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Nalanda University                         Source: disha / Adobe Stock

Nalanda, Ancient University Opens to International Students Again

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India is a religiously diverse nation and has many important archaeological sites associated with Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Islam, to mention a few. When Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years, monuments and statues were erected and monasteries opened as centers of learning. Nalanda Monastery is believed to be among the first universities in the world. Its historical importance has been recognized and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The History of Nalanda Monastery and Buddhism

The origins of the monastery are shrouded in myths. It is claimed that the monastery dates to the era of the Buddha himself. Based on archaeological finds, the monastery was first built during the Gupta period (4 th to 5 th century AD), one of the golden ages of Indian culture.

It developed into a leading university and attracted scholars and philosophers from all over the Buddhist world, including the famous traveler and scholar Hiuen Tsang (also known as Xuanzang), who is best known for translating the Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese. The curriculum of the university included medicine, Sanskrit, philosophy and the study of Vedic literature. It played a crucial role in the development of the religion in Tibet, China and South-East Asia. Graduates of the university were influential in the development of many Buddhist sects, including Tibetan Buddhism.

The excavated ruins of Nalanda University Site, India (Thotsaporn / Adobe Stock)

The excavated ruins of Nalanda University Site, India ( Thotsaