“Learned men from different cities who desire to quickly acquire renown in discussion, come here in multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams (of their wisdom) spread far and wide,” Chinese Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang said, on his visit to Nalanda University in the 7th century CE. This centre of learning then attracted students from as far away as Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. And not everyone who sought it was granted admission.
Travel about 85 km southeast from Patna in Bihar and you’ll come across broken and ruined brick structures spread over 12 hectares. But rewind a thousand years, and exactly here stood the world’s most preeminent educational institute, a campus of multiple colleges, libraries, residential quarters and places of worship. Nalanda was situated just off a major trade route that passed through the neighbouring city of Rajgir, the first capital of the Magadha Empire. Rajgir was just 35 km south of Nalanda. Buddha and Mahavira both spent quite some time in Rajgir, delivering lectures. So it is quite possible that they both spent time in the Nalanda area.
Hiuen Tsang notes in his travelogue that the ground on which Nalanda stood was originally a mango orchard. In the 6th century BCE, 500 merchants jointly bought this land for ten koti of gold coins and gifted it to the Buddha, who preached the laws of Buddhism here, for the next three months. This original endowment was followed by a continuous flow of other endowments through centuries, by successive sovereigns.
Taranatha, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar of the 17th century, says that in the 3rd century BCE, Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE) built a stupa here to hold the remains of Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, who was also born in Nalanda. This ensured Nalanda’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.
However, it is more difficult to determine when Nalanda became a cloister and a college with several halls of learning. And there is debate over whether it can truly be called a university, or might more accurately be described as a monastic complex. Whatever the answer, it was one of the world’s first attempts at the organised transmission of knowledge, an attempt that sustained itself over an uninterrupted 700 years, leaving behind ruins that visitors continue to marvel at today.
Evidence found at Nalanda suggests that the university has a history dating back only as far as the Gupta Empire of the 5th century CE. This is based on the fact that the oldest seal recovered during excavations here bears the inscription Kumaramatyadhikarana in Gupta script from the 5th century.
But historians like K A Nilakanta Sastri suggest the 3rd or 4th century CE marked the beginnings of the intellectual growth that would make Nalanda the great centre of learning that it later became. Amalananda Ghosh, former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), provides some archaeological evidence for Nalanda’s dating. He says the main stupa at Nalanda shows signs of being remodelled no less than six times after its original foundation, and the fourth remodelling has beautiful stucco figures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas on them. There are also inscriptions of Buddhist texts on bricks in the core of votive stupas, which point to some time in the 6th century CE. Considering the huge accumulations upon which the fifth version sits, Ghosh infers that the foundation of the original stupa must have been laid about two centuries earlier.
Hiuen Tsang attributes the foundation of the Nalanda institution to one Sakraditya. Historian Father H Heras identifies Sakraditya as Gupta Emperor Kumaragupta I (r.c. 415-455 CE). Kumaragupta I’s successors later extended and expanded the institution, building additional monasteries and temples. After the decline of the Guptas in the 6th century, the most notable patron of the mahavihara or mega-monastery was Harsha, the 7th-century CE Emperor of Kannauj.
Harsha remitted the revenues of about 100 villages as an endowment to the institute and 200 householders in these villages contributed the required amount of rice, butter and milk on a daily basis. About 1,000 monks from Nalanda were present at Harsha’s royal congregation at Kannauj. It was in his court that Hiuen Tsang was a guest before becoming a student at Nalanda.
Hiuen Tsang studied here under the guidance of Shilabhadra (529-645 CE), the venerable head of the institution at the time. The Chinese scholar mentions that there were 1,510 teachers and 10,000 monks then. Frederick Asher, a specialist in South Asian art and author of Nalanda: Situating The Great Monastery (2015), believes these numbers were exaggerated. He writes that “it is important to remember that Hiuen Tsang wrote his travelogue after his return to Xian and that he had a target audience”. Such a large number of monks would require a huge amount of space and resources, and the excavated remains do not suggest that kind of scale.
Indologist A L Basham too believed the numbers in Hiuen Tsang’s writings weren’t consistent with modern finds at Nalanda. He felt the number of monks could have just about exceeded 1,000. Archaeologist H D Sankalia put that number at about 4,000.
Regardless of the numbers, the institute had begun to attract the kind of faculty that would go down in history. Among them were Dinnaga, the 6th-century founder of the medieval school of logic; Dharmakirti, the 7th-century primary theorist of Buddhist atomism; and Padmasambhava, the 8th-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism.
Traditional Tibetan sources, including the writings of Taranatha, mention the existence of a great library at Nalanda named Dharma Ganj (Piety Mart), which comprised three large multi-storey buildings – the Ratnasagara (Ocean of Jewels), the Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels) and the Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-Adorned). These buildings must have been home to hundreds of manuscripts and books on topics ranging from the Vedas and religion to grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, medicine, law, city-planning, theosophy and philosophy.
All students at Nalanda were expected to be well-versed in the tenets of the Mahayana and Hinayana sects of Buddhism. Their curricula also included regular debate and discussion. But again, there is no evidence of what was taught besides the accounts of travellers. Asher writes that on the seals found here, the entire complex was referred to as the Nalanda Mahavihara (mega-monastery), not Nalanda Vidyalaya (university). And so he believes that Nalanda was focused on religious texts and their interpretations rather than on subjects of a broader liberal education.
