There are times when you tour the world hunting for treasures, while the treasure lies buried in your own backyard. One of those telling moments when I felt most proud to be Indian was when I visited the historic ruins of Nalanda — one of the most powerful and prestigious universities of the ancient world.
The ruins of this majestic university lie around 95 km south east of Patna in Bihar. In fact the name ‘Bihar’ is a colloquial derivative of ‘vihara’ which refers to a Buddhist monastery. Nalanda is around 15 km from Rajgir and is usually part of the Buddhist tourism circuit.
Nalanda was a Mahavihara, or a large Buddhist monastery situated in the ancient kingdom of Magadh. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. Nalanda is one of the world famous ancient centres of learning in the Indian subcontinent, along with giants like Taxila (also called Takshashila), Pushpagiri, and Vikramshila. All these universities had highly structured formal methods of learning.
What does the name Nālandā mean?
Several theories exist about the etymology of this place. Huien Tsang says it stands for Na alam da which means “no end to gifts” or “charity without a break”. However other scholars attribute the name to the abundance of lotus stalks (nālas) in the region and believe that Nalanda means “giver of lotus-stalks”.
The Archeological Survey of India conducted excavations in Nalanda from 1915 to 1937, and again from 1974 to 1982. They unearthed extensive remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged systematically over an area of more than one square kilometre. While its excavated ruins today only occupy a small area, Nalanda Mahavihara is believed to have occupied a far greater area in medieval times. The ruins of Nalanda speak of the architectural distinctiveness of the Gupta period in India. They depict the period’s design, aesthetics and skilled craftsmanship.
Several sculptures in stone, bronze and stucco were retrieved during these excavations. These include images of the Buddha in different postures, as well as those of other Buddhist deities such as Maitreya, Vajrapani and Avalokitesvara. Sculptures of Hindu deities such as Shiva-Parvati and Mahishasura-Mardini were also found. Besides these, murals, copper plates, terracota artefacts, pottery, coins, seals and inscriptions in Pali were also excavated, many of which are displayed in the archeological museum in Nalanda.
The layout and architecture of Nalanda
A thirty metre wide passage runs from north to south of the ruins. The temples (chaityas) are arranged to the west of this passage . And to its east, you will find lined up the remains of monasteries (viharas) .
All the monasteries at Nalanda have a similar layout and appearance. A shrine chamber strategically is placed at the entrance of each monastery. This ensures that one sees the shrine as one enters the edifice. The monasteries are rectangular with a central quadrangular court. This is surrounded by a verandah which, in turn, is bounded by an outer row of cells for the monks to stay.
The most imposing structure of all is Temple no. 3 or the Temple of Sariputra. This temple was constructed in seven phases. Unlike other temples, this temple faces north. This temple is surrounded by several votive stupas and minor shrines probably added by devotees at a later stage.
History of Nalanda
The history of Nalanda dates back to the 6th century BCE, to the days of Buddha and Mahavira. It is said that Mahavira spent fourteen monsoons in Nalanda. Gautam Buddha is said to have delivered sermons in a mango grove called Pavarika. One of Buddha’s disciples, Sariputra, was born in Nalanda and later attained nirvana here. The story goes that Emperor Ashoka had built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Sariputra’s chaitya (shrine) in the 3rd century BCE. However in Fa-Hien’s chronicles, when he visits Nalo, the site of Sariputra’s nirvana, all he mentions is a stupa.
Nalanda was founded by Kumaragupta I of the Gupta dynasty. Initially the university flourished under the patronage of the kings of the Gupta dynasty — Kumaragupta and his successors, Buddhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya and Vajra. They built several monasteries, viharas and temples in Nalanda.
Later Emperor Harshavardhan of Kannauj patronized Nalanda’s development. Harsha had converted to Buddhism and a thousand Buddhist monks are said to have been present at his royal congregation. He ensured that the revenue of a hundred villages was remitted to the Mahavihara. Monks at Nalanda were supplied rice, butter and milk on a daily basis.
Much of what we know about Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese pilgrims such as Hiuen Tsang and Yijing. I have written in detail about Hiuen Tsang in another post which you can access here. These pilgrims travelled to Nalanda in the 7th century. The Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang describes Nalanda in his chronicles:
The whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle (of the Sangharama). The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapours (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.
“An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.”
Nalanda had liberal cultural traditions and a vibrant academic environment. The Rig Veda Mantra “Aa no bhadrah kratavo yantu vishwatah” means “let noble thoughts come to us from all directions”. Nalanda welcomed seekers of knowledge from all parts of the world, exhibiting its passion for propagating knowledge and learning in exchange. It attracted students from far and wide, including China, Japan, Indonesia, Tibet, Korea, Persia and Turkey.
