When was it built: 5th century CE
Who built it: Originally by Emperor Kumaragupta I of Gupta Dynasty; Expansion works continued during and after Gupta period
Where is it located: Nalanda district, Bihar, India
Why was it built: As Mahavihara (large Buddhist monastery)
Best Time to Visit: October to March
Visit Timing: Daily, 9 am to 5 pm
How to Reach: Nearest railhead is Rajgir (11 km) and airport is Patna (89 km)
Nalanda, a large Buddhist monastery, now in ruins, was one of the most publicly acknowledged Mahaviharas of ancient India located in ancient Magadha kingdom (modern Bihar). It remained a learning centre from 7th century BCE through c. 1200 CE and is many a time categorised as one of the early universities of India along with other institutions like ‘Vikramashila’ and ‘Taxila’. The patronage of the Gupta Empire saw this Mahavihara prosper during 5th and 6th century as also during the reign of emperor Harsha of Kannauj. However tantric developments of Buddhism during the Pala rule saw an eventual decline of Nalanda. Students and scholars from places like China, Central Asia, Korea and Tibet studied in this great vihara that taught Mahayana, Hinayana, Sanskrit grammar, Vedas and Samkhya among others. Imminent pilgrim monks like Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing from East Asia visited this place in the 7th century. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Nalanda not only boasts of being one of the most revered Buddhist tourism sites in India but also continues to draw attention from scholars, historians and archaeologists.
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Nalanda was originally a thriving village close to Magadha’s capital Rajagriha (presently Rajgir) located beside a prime trade route. According to sources, Gautam Buddha gave away lectures in a close-by mango grove called Pavarika and Jain thirthankara, Mahavira also stayed at Nalanda for about fourteen rainy seasons thus validating the existence of the place to as early as the 5th–6th century BCE. The Tibetian Lama Taranatha of the 17th century mentioned that a huge temple was constructed at the site of chaitya of Shatiputra at Nalanda by the great Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Ashoka who later embraced Buddhism. Taranatha also stated that Nagarjuna, a 3rd-century CE luminary and Mahayana philosopher remained chief of the institution while his contemporary, another luminary Suvishnu constructed around 108 temples in the area. Various theories exist regarding the naming of the place. While Hiuen Tsang asserted that it was derived from ‘Na alam d?’ meaning charity without intermission or no end in gifts, I-tsing believed it came from ‘N?ga Nanda’ where naga refers to a snake in the local tanks whose name was Nanda. The travelogues of these two Chinese monks gave most of the information that could be gathered about Nalanda prior to the 8th century.
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During Gupta Period
The accounted history of Nalanda dates back to the Gupta Empire with a seal confirming the founder of the place as the 5th-century CE Gupta monarch Shakraditya (?akr?ditya) who was identified as emperor Kumaragupta I (r. c. 415 – c. 455 CE). A coin of the monarch was found at the site. Expansions and development including building new temples and monasteries took place during the reign of his successors namely Buddhagupta, Baladitya, Tathagatagupta and Vajra. Among them the 12th Gupta emperor Narasimhagupta Baladitya was raised under the guidance of Vasubandhu, a very influential Buddhist monk, scholar and Mahayanist philosopher from Gandhara. Clay sealing of Baladitya was found in Nalanda. A 91 m high vihara encompassing a Buddha statue and a sangharama was built by him.
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Post Gupta Period
Post the Gupta period Nalanda continued to develop under the auspices of several kings, particularly during the 7th century under the reign of emperor Harsha of Kannauj. While one of the monarchs constructed a high wall surrounding the structures of the site, another emperor Purnavarman built a six stage pavilion for installing a 24 m high copper idol of Lord Buddha. Emperor Harsha who held the Buddhist monks in high regards and deemed himself as their servant was a converted Buddhist whose royal congregation included around thousand monks from Nalanda. A brass monastery was constructed by him inside Nalanda. Revenues of hundred villages as also daily supply of rice, milk and butter were furnished to the monks of the institution under the instruction of the emperor.
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During Pala Period
The Pala Empire that originated from the Bengal region remained an imperial power on the Indian subcontinent during the Late Classical period from 8th to 12th century. The Palas were followers of Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism. Although they revered Nalanda as a prized cultural legacy and continued to patronize it, the increasing Tantra-influenced version of Mahayana practiced in Vajrayana had an effect on Nalanda with tantric doctrines and magic rites taking precedence. They set up four more Mahaviharas at Odantapura, Jagaddala, Vikramashila and Somapura all of which typified the Nalanda Mahavihara. Establishment of such Mahaviharas most likely saw several learned monks joining them thus leaving Nalanda. Among the Pala emperors the third and most powerful emperor, Devapala, who ruled in the 9th century and constructed the Mahavihara at Somapura seemed to be the most noted patron of his time. Two important inscriptions and several metallic figures having his reference were unearthed from the ruins of Nalanda. While one of the inscriptions etched on a copper plate manifests endowment bestowed by Balaputra, the maharaja of Srivijaya, the other inscription, the Ghosrawan inscription indicated that Devapala patronised Vedic scholar Viradeva who eventually served as head of the Mahavihara.