I-tsing was another Chinese Buddhist monk at Nalanda, who followed in the footsteps of Hiuen Tsang. He arrived in India in 673 CE and is believed to have spent 10 years at the university. Most of what we know about Nalanda today is from the travel accounts of Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing. The latter described that the minimum age for admission to Nalanda University was twenty years. He states that there were eight halls with as many as 300 apartments on campus. He wrote that daily life at Nalanda included a series of rites practiced by all. Each morning, a bell was rung, signalling the bathing hour, which led to hundreds or thousands of monks proceeding from their viharas (monasteries) towards a number of great pools in and around the campus. The next gong signalled that it was time for the ritual ablution of the statue of the Buddha. The chaityavandana conducted in the evenings included a ‘three-part service’ and the chanting of a prescribed set of hymns from scriptures. This ritual was completed by twilight.
Nalanda was administered by an assembly presided over by senior monks. It met in formal sessions to decide affairs and issues of management. The rules of the university were severe, and all priests were bound to observe them.
From the middle of the 8th century CE, Nalanda enjoyed the sustained patronage of the mighty Pala rulers of Bengal (8th to 12th century CE). They prized and cherished the educational institution, building new structures and renovating old ones. The 9th-century emperor Devapala appears to have been Nalanda’s most distinguished patron in this age. A number of metallic figures containing references to Devapala have been found among the ruins. The Palas were prolific builders, and their dynasty oversaw the establishment of four other universities modeled on Nalanda, at Jagaddala, Odantapura, Somapura and Vikramashila.
Other prominent rulers who were patrons of Nalanda included Shashanka of the Gauda kingdom (r. 590-625 CE ), Bhaskaravarman of Assam (625 CE), Bhoja I of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty (850 CE), and Govindachandra of the Gahadvala dynasty (1130 CE). There is also archaeological evidence of contact with the 8th-century Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex.
The different monasteries in Nalanda were maintained by different kingdoms, and served many interests besides the learning and sheltering of pilgrims. Merchants and ambassadors might have used them to further profitable trade relations and friendly political intercourse between kingdoms. The art and architecture at Nalanda also contributed to the development of Buddhist imagery, and a number of Mahayana and Vajrayana images are believed to have first emerged here.
It must have seemed like Nalanda would live as long a life as Buddhism, but the mahavihara would soon suffer multiple blows. The rise of Hindu philosophies and Bhakti Movement wave in the subcontinent and the waning of the Buddhist Pala dynasty in the 12th century were the first. The university also bore the brunt of political and philosophical rifts. A form of Buddhism became popular that was driven by ideas of tantrism, a belief in the efficacy of charms and spells, and secret practices and rituals.
The final blow was delivered when Nalanda’s still-flourishing monasteries were overrun by the Afghan military chief Bakhtiyar Khilji, during his invasion of Northern India at the turn of the 13th century. He ransacked and destroyed Nalanda and then went on to torch the universities at Odantarpuri and Vikramshila too. The contemporary Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his chronicle Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, written a few decades later, reported that “thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism. The burning of the library continued for several months and smoke from the burning manuscripts hung… like a dark pall over the low hills”.
Still, Nalanda, or at least parts of it, managed a resurrection. A Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin visited Nalanda in 1235 CE. He mentions that most of the buildings had been damaged and fallen into disrepair. Even then he found a 90-year-old teacher named Rahula Shribhadra was instructing a class of about 70 students. He studied under him for 6 months. But all this was just a ghost Nalanda’s glorious past.
For centuries after, Nalanda remained largely forgotten. Until Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician working for the Bengal Medical Service, surveyed the site in 1811-12 and found some Brahmanical and Buddhist imagery and reported it to the ASI. It took almost half a century more until, in the 1860s, the then ASI Director-General, Alexander Cunningham, identified the region as the one mentioned in the travelogue of Hiuen Tsang. To confirm this, the first preliminary excavations began.
It would be another 50-odd years until, in 1915, systematic excavations commenced, and eleven monasteries and six brick temples, arranged in an orderly layout, were unearthed. A 30-metre-wide passage was found, that ran from north to south of the ruins. The chaityas (prayer halls) are arranged to the west of this passage. To its east, lined up, were the remains of the viharas.
Frederick Asher said it was possible that Nalanda stretched far beyond the currently excavated limits of the complex. Landsat images have revealed water bodies, tanks or pokharas that surround the campus, providing an alternative perimeter that also indicates a rich farming belt may have been part of the mahavihara, providing sustenance to those in the monasteries. Asher suggested that the surrounding villages – Bargaon, Surajpur and Begumpur – may have been a part of the complex as well, given the large number of antiquities still to be found there.
Hundreds of sculptures in stone, bronze and stucco were retrieved from Nalanda and surrounding areas. These include images of the Buddha in different postures, as well as those of other Buddhist deities such as Marichi, Maitreya, Jambhala, Vajrapani and Avalokitesvara. Sculptures of Hindu deities such as Shiva-Parvati and Mahishasura-Mardini were also found. Besides these, copper plates, terracota artifacts, pottery, coins, seals and inscriptions were excavated, many of which are on display at the Nalanda Archaeological Museum, situated near the ruins.
In 2016, the Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara was declared a World Heritage Site. Two years before that, in 2014, the Government of India opened the gates to a revived Nalanda University in Rajgir. It has been designated an Institution of National Importance by Parliament. In keeping with its legacy of excellence and its multicultural past, the first chancellor of the university was Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen; the second was former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo.