Nalanda was an acclaimed Mahāvihāra, a large Buddhist monastery in ancient Magadha (modern-day state of Bihar). The site is located about 95 kilometres southeast of Patna near the city of Bihar Sharif, and was a centre of learning from the fifth century CE to c. 1200 CE. Historians often characterize Nalanda as a university.
Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire as well as emperors like Harsha and later, the rulers of the Pala Empire. At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. It was very likely ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1200 CE. Nalanda was initially a prosperous village by a major trade route that ran through the nearby city of Rajagriha (modern Rajgir) which was then the capital of Magadha. It is said that the Jain thirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika and one of his two chief disciples,Shariputra, was born in the area and later attained nirvana there. This traditional association with Mahavira and Buddha tenuously dates the existence of the village to at least the 5th–6th century BCE.
Not much is known of Nalanda in the centuries hence. Taranatha, the 17th-century Tibetan Lama, states that the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan and Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Shariputra’s chaitya. He also places 3rd-century CE luminaries such as the Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, and his disciple, Aryadeva, at Nalanda with the former also heading the institution. Taranatha also mentions a contemporary of Nagarjuna named Suvishnu building 108 temples at the location. While this could imply that there was a flourishing centre for Buddhism at Nalanda before the 3rd century, no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support the assertion. When Faxian, an early Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India, visited Nalo, the site of Shariputra’s parinirvana, at the turn of the 5th century CE, all he found worth mentioning was a stupa.
As historian Sukumar Dutt describes it, the history of the Nalanda Mahavihara “falls into two main divisions—the first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth—a period during which the Tāntric developments of Buddhism became most pronounced in eastern India under the Pālas …”.
Nalanda’s datable history begins under the Gupta Empire and a seal identifies a monarch named Shakraditya (Śakrāditya) as its founder. BothXuanzang and a Korean pilgrim named Prajnyavarman (Prajñāvarman) too attribute the foundation of a sangharama (monastery) at the site to him. Shakraditya is identified with the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I(415 –455 CE), whose coin has been discovered at Nalanda. His successors, Buddhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya, and Vajra, later extended and expanded the institution by building additional monasteries and temples.
The Guptas were traditionally a Brahmanical dynasty. Narasimhagupta (Baladitya) however, was brought up under the influence of the Mahayanist philosopher, Vasubandhu. He built a sangharama at Nalanda and also a 300 ft (91 m) high vihara with a Buddha statue within which, according to Xuanzang, resembled the “great Vihara built under the Bodhi tree”. The monk also noted that Baladitya’s son, Vajra, who built a sangharama too, “possessed a heart firm in faith”.
A long succession of kings are said to have continued building at Nalanda “using all the skill of the sculptor”. At some point, a “king of central India” built a high wall along with a gate around the now numerous edifices in the complex. Another monarch (possibly of the Maukhari dynasty) named Purnavarman who is described as “the last of the race of Ashoka-raja”, built an 80 ft (24 m) high copper image of Buddha to cover which he also constructed a pavilion of six stages.
However, after the decline of the Guptas, the most notable patron of the Mahavihara was Harsha, the 7th-century emperor of Kannauj, who was a converted Buddhist and considered himself a servant of the monks of Nalanda. Harsha built a monastery of brass within the Mahavihara and remitted to it the revenues of 100 villages. He also directed 200 households in these villages to supply the institution’s monks with requisite amounts of rice, butter, and milk on a daily basis. Around a thousand monks from Nalanda were present at Harsha’s royal congregation at Kannuaj.
The Palas established themselves in North-eastern India in the 8th century and reigned until the 12th century. Although they were a Buddhist dynasty, Buddhism in their time was a mixture of the Mahayana practised in Nalanda and Vajrayana, a Tantra-influenced version of Mahayanist philosophy. Nalanda was a cultural legacy from the great age of the Guptas and it was prized and cherished. The Palas were prolific builders and their rule oversaw the establishment of four other Mahaviharas modelled on the Nalanda Mahavihara at Jagaddala, Odantapura, Somapura, and Vikramashila respectively. Remarkably, Odantapura was founded by Gopala, the progenitor of the royal line, only 6 miles (9.7 km) away from Nalanda.
Inscriptions at Nalanda suggest that Gopala’s son, Dharmapala, who founded the Mahavihara at Vikramshila, also appears to have been a benefactor of the ancient monastery in some form. It is however, Dharmapala’s son, the 9th century emperor and founder of the Mahavihara at Somapura, Devapala, who appears to have been Nalanda’s most distinguished patron in this age. A number of metallic figures containing references to Devapala have been found in its ruins as well as two notable inscriptions. The first, a copper plate inscription unearthed at Nalanda, details an endowment by the Shailendra King, Balaputradeva of Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia). This Srivijayan king, “attracted by the manifold excellences of Nalanda” had built a monastery there and had requested Devapala to grant the revenue of five villages for its upkeep, a request which was granted. The Ghosrawan inscription is the other inscription from Devapala’s time and it mentions that he received and patronised a learned Vedic scholar named Viradeva who was later elected the head of Nalanda.
