August 10, 2020
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Above Nalanda

It is a pity that a book careful on detail has made debatable assumptions

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Above Nalanda
Nothing Is Blue
By Biman Nath
HarperCollins Pages: 300; Rs. 295
The paucity of historical fiction is one reason why sections of Indian history, particularly from the 8th to the 12th century, is ‘boring’ for students. There are grey areas in our sense of the past: developments in astronomy and mathematics, later Buddhism, historical geography. This book is by an astrophysicist who is puzzled about the mismatch between the dates of seasons and festivals, when the latter is supposed to map on to the former. Set in the seventh century, the story is of two monks—Ananda from Gaur and Xuanzang from China, whose paths cross at Nalanda. It is also the story of an astronomical puzzle, of the parallel growth of Tantric Buddhism, and of journeys to Ujjayini, Gaur and Kamrupa.

Biman Nath joins Allan Sealy, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Nagarkar and Amitav Ghosh in a growing list of readings for history students. It is a pity that a book careful on detail has made debatable assumptions: Xuanzang narrates a nightmare where he foresees the death of Harsha, followed by "a catastrophe [that] will destroy this holy land". It is assumed that Muslim rulers’ armies destroyed Nalanda—the note on Xuanzang says "The first Islamic invasion [sic] on Indian soil took place in 644 AD near Thane in Maharashtra", and suggests Xuanzang would have heard of it. Even if it were proved that Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed the university, it was five centuries after Xuanzang, during which time Buddhism had lost its pre-eminence in India.

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