Hiuen Tsang in Nalanda
Hiuen Tsang also called Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, translator and traveler who elucidated the communication between India and China during the early Tang dynasty of China. He visited the Nalanda Mahavihara twice in 637 and 642 CE while travelling around India from 630 to 643 CE. In Nalanda he came under the tutelage of Shilabhadra, a Buddhist monk, philosopher and expert on Yog?c?ra teachings who remained an abbot of the monastery. Xuanzang who was lovingly called Mokshadeva in Nalanda took up courses on Buddhist studies, Sanskrit, logic and grammar and at a later stage delivered lectures there. A guest of Emperor Harsha, he catalogued the generosity and bountifulness of the emperor. He carried 657 Buddhist texts, mostly Mahayanist as also 150 relics in 520 cases with him while on his return to China, being transported on 20 horses. 74 of such texts were translated by him. Around 11 travellers from China and Korea visited Nalanda over the next three decades after his return to China.
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I-tsing in Nalanda
Another Chinese Buddhist monk of Tang dynasty, Yijing, also known as I-tsing visited India in 673 CE after studying Sanskrit in Srivijaya. In his 14 years tenure in India he spent 10 years in Nalanda and furthered his studies in Buddhism. He took 400 Sanskrit texts with him on his return to China in 695 CE and eventually translated them in Chinese language. Accounts given by him predominantly focus on the practice of the religion in India and a thorough elucidation of the traditions, rules, customs and norms followed by monks of Nalanda. He mentioned about the daily course of the monks of Nalanda that included an array of rites meant for all starting from the bathing hour to ablution of Lord Buddha’s image to performing chaityavandana in the evening that included chanting of shlokas and particular set of hymns. All the works were signalled by beating a gong. He mentioned that as huge daily assembly gatherings posed difficulty due to large number of inmates at the monastery, a ritual was later adopted which saw a priest along with amateur servants and children holding flowers and incense visiting the halls of the monastery while chanting the service.
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About The Mahavihara
Nalanda, an architectural chef d'oeuvre that was spread over a large area during the ancient period, is today in dilapidated condition with its excavated ruins measuring an area of around 12 hectares. Comprising of 10 temples, 8 individual compounds, classrooms, meditation halls, parks and lakes this residential school with dormitories for students boasted of having more than 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students during its prime. Scholars and students from far off places including China, Japan, Turkey, Persia, Korea, Tibet and Indonesia attended the Mahavihara. Subjects taught here included Mahayana, Hinayana, Samkhya, Atharvaveda, Shabdavidya, Chikitsavidya and Vedas among others. According to conventional Tibetian sources, Nalanda housed a big library called ‘Dharmaganja’ (Piety Mart) that encompassed three multi-storied edifices called ‘Ratnaranjaka’ (Jewel-adorned), ‘Ratnodadhi’ (Sea of Jewels) and ‘Ratnasagaral (Ocean of Jewels). Collections of the library included religious manuscripts and texts on medicine, astronomy, logic, astrology and literature among others. According to I-tsing, the monks would assemble to discuss administrative and other decisive matters and finalised decisions only after taking consent of all at the assembly as also the resident monks.
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Decline and End
With the rise of Tantric practices in Buddhism during the Pala rule that included secret magic and rituals following the gradual decline of the Pala dynasty post 11th century complimented with a surge of Hindu philosophies across the subcontinent saw an eventual decline of Buddhism in India leading to decline of Nalanda. Although still surviving, Nalanda presumably faced a big blow in c. 1200 CE when it was plundered and destroyed by an army headed by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish military general of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty. According to some sources, it tried to function temporarily but was gradually deserted and only came to notice when the ‘Archaeological Survey of India’ (ASI) surveyed the site and conducted initial excavation works in the 19th century. Excavation works of ASI in 1915 brought to light existence of 6 brick temples and 11 monasteries. Several antiques including inscriptions, coins, sculptures and seals were excavated from the site which now finds place in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum. The museum remains open from 10 am to 5 pm on all days except Friday. Entry fee per person is Rs. 5/-.