Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Nalanda University Library in India
India Literary History
It is believed that the ancient Harappan civilization of India living in the Indus valley region was literate, using a logo-alphabetic script. They lived from 2,300 to 1,750 B.C. until the Aryans invaded Northern India, supplanting their Indo-European language. This new literary tradition was oral in nature and did not require a system of written symbols to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. As a result, written texts did not flourish in India until later than other parts of the world. (Lerner, 1998; see also Murray, 2009, p.46). Two religions emerged in India, however, that would require the transmission of sacred texts through written word: Jainism and Buddhism. Monasteries were established throughout India which created large amounts of hand-made manuscripts (Misra, 1965).
In 400 A.D. a Buddhist monastery established Nalanda University near Patna in northern India (Bhatt, 1995) reportedly by Silabhadra from a grant given to him by the Gupta King Sakraditya (Dutt, 2008, pp. 291, 329). Around 675 A.D., the ancient traveler and diarist from China, Hiuen-Tsang, estimated that the university had about 5,000 students and 3,000 monks (Datta, 1979, p.27). Other estimates place the number of monks residing at Nalanda near 10,000 (Lerner, 1998, p. 64).
Nalanda was a residential university, attracting pilgrims from all over the East including Tibet, Japan, and Korea (Taher & Davis, 1994, p.31). It is considered the oldest residential university in the world. It had strict admission standards, allowing in only 20-30% of all applicants (Taher & Davis, 1994, p. 23).
The library at Nalanda University was an immense complex. Called the Dharmaganja, or Piety Mart, it was separated into three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Ratnadadhi, meaning the Ocean of Gems, was nine stories high and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya (Datta, 1970, p. 27; Lerner, 1998, p. 64). The towers were supposedly immense, bejeweled and gilded in order to reflect the rays of the sun (Dutt, 2008, pp. 340-341).
According to the Bhaskara Samhita, an ancient text on organizational practices, the library was to be built in a “finely built stone building” and each manuscript would have been placed on iron shelves or stack and covered with cloth and tied up. Furthermore, the librarian in charge, according to the text, was not only responsible for maintaining the materials but also for guiding readers in their studies (Patel & Kumar, 2001, p.4).
The exact number of volumes of the Nulanda University Library is not known but it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands (Khurshid, 1972, p.21). The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine (Bhatt, 1995, p. 22).
Accounts of the process and materials used for making books in India vary slightly but a majority of them were written on palm leaves. The leaves were boiled first then laid in the sun to dry. Scribes used reed pens and ink made from lampblack or charcoal. In Nalanda, there was a large inkpot for the numerous scribes to copy books from dictation. The pages were fastened by string through a whole in the middle of each leaf and covered with wood boards which were often painted with bright colors. Finally they were wrapped in cloth (Lerner, 1998, p.64; see also Lyons, 2011).
It is clear that Nalanda University library had a classification scheme (Datta, 1979) which was possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the great Sanskrit linguist Panini (Patel & Kumar, 2001, p.4). Buddhists texts were most likely divided in three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra, and the Abhidamma (Taher & Davis, 1994, p.37). Like most other Indian ancient and medieval period libraries, Nalanda would have used a basic catalog to help patrons find materials. This bibliography, or Anukamanikas, would have listed the books by hymns, authors, form of sutras, Rishi’s name, and the hymnal metre (Taher & Davis, 1994, p.37).
Gupta Empire and Revenue
Nalanda University reached its height during the reign of the Gupta Empire which financed its operation as well as grants from the kings of Java and Sumatra. The neighboring province of Bengal granted five villages to the university for its maintenance in exchange for copying of its manuscripts (Datta, 1970, p. 28).
The library was destroyed in 1197-1203 during the Muslim invasion in which Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked it and set it to flames (Bhatt, 1995, p. 22). According to Tibetan legend, the university and library were reportedly repaired shortly after by Muditabhadra, a Buddhist sage. Unfortunately, the library was again burned by Tirthaka medicants (Datta, 1970, p. 28).
Bhatt, R.K. (1995). History and Development of libraries in India. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Datta, B. K. (1970). Libraries & librarianship of ancient and medieval India. Delhi: Atma Ram.
Dutt, S. (2008). Buddhist monks and monasteries of India: Their history and their contribution to Indian culture. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Khurshid, A. (1972). Growth of libraries in India. International Library Review. 4:21-65.
Lyons, M. (2011). Books: A living history. London: Thames and Hudson.
Misra, S. (1955). The development of libraries in India. In N.B. Sen (ed.)The development of libraries in new India (pp 37-43). New Delhi: New Book Society of India.
Murray, S.A.P.(2009). The Library: An illustrated history. New York: Sky Horse Publishing.
Patel, J., & Krishan, K. (2001). Libraries and librarianship in India. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Taher, M. & Davis, D.G. (1994). Librarianship and library science in India. New Delhi: Ashok Kumar Mittal.