A Portrait of Desolation: Bihar and Bengal in the Aftermath of the Barbarian Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Jihad

The first part of a series narrating the savage destruction of southern Bihar and Bengal by Bakhtiyar Khalji, responsible for wrecking the Nalanda University and annihilating Buddha Dharma from Bharatavarsha.
A Portrait of Desolation: Bihar and Bengal in the Aftermath of the Barbarian Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Jihad

IN 1193-5, A TEENAGER FROM THE SCORCHING PIT named Garamsir in Afghanistan travelled to Ghazni and stood in the Audience Hall of Sultan Mu’izz-ud-Din, Muhammad-i-Sam offering to enlist as a soldier. His name was Bakhtiyar and hailed from the low-born Khalji tribe. He was hungry for plunder and ambitious to found an independent empire for himself.

Sultan Mu’izz-ud-Din, known popularly as Muhammad Ghori hated Bakhtiyar Khalji the moment he saw him. He was short, ugly and had grotesquely long arms touching his shins. His countenance was ill-favoured, meaning, he would bring bad luck. Even worse, Bakhtiyar had no money to buy for himself a horse and a suit of armour, which were prerequisites for military enlistment. Still, Muhammad offered him a small stipend, which the haughty Bakhtiyar rejected and left the place.

Eventually, Bakhtiyar Khalji journeyed to infidel Hindustan to try his luck at the court of Qutub-ud-din Aibak and met with the same rejection there. But he persisted and was eventually rewarded by a Muslim governor named Husamuddin. Bakhtiyar got a Jagir in the vicinity of the modern-day Mirzapur district. This meant that he now commanded a band of likeminded Muslim predatory mercenaries, horses, weaponry and armour.

After notching up some early successes, Bakhtiyar eventually concentrated his attention on south Bihar, now a sitting duck. Over the course of an year, he began ravaging the surroundings of Munger and pushed further westwards till he arrived at a magnificent fort in 1197.

In Muslim chronicles, this was known as Hisar-i-Bihar, the fortress of Bihar, but reverentially familiar to the Hindu civilisational consciousness as Nalanda.

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A Portrait of Desolation: Bihar and Bengal in the Aftermath of the Barbarian Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Jihad

AMONG THE SEVERAL MEANINGS of the word Nalanda, the one which truly epitomises it is its Sanskrit root-derivation, na alam dadaati: ”that which does not give less.” The famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen-Tsang) gives the meaning of Nalanda as “no end in gifts” and “charity without intermission.” As the world’s premier knowledge-solar system that radiated learning and the finest traditions of scholarship, this meaning as its derivation suggests, was ever-expansive: when has knowledge or the thirst for it ever been less?

One of the most ancient centres of human civilisation, Nalanda has a continuously recorded history dating back to 1200 BCE. Every Darshana and Sampradaya that sprang on the soil of Bharatavarsha has left its mark here. Every big and small Hindu and Buddhist king has offered it obeisance in the form of protection, patronage, wealth, and endowments. Because of its earliest and intimate association with the Bauddha-Dharma from the time of Gautama, Nalanda historically, and even today, continues to be renowned globally as a Buddhist hub. Indeed, it was not a coincidence that when the project to revive this ancient Nalanda university was mooted in 2006 by the then Indian President Abdul Kalam, it met with enthusiastic response and generous funding from countries as diverse as South Korea, China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. The story of the sheer criminal manner in which the revial was botched by Amartya Sen is too well known to repeat here.

After the lull and chaos that followed the disappearance of the Gupta patronage and protection, Nalanda regained its pre-eminence in the ninth century under the Pala dynasty, one of the most underrated and understudied Hindu empires of Bharatavarsha. For the next four hundred years, the Palas—in a way—put Nalanda at the centre of their abundant Dharma-building activity and established an extraordinary network of educational centres: the pearl-necklace comprising the universities of Odantapura, Jaggadala, Vikaramashila, and Somapura. Combined, the five great hubs was the heart of Bauddha-Dharma in pre-medieval Bharatavarsha. Every aspiring Buddhist scholar throughout south east Asia had to prove his mettle by first subjecting himself to rigorous education in one or more of these centres before his own country recognized him.

For a vividly detailed panorama of this profound and extensive atmosphere of high scholarship, and the culture of learning of this period, see Dr. S.L.Bhyrappa’s Kannada novel, Saartha (translated in English as The Caravan).

