tabaqat I Nasiri” who was not a primary eyewitness to Bakhtiyar Khiliji’s conquests. Bakhtiyar Khiliji died reportedly in 1206 while Minhaj was born in 1193 which would make him a 13-year-old child during Khiliji’s death. Even if we assume that Khiliji died right after the conquest and Minhaj was there to record it as a 13-year-old, it still would not make sense since Bakhtiyar Khiliji had conquered far beyond Bengal before his death and that would mean he would have gone through Bihar at least half a decade back by realistic metrics.

How was Nalanda really destroyed?

Hiuen Tsang’s accounts indicate that Buddhism was rapidly fading when he travelled to Bihar. A number of significant early monasteries had been abandoned and only some within Nalanda were barely surviving. Buddhism gradually began to decline in other areas but flourished mainly in Bengal and Bihar thanks to royal patronage from local Buddhist dynasties. However, it is clear that Buddhism had declined in popularity in Nalanda and surrounding places, was only practised in a small number of monasteries .

Where is Bakhtiyar Khiliji and his invasion of Nalanda doe? Nalanda myth fr fr.
The Sena, being hard-line Hindus, indiscriminately harmed the Nalanda monasteries and depleted funding and patronage

Buddhism started to lose all social respect under the heavy influence of Hindu Brahmin priests who were reportedly engaging in theological and philosophical debates all across India — immensely hurting the credibility of Buddhism. Hindus were also quick to reinstate casteism after gaining control over territories as can be seen under the Sena rule of Bengal after their overthrowing of the Pala dynasty, leading to the complete uprooting of the final remaining Buddhist power in the subcontinent.

There are numerous other Buddhist accounts that are complementary to the view of Hiuen Tsang. There is also immense confusion of evidence with many scholars estimating the destruction of Nalanda being long before Khiliji even existed. One such notable personality is the Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar. Many even suggest that Nalanda was still alive and hosting students from across the globe even after Khiliji’s death.

Buddha Prakash, the author of the book “Aspects of Indian History and Civilization,” declared unequivocally that “Hindus were solely (exclusively) responsible for Nalanda’s destruction,”. To further add to this, eminent Hindu scholar and author Bhupendranath Datta acknowledges that Brahmins were responsible for the Nalanda raid. He asserts that the libraries in Nalanda were destroyed more than thrice as a result of invasion before Khiliji in his book “History of Bengal.”

Conclusion

The claim that Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khiliji’s invasion of Nalanda was responsible for the destruction is a very farfetched claim to make formed upon a misreading of primary texts as well as huge neglect of evidence to the contrary by other historians. The claim is inconsistent with writings of Buddhist, Muslim, English and even Hindu historians including contemporary sources — many claiming that the date of destruction was much earlier before Khiliji was even born while others estimating that it was destroyed long after Khiliji’s death, even claiming that it was still alive and functioning well after his death.

Sources that allege Hindu invasion of having led to the downfall and destruction of Nalanda far outweigh claims against Bakhtiyar Khiliji especially provided that Hindus have a long history in the region of being polarised against the Buddhists due to their exclusivism and bitter rivalry. Nalanda was heavily reliant on the patronage of local rulers and kingdoms for their functioning and facilitation of pilgrimage especially that of the Pala dynasty hence it all begins making sense.

The bitter irony of this discussion is that when we Muslims try to mourn the loss of knowledge in Baghdad and Cordoba, Hindus rush to portray us as hypocrites pinning the “destruction of Nalanda” on Muslims. A higher level of irony is that they are accusing us of destroying and devaluing knowledge while their rivalry with Buddhism is very well known both within and outside of India. The third level of irony is also Hindus trying to claim Nalanda as an achievement of the Hindu civilisation.


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