The now five different seats of Buddhist learning in eastern India formed a state-supervised network and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them. Each establishment had its own official seal with a dharmachakra flanked by a deer on either side, a motif referring to Buddha’s deer park sermon at Sarnath. Below this device was the name of the institution which in Nalanda’s case read, “Śrī-Nālandā-Mahāvihārīya-Ārya-Bhikṣusaḿghasya” which translates to “of the Community of Venerable Monks of the Great Monastery at Nalanda”.
While there is ample epigraphic and literary evidence to show that the Palas continued to patronise Nalanda liberally, the Mahavihara was less singularly outstanding during this period as the other Pala establishments must have drawn away a number of learned monks from Nalanda. The Vajrayana influence on Buddhism grew strong under the Palas and this appears to have also had an effect on Nalanda. What had once been a centre of liberal scholarship with a Mahayanist focus grew more fixated with Tantric doctrines and magic rites. Taranatha’s 17th-century history claims that Nalanda might have even been under the control of the head of the Vikramshila Mahavihara at some point.
While its excavated ruins today only occupy an area of around 1,600 feet (488 m) by 800 feet (244 m) or roughly 12 hectares, Nalanda Mahavihara occupied a far greater area in medieval times.: It was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. Nalanda was a residential school, i.e., it had dormitories for students. In its heyday, it is claimed to have accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Chinese pilgrims estimated the number of students to have been between 3,000 and 5,000.
The subjects taught at Nalanda covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.
Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the school in the 7th century. He described how the regularly laid-out towers, forest of pavilions, harmikas and temples seemed to “soar above the mists in the sky” so that from their cells the monks “might witness the birth of the winds and clouds”. The pilgrim states: “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.”
The entrance of many of the viharas in the Nalanda ruins can be seen with a bow marked floor; the bow was the royal sign of the Guptas.
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra manuscript from Nalanda’s Pala period.
It is evident from the large numbers of texts that Yijing carried back with him after his 10-year residence at Nalanda, that the Mahavihara must have featured a well-equipped library. Traditional Tibetan sources mention the existence of a great library at Nalanda named Dharmaganja (Piety Mart) which 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 the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Guhyasamaja.
The exact number of volumes in the Nalanda library is not known. But it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands. The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The Nalanda library must have had a classification scheme which was possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the Sanskrit linguist, Panini. Buddhist texts were most likely divided into three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra, and the Abhidhamma.
Curriculum at Nalanda
Tibetan tradition holds that there were “four doxographies” (Tibetan: grub-mtha’) which were taught at Nalanda:
Mādhyamaka, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Nagarjuna
Chittamatra, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu
In the 7th century, Xuanzang records the number of teachers at Nalanda as being around 1510. Of these, approximately 1000 were able to explain 20 collections of sūtras and śāstras, 500 were able to explain 30 collections, and only 10 teachers were able to explain 50 collections. Xuanzang was among the few who were able to explain 50 collections or more. At this time, only the abbot Shilabhadra had studied all the major collections of sūtras and śāstras at Nalanda.
The Chinese monk Yijing wrote that matters of discussion and administration at Nalanda would require assembly and consensus on decisions by all those at the assembly, as well as resident monks.
If the monks had some business, they would assemble to discuss the matter. Then they ordered the officer, Vihārpāl, 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.
Xuanzang also writes: The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the seven hundred years of the monastery’s existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.
A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the late 9th–12th century teachers and traditions at Nalanda. The scholar Dharmakirti (ca. 7th century), one of the Buddhist founders of Indian philosophical logic, as well as one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism, taught at Nalanda.
Other forms of Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna Buddhism followed in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, flourished within the walls of the ancient school. A number of scholars have associated some Mahāyāna texts such as the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, an important sūtra in East Asian Buddhism, with the Buddhist tradition at Nalanda. Ron Epstein also notes that the general doctrinal position of the sūtra does indeed correspond to what is known about the Buddhist teachings at Nalanda toward the end of the Gupta period when it was translated.
According to Xuanzang’s biographer, Hwui-Li, Nalanda was held in contempt by some Sthaviras for its emphasis on Mahayana philosophy. They reportedly chided King Harsha for patronising Nalanda during one of his visits to Odisha, mocking the “sky-flower” philosophy taught there and suggesting that he might as well patronise a Kapalika temple. When this occurred, Harsha notified the chancellor of Nalanda, who sent the monks Sāgaramati, Prajñāraśmi, Siṃharaśmi, and Xuanzang to refute the views of the monks from Odisha
Much of what is known of Nalanda prior to the 8th century is based on the travelogues of the Chinese monks, Xuanzang(Si-Yu-Ki) and Yijing.
