Tuesday, March 21, 2006

University Challenge

In India the state of Bihar is generally regarded as being the country's basket case. Any problem, you name it Bihar's got it: a Maoist insurgency, tribal rebels, dacoity (banditry to you and me), crippling poverty and economic and political mismanagement and corruption (a bizarre example of the latter occurred a few years back when the chief minister was arrested for his alleged role in a corruption scandal and was subsequently replaced by his illiterate wife!). The air is dirtier, the traffic more vicious, the noise more grating and the power cuts more frequent (a dozen or so today), than anywhere else in India. The majority of the population are poor, uneducated farmers, who are preyed upon by politicians and big businesses.

Things, however, were not always so. The fertile Gangetic Plain, which traverses the state, once made it a prosperous and thriving area. The city of Patna was the capital of India's first great empire. The region is also particularly holy as it was home to Gautama Siddhartha and Mahavira, founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively. Therefore the place is awash with holy sites, especially those related to Bud's life and teachings. Perhaps the most notable of these is Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and spent seven weeks sitting around and philosophising. The tree is there, though it is but a grandchild of the original, and is the focus of prayers and pilgrimages of Buddhists from around the world. The small town of Bodhgaya itself is like a little tour du monde of Buddhist architecture, as every country with a major Buddhist population has its own temple there. There's a Thai wat, a Tibetan gompa, as well as Japanese, Bhutanese, Sri Lankan and Chinese temples. It's good if you're on a very tight budget and can't afford to see the countries first hand, but the old adage that "they don't make 'em like they used to" is very much true here. All the temples seem slightly fake and out of place. The spiritual ambiance is also dented somewhat by the hordes of pushy touts and beggars, most of whom should have been at primary school, preying on the generosity of visiting Buddhists.

But it's not just religious sites that make up Bihar's rich past. I'm certainly not the first, nor the most daring or most original traveller (but perhaps the most cynical?); many have preceded me and many more will follow. For us Europeans Marco Polo was the trailblazer, but he was preceded by two Chinese, Buddhist monks, Fa Hsien and Xuan Zang, some 800 and 500 years before him. These two pioneers crossed thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain, encountered endless difficulties (Xuan Zang's adventures became very popular in China and Japan as the story "Journey to the West" and gained a wider audience, myself included, in the 80's as the Japanese TV series Monkey), and left behin their homes and friends to visit Nalanda. Whilst we Europeans were groping our way through the Dark Ages Nalanda was the world's first university, accepting students from all over the Buddhist world (a hefty chunk of Asia at that time). As well as your basic theology there were also courses in mathematics, astronomy, logic, the sciences and medicine. At its peak it had 10,000 students and the best university entrance examination ever: prospective students had to make their way to the campus and if they could out-argue the gatekeeper then they were allowed in. Genius! OK, there's not much to see any more, just your standard series of low walls (these were the students' cells, this was the refectory, these were the study rooms...) and the remains of some seriously large stupas. But there's an air of serenity about the place; and sometimes it's not what you can see, but rather it's what a place represents. I try to imagine what uni life must have been like back then. I guess there was probably less slacking, smoking of pot or watching of daytime TV than when I was at uni. That's progress I suppose.

P.S. Today is No Ruz, the Persian new year, so to all of you to whom I didn't manage to send a personal e-mail "Eid-e shoma mobarak!" (Happy New Year!)

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