BUT IN BAKHTIYAR KHALJI’S EYES, NALANDA was only a Kaffir fort, which like others earlier, offered yet another tantalising opportunity for plunder, another virgin field to plant the victorious flag of Islam in Hindustan.

From afar, Bakhtiyar surveyed Hisar-i-Bihar with a troop strength of two hundred holy warriors of Islam. He ordered his two Janbaaz warriors, Nizam-ud-din and Samsam-ud-din to storm the gateway of the fortress. At his command, this brother-duo launched the assault, but Bakhtiyar, according to a medieval Muslim chronicler did this: “true to his intrepidity, Bakhtiyar threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place.”

This is what happened next:

The greater number of the 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 respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted with the contents of those books, it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindu tongue, they call a college, Bihar.

Bihar is a corruption of the word, Vihara or college or monastery. The contemporary state of Bihar takes its name from this word.

What astonished Bakhtiyar and his bloodthirsty Islamic holy warriors was that none of these shaven-headed Brahmanas even as much as put up a fight. Not that they cared to know who they were. In reality, they were not Brahmanas but Buddhist monks who, as usual, were immersed in studies and meditation. Much to the delight of these holy warriors of Islam. And then, the same sickening template was let loose: a blood-soaked genocide of these poor Buddhist monks in record time. After the massacre, Bakhtiyar and his holy hordes discovered fabulous wealth in the “fort,” plus an even more fabulous wealth of books. After making some inquiries, Bakhtiyar learned that these books were filled with the kaffir knowledge of darkness. And so, he promptly burned down this knowledge-treasury of the eons. The physical structure of the Nalanda University itself became fire-fodder for three or six months.

Na Alam Dadati. Nalanda, ”that which does not give less,” now completely stopped giving.

THE FANATICAL RAZING OF NALANDA is perhaps the cruellest example of the lived historical experience of K.M. Munshi’s memorable phrase that the Islamic conquest of India was the conquest of culture by those who lacked it. Sita Ram Goel echoed Munshi in a tangential fashion when he characterised the substance of the Islamic invasions of India in these words: “It was neither the first nor the last time that a [peaceful] society succumbed in the face of determined gangsterism.”

Following this great success in the service of Islam, Bakhtiyar now demolished the remaining pearls of Buddhist learning in the region: Odantapura and Vikramashila.

Today, Odantapura languishes as an unrecognisable structure on a mound, a few miles away from Bihar-Sharif, a savage irony of victorious nomenclature. In every place that Bakhtiyar raided, the destruction was utter, total and irreversible. B.R. Ambedkar narrates this ghastly tragedy with intense feeling:

The Musalman invaders sacked the Buddhist Universities of Nalanda, Vikramasila, Jagaddala, Odantapuri to name only a few. They raised to the ground Buddhist monasteries with which the country was studded. The Monks fled away in thousands to Napal, Tibet and other places outside India. A very large number were killed outright by the Muslim commanders. How the Buddhist priesthood perished by the sword of the Muslim invaders has been recorded by the Muslim historians themselves…Such was the slaughter of the Buddhist priesthood perpetrated by the Islamic invaders. The axe was struck at the very root…by killing the Buddhist priesthood Islam killed Buddhism. This was the greatest disaster that befell the religion of Buddha in India…Nobody remained to keep the flame of Buddhism burning.

But the shame-imbued tragedy of our own time is the decades-long, sustained propaganda specifically aimed at concealing and denying Bakhtiyar Khalji’s recorded destruction of not just Nalanda but Bauddha-Dharma itself. In the land of its birth.

However, the destruction was not restricted merely to some universities. Large chunks of two vast states—Bengal and Bihar—became Islamic wastelands overnight where only banditry, plunder, rapacity and lawlessness ruled. Peace evaporated. The accumulated prosperity of generations fell into the hands of primal savages who used it for drink, debauchery and depravity. Social stability, the hallmark of Hindu civilisation, was replaced by a continuous struggle for survival.

Barring few scholars and writers, this gut-wrenching panorama of southern Bihar and Bengal painted by the fire and sword of Bakhtiyar Khalji has largely been glossed over.

It will be revealed in the next episode of this series.

To be continued

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