Nalanda was an ancient Mahavihara, a revered Buddhist monastery that also served as a renowned centre of learning, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. It was one of the greatest centres of learning in the world.
If we move about 80 km towards southeast from the capital city Patna, Bihar; you will find an almost ruined or destroyed bricks structure spread over 12 hectares. When we go back in the history, here stood the world’s most prominent educational institution which comprised of a huge campus area including multiple colleges, libraries, residential quarters and hostels for students, places of worship and meditation and statues of Buddha. If we see the geographical location of Nalanda, It is situated in the prestigious and the most powerful Mahajanapada i.e. Magadha and surrounded by the some important cities like Rajgir and Vaishali, present day near Bihar Sharif town.
There are several theories given by different historians about the past of Nalanda University. Some of the historians have one view whereas the others have a different view about its existence. However, it is difficult to determine when the Nalanda became a full fledged center of learning with a numerous halls. This is a topic of debate amongst the scholars that whether the Nalanda be called a university or mere a monastic complex. No matter what the result of the debate will be, Nalanda was the first attempt at organized transmission of knowledge, an attempt that sustained itself over an uninterrupted 700 years, leaving behind the ruins that tourists and scholars continue to be amazed by it even today.
The renowned Buddhist and Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang in his travelogue, ‘Hsi-Yu-Ki’ mentions that the ground on which today Nalanda stands was originally a mango orchid. In the 6th century BCE, around 500 merchants came together and jointly bought this land for ten koti of gold coins and gifted to the Buddha, who preached the laws of Buddhism here, for the next three months. This idea of Buddhist endowment was followed by a continuous flow of other other endowments through centuries, by other Buddhist monks and preachers.
According to Hiuen Tsang, the Nalanda University was founded by Sakraditya. While Henry Heras identifies Sakraditya as Gupta emperor Kumargupta I (415-455 CE). Later the Kumargupta I’s successors extended the patronage of institution, expanded it and also built many monasteries and temples. After the decline of the Gupta emperor in 6th century CE, Harsha, one of the most prominent ruler of kannauj in 7th century CE provided the patronage to the ‘Mahavihara’ or the Mega-monastery of Nalanda. Harsha remitted the revenue of 100 villages as an endowment for the institute of Nalanda. Harsha also provides the patronage to the monks of Nalanda. There are about 1,000 of monks were part of Harsha’s court at kannauj. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang visited Nalanda at the reign of Harsha only and he was also a guest at Harsha’s court. Hiuen Tsang studied in Nalanda as a student under the guidance of Shilabhadra (529-645 CE), the head of the institution at the time. He later mentions that there were more than 1,510 teachers and10,000 monks then. Further he described, ”learned man from different cities who desired to quickly acquire renown in discussion, come here in multitudes to settle down their doubts and then the streams spread far and wide.”
According to the Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Taranath, In 3rd century BC, emperor Ashoka built a stupa here to hold the relics of Sariputta, one of the chief disciples of Buddha, who was also born in Nalanda.
As per the historian K. A. Nilkanta Sastri, 3rd and 4th century CE can be seen as the zenith of the intellectual growth and due to this reason Nalanda became a great center for learning at that time.
According to director-general of ASI, Amalanand ghosh, the main stupa at Nalanda has been destructed and rebuilt many times (almost 6 times) from its origin. Also the fourth remodelling has beautiful carved figures of Buddha and bodhisattvas on them. There were Buddhist inscription on stupa which suggest the dating of 6th century. While the ghosh infers that the foundation of the original stupa must have been laid about two centuries earlier.
Though the university is founded by the Gupta emperor Kumargupta I, the rulers of Gupta Empire provided a great support or the patronage to the monks of Nalanda. Not only the Kumargupta I, but also his successors extended the support and also built some buildings and worship place for the institute.
After the decline of gupta emperor in the 6th and 7th century, Harsha, the great ruler of kannauj provided the patronage to the Nalanda University. He transferred the revenue of almost 100 villages for well functioning of institute. Also he patronages 1,000 of Buddhist monk in his congregation. He has made some renowned donations and built many institute buildings, worship places and statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas. He has also donated for the books, foods and other necessities required for the students, monks and teachers who lived there.