The decline of Nalanda is concomitant with the disappearance of Buddhism in India. When Xuanzang travelled the length and breadth of India in the 7th century, he observed that his religion was in slow decay and even had ominous premonitions of Nalanda’s forthcoming demise. Buddhism had steadily lost popularity with the laity and thrived, thanks to royal patronage, only in the monasteries of Bihar and Bengal. By the time of the Palas, the traditional Mahayana and Hinayana forms of Buddhism were imbued with Tantric practices involving secret rituals and magic. The rise of Hindu philosophies in the subcontinent and the waning of the Buddhist Pala dynasty after the 11th century meant that Buddhism was hemmed in on multiple fronts, political, philosophical, and moral. The final blow was delivered when its still-flourishing monasteries, the last visible symbols of its existence in India, were overrun during the Muslim invasion that swept across Northern India at the turn of the 13th century.
In around 1200 CE, Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkic chieftain out to make a name for himself, was in the service of a commander in Awadh. The Persian historian, Minhaj-i-Siraj in his Tabaqat-i Nasiri, recorded his deeds a few decades later. Khilji was assigned two villages on the border of Bihar which had become a political no-man’s land. Sensing an opportunity, he began a series of plundering raids into Bihar and was recognised and rewarded for his efforts by his superiors. Emboldened, Khilji decided to attack a fort in Bihar and was able to successfully capture it, looting it of a great booty. Minhaj-i-Siraj wrote of this attack.
Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress, and acquired great booty. The greater number of the inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted [with the contents of those books], it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui tongue, they call a college Bihar.
This passage refers to an attack on a Buddhist monastery (the “Bihar” or Vihara) and its monks (the shaved Brahmans). The exact date of this event is not known with scholarly estimates ranging from 1197 to 1206. While many historians believe that this monastery which was mistaken for a fort was Odantapura, some are of the opinion that it was Nalanda itself. However, considering that these two Mahaviharas were only a few kilometres apart, both very likely befell a similar fate. The other great Mahaviharas of the age such as Vikramshila and later, Jagaddala, also met their ends at the hands of the Turks at around the same time.
Another important account of the times is the biography of the Tibetan monk-pilgrim, Dharmasvamin, who journeyed to India between 1234 and 1236. When he visited Nalanda in 1235, he found it still surviving, but a ghost of its past existence. Most of the buildings had been damaged by the Muslims and had since fallen into disrepair. But two viharas, which he named Dhanaba and Ghunaba, were still in serviceable condition with a 90-year-old teacher named Rahula Shribhadra instructing a class of about 70 students on the premises. Dharmasvamin believed that the Mahavihara had not been completely destroyed for superstitious reasons as one of the soldiers who had participated in the desecration of a Jnananatha temple in the complex had immediately fallen ill.
While he stayed there for six months under the tutelage of Rahula Shribhadra, Dharmasvamin makes no mention of the legendary library of Nalanda which possibly did not survive the initial wave of Turkic attacks. He, however, provides an eyewitness account of an attack on the derelict Mahavihara by the Muslim soldiers stationed at nearby Odantapura (now Bihar Sharif) which had been turned into a military headquarters. Only the Tibetan and his nonagenarian instructor stayed behind and hid themselves while the rest of the monks fled Nalanda. Contemporary sources end at this point. But traditional Tibetan works which were written much later suggest that Nalanda’s story might have managed to endure for a while longer even if the institution was only a pale shadow of its former glory. The Lama, Taranatha, noted that a king of Bengal named Chagalaraja and his queen patronised Nalanda in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although no major work was done there.
An 18th-century work named Pag sam jon zang recounts another Tibetan legend which states that chaityas and viharas at Nalanda were repaired once again by a Buddhist sage named Mudita Bhadra and that Kukutasiddha, a minister of the reigning king, erected a temple there. The story goes that when the structure was being inaugurated, two indignant (Brahmanical) Tirthika mendicants who had appeared there were treated with disdain by some young novice monks who threw washing water at them. In retaliation, the mendicants performed a 12-year penance propitiating the sun, at the end of which they performed a fire-sacrifice and threw “living embers” from the sacrificial pit into the Buddhist temples. The resulting conflagration is said to have hit Nalanda’s library. Fortunately, a miraculous stream of water gushed forth from holy manuscripts in the ninth storey of Ratnodadhi which enabled many manuscripts to be saved. The heretics perished in the very fire that they had kindled. While it is unknown when this event was supposed to have occurred, archaeological evidence does suggest that a large fire did consume a number of structures in the complex at some point.
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 at the invitation of the Tibetan translatorTropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal). In Tibet, he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivada lineage to complement the two existing ones.
Nalanda Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Survey of India maintains a museum near the ruins for the benefit of visitors. The museum exhibits the antiquities that have been unearthed at Nalanda as well as from nearby Rajgir. Out of 13,463 items, only 349 are on display in four galleries.
Xuanzang Memorial Hall
The Xuanzang Memorial Hall is an Indo-Chinese undertaking to honour the famed Buddhist monk and traveller. A relic, comprising a skull bone of the Chinese monk, is on display in the memorial hall.
Nalanda Multimedia Museum
Another museum adjoining the excavated site is the privately run Nalanda Multimedia Museum. It showcases the history of Nalanda through 3-D animation and other multimedia presentations.