The curriculum at Nalanda
Students were basically trained in the Buddhist philosophy of Mahayana. They also studied the texts of the Hinayana sects of Buddhism. But the curriculum was comprehensive and included study of the Vedas, theology, metaphysics, philosophy, shabdavidya (Sanskrit grammar), hetuvidya (logic), chikitsavidya (medicine), yogachar and sankhya. Sankhya is a school of Indian philosophy which has strong rationalist foundations and relies on pratkyasha (perception), anumana (inference) and shabda (testimony of reliable sources). Other subjects taught at Nalanda included law, astronomy and city-planning.
The methods of teaching and learning
Nalanda had dormitories for students, housing 10,000 students in the school’s heyday and providing accommodation for 2,000 professors. Hiuen Tsang records that there were around 1510 teachers at Nalanda in the 7th century.
The teacher: student ratio was 1:5. Given that there were so many teachers, students studied using the tutorial method. Each student had individual attention. They had separate cubicles where they could engage in self-study. These were well-ventilated rooms. There were arrangements for community kitchens in each dormitory. The university also allowed women to study and provided them separate accommodation.
Students at Nalanda were expected to be well versed in logic. Debates and discussions were the routine method of imparting knowledge. The deepest ideas about Buddhist philosophy were dissected at Nalanda. The intellectual rigour was unmatched.
The story of student selection is interesting as well. The gates to the university were manned by learned dwara pandits (guardians of the gates) who selected students based on their merit and aptitude. Students seeking entry into the university had to answer tough questions. Only if the teacher was satisfied with the student’s ability, was he given entry to this centre of learning. Proficiency in Sanskrit was mandatory. Only two in ten foreign applicants got admission. Hiuen Tsang was initially rejected by Shilabhadra, the chancellor of Nalanda, when he sought entry.
The library at Nalanda
Both Hiuen Tsang and Yijing carried back large numbers of texts with them from Nalanda. A great library called Dharmaganja existed at Nalanda. This comprised three large multi-storeyed buildings, the Ratnasagara (Ocean of Jewels), the Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels), and the Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-adorned). Ratnodadhi was nine storeys high and housed thousands of valuable manuscripts. The library not only collected religious manuscripts, but also had texts on grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy and medicine.
Administration at Nalanda
Several luminaries such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Shilabhadra, Suvishnu, Dharmapala, Asanga and Dharmakirti have been associated with Nalanda in different capacities. All matters of discussion and administration at Nalanda would require assembly and consensus on decisions. As described by Yijing:
If the monks had some business, they would assemble to discuss the matter. Then they ordered the officer, Vihārapāla, to circulate and report the matter to the resident monks one by one with folded hands. With the objection of a single monk, it would not pass. There was no use of beating or thumping to announce his case. In case a monk did something without consent of all the residents, he would be forced to leave the monastery. If there was a difference of opinion on a certain issue, they would give reason to convince the other group. No force or coercion was used to convince.
When and how did Nalanda decline?
The decay of Nalanda coincides with the decline of Buddhism from India during the Pala period. Though the Palas were a Buddhist dynasty, a tantrik inspired version of Mahayana raised its head during their reign. Eventually Nalanda was abandoned in the 13th century. The final blow came when Bakhtiyar Khilji of the Mamluk dynasty ransacked Nalanda in 1200 CE.
After Nalanda ceased to exist, the great universities of the western world came into being, marking the shift in knowledge production and dissemination from the East to the West. Only Al Azhar in Cairo (972 CE), Bologna in Italy (1088 CE) and Oxford in the United Kingdom (1167 CE) had been founded before the destruction of Nalanda. As Amartya Sen said: “By the time the first European university was established in Bologna in 1088, Nalanda had been providing higher education to thousands of students from Asian countries for more than six hundred years. “
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashri Bhadra of Kashmir fled to Tibet in 1204. The fleeing monks took some of the surviving books with them. Tibetan Buddhist tradition is regarded to be a continuation of the Nalanda tradition. The Dalai Lama has said that the source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda.
Nalanda was largely forgotten until Francis Buchanan-Hamilton surveyed the site in 1811–1812. He, however, did not associate the mounds of earth with Nalanda. That link was established by Major Markham Kittoe in 1847. Alexander Cunningham and the newly formed Archaeological Survey of India conducted an official survey in 1861–1862.
The entire credit of feeling awe and admiration for my heritage goes to Kamla Singh, who was our guide for the day. I have never encountered a guide more knowledgeable, gentle, patient and humble as him. I was to later discover that he was a PhD and he had taken to guiding tourists post-retirement, simply because he was so in love with the history of the place. Dr Kamla Singh is the one reason that our trip to Nalanda was so worthwhile. He brought the ruins to life. I could even imagine being a student at Nalanda. Thankfully, there are people like him who still preserve our history.
The red brick ruins of Nalanda might today just be a pale shadow of their resplendent past, but they speak volumes of a glorious heritage, which should not be forgotten.