In the mid 8th century CE, Pala rulers of Bengal gave their great support to the institute of Nalanda. They have built many new building complex in the campus of university and also renovated the old ones. Among these Pala rulers, the most prominent ruler of 9th century, Devapala appears to have been the great patron of Nalanda. There were many metallic figurines found among the ruins of Nalanda university which have the references of the Devapala. No doubt that the Pala rulers were the very profound builders and also have some inclination towards art, architecture and education. They have also built four more educational institutes like Nalanda at Odantapura, Vikramshila, Somapura and Jagaddala.
Some of the prominent rulers who also provide the patronage to the Nalanda University. These rulers include Shashanka of the Gauda kingdom (590-625 CE), Bhaskarvarman of Assam (625 CE), Bhoja I of the Gurjara- Pratihar dynasty (850 CE) and Govindachandra of the Gahadvala dynasty.
Adminstration and Functioning of the institute
Nalanda was administered by a council presided by the senior monks of the institute. A formal meeting held with these council and senior monks to decide the issue or take any decision regarding the functioning and the welfare of institute. The rules and regulations of the institute were very strict and rigid that everyone supposed to follow it very sincerely.
According to the Chinese Buddhist monk, I-Tsing, the minimum age for the admission in Nalanda University was 20 years. He described there were 8 large halls with as many as 300 compartments in the campus. He described his daily life routine in Nalanda university as every morning a bell was rung which signalized the bathing time and then thousands of monks came out from their ‘vihara’ (monasteries) for taking bath in the great bath pools in and around the campus. Another bell signalized that it was the time for the worship or performing rituals on the statue of Buddha. And then in the evening there was a ritual named ‘chaityavandana’ which included a ‘three-part service’ and the chanting of the prescribed hymns of Buddha.
Art and Architecture
The art and architecture at Nalanda was also inspired by the Buddhist imagery and many of the Mahayana and Vajrayana images were seen there for the first time. Many of the stupas which have the Buddhist inscription and pictures of Buddha and bodhisattvas were carved on its wall. The architecture of the Nalanda was well maintained as they were made of baked red bricks, their gateways are broad enough and also there were ‘vatikas’ (parks) for meditation.
A lot of stone and bronze statues were found across the Nalanda and surrounding areas. These include statues of Buddha in different postures and the different forms of deities associated with Buddha such as Marichi, Maitreya ,Jambhala, Vajrapani and Avlokiteswara. Sculptures of some Hindu deities were also found there such as Shiv- parvati and Mahisasuramardini. Beside it there were many copper plate inscription, terracotta artifacts, coins, seals and pottery were also found.
Nalanda was Asia’s biggest and most prestigious university that had students from countries like Japan, China, Korea, Turkey, Tibet, Mongol, Persia, etc. The university used to teach various subjects like Mathematics, Science, Ayurveda, Architecture, Medicine, Religion (especially Buddhism), Vedas, Philosophy, Warfare, History, Literature and many others. Nalanda University provided high-quality education. After completion of the education, the students used to get appointed in the courts of kings, many were even invited by countries like Japan, Korea for translation, consultation work. The libraries of the complex deserve a special mention because Nalanda had the best and biggest libraries. The complex was huge with 4 libraries namely Dharmaganja or Dharmgunj, Ratnasagar, Ratnodadhi, and Ratnajaka. One of these libraries was a 9 storey. The library of the complex had over 90 lakh books. It was a cosmopolitan university. The best part of those who used to study here did not have to pay any fee. The university was funded by the kings and other people. The university ran on funds received from the patronage of kings and people who made donations for it.
Destruction of the Nalanda started when the Hindu philosophies and the bhakti movement begins in the subcontinent. This wave of the philosophy and bhakti movement led to the decline of the Buddhist rulers and the practice of Buddhism in 12th century for the first time. The university also couldn’t keep away them from these political and philosophical rifts. Then a form of Buddhism became popular at that time which practices the tantric activities, a belief in the efficacy of charms and perform secret rituals. This also led to the decline of Buddhism and the institute.
Then the final blow to its destruction was delivered by the afghan military chief ‘Bakhtiyar Khilji’ during his invasion at north India in 13th century. He totally ransacked and destroyed the Nalanda University and set them into fire.
The contemporary scholar ‘Minhaj-i-Siraj’ mentioned in his work ‘Tabaqat-e-nasiri’ “thousands of monks burnt alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism. Lakhs of books and documents were set into fire in order to ensure the total destruction of university. The burning of libraries continued for several months and smoke from the burning manuscripts hung, like a dark pall over the low hills.”