Nalanda was established as a Mahavihara i.e. a large university-cum-monastic institution, in the 5th century AD by Kumaragupta of the Gupta dynasty, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern day Bihar). It was the most prosperous and famous university of the ancient world. It was patronized by the Gupta Emperors, and subsequently by King Harsharvadhan of Kannauj in the 7th century, and the Pala Kings of Bengal from the 8th - 12th centuries. The Palas rulers were prolific builders whose rule oversaw the establishment of four other Mahaviharas modeled on Nalanda at Jagaddala, Odantapura, Somapura, and Vikramashila.These five seats of Buddhist learning formed a network, and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.

At its peak, Nalanda attracted students from all over Asia: Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. Out of every 10 applicants, only 2 got admission. The students learnt theology, metaphysics, grammar, logic, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and philosohy. There were 3000 teachers, 10,000 students and over 9 million manuscripts! Much of what we know about Nalanada are from the writings of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang (Zuanzang) who taught and studied at Nalanda for 5 years. Hiuen Tsang wrote of 300 feet high viharas, richly adorned towers, and observatories "whose upper rooms towered above the clouds".

The whole of Nalanda was destroyed and burnt to the ground by the invading Islamic hordes led by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1200 AD. Such was the brutality of this onslaught that Buddhism was entirely eliminated from the country of its birth. The place lay in ruins for several centuries, until excavations began in 1915, which unearthed eleven monasteries and six brick temples arranged in an ordered layout, along with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions. Nalanda was declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.

When I visited Nalanda a few years back, I was surprised to find that a fair bit of ancient ruins were visible and one could make a rough estimate of its former grandeur. The large number of well laid out monastery-cum-university rooms indicated how much importance was placed on education in ancient India. The Indian emperors clearly realized the social value of a well-rounded education, that emphasized both science and philosophy. I covered Nalanda and Rajgir on a day-trip from Bodhgaya, and highly recommended it for anyone interested in ancient Indian history.

The entrance to Nalanda
The entrance to Nalanda. Nalanda was an ancient village located close to Rajagriha (modern Rajgir) which was then the capital of Magadha. It is said that the Jain tirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika. Hence the place has been associated with spiritual movements from the 6th century BCE.

The impressive stupa of Sariputta at Nalanda built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC
The impressive stupa of Sariputta, one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha. Nalanda was the place of birth and parinirvana of Sariputta. The shrine was originally built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and was successively enlarged. It is believed that the stairways on the side led to a shrine room on top, which once contained a colossal image of the Buddha.

The Sariputta stupa, the oldest structure in Nalanda.
The front view of the Sariputta stupa, the oldest structure in Nalanda. The stupa is surrounded by many votive stupas and shrines.
he Sariputta stupa, the oldest structure in Nalanda, built in the 3rd century BC by Ashoka
The view of the Sariputta stupa from the other side.

A tower with stucco figures of the Buddha near the Sariputta stupa at Nalanda
A tower with stucco figures of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas.

From the back, the Sariputta stupa at Nalanda looks like a stepped pyramid.
From the back, the Sariputta stupa looks like a stepped pyramid.
An assembly hall near the Sariputta stupa at Nalanda
An assembly hall near the Sariputta stupa.
Rows of hostel rooms in Nalanda where the students lived. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 637 AD lived in one of these rooms.
Rows of hostel rooms where the students lived. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 637 AD lived in one of these rooms. Hiuen Tsang taught and studied at Nalanda for 5 years. He was warmly welcomed in Nalanda where he received the Indian name of Mokshadeva and studied under the guidance of Shilabhadra, the venerable head of the institution at the time.
The brick walls of the hostels in Nalanda were 6 feet wide, to offer protection from the heat!
The brick walls of the hostels are 6 feet wide, to offer protection from the heat! Compare this to the modern day constructions where the walls are barely 6 inches wide.
A broken wall with signs of burning at Nalanda
A broken wall. You can see that the bricks on top show signs of burning, which is evidence of destruction by fire during the Islamic invasions
A view of the layout of a typical monastery in Nalanda from the second floor.The central square courtyard was the "classroom". There are 34 identical rooms arranged around this square courtyard.
A view of the layout of a typical monastery from the second floor.The central square courtyard was the "classroom". There are 34 identical rooms arranged around this square courtyard.The classroom had a circular well, an elevated platform for the teacher, and a shrine.

A view of the layout of a typical monastery in Nalanda
Another view of the central classroom.

Layout of a monastery in Nalanda
More rooms on the sides which were probably used for administrative purposes.

A hostel room on the second floor at Nalanda. Each room had two beds, with shelves for keeping books.
There are rows of identical rooms on the second floor. Each room had two beds, with shelves for keeping books etc. Looks spacious and comfy! Many of these monastery buildings were multi-storeyed structures, as reported by Hiuen Tsang.

A room with corbelled entrance and vaulted roof, probably used for storing grains at Nalanda
A room with corbelled entrance and vaulted roof. It was probably used for storing grains.
A monastery with the typical square layout, surrounded by 34 rooms, at Nalanda
Another monastery with the typical square layout, surrounded by 34 rooms.
The remains of a temple at Nalanda
The remains of a temple. Excavations at Nalanda have revealed 11 monasteries and 6 temples. A thirty-meter wide road ran in the north-south direction through Nalanda, with the temples arranged on one side (west), and the monasteries on the other side (east).
Votive stupas within a temple at Nalanda
Votive stupas within the temple.
An impressive throne with many images of the Buddha carved on it at Nalanda
An impressive throne with many images of the Buddha carved on it.
The remains of a brick temple, with wonderfully decorated stone pillars, at Nalanda
The remains of a brick temple, with wonderfully decorated stone pillars.
 


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Bibhu Dev Misra

Independent researcher and writer on ancient mysteries, cultural connections, cosmic wisdom, religion and science. Graduate of IIT and IIM with two decades of work experience in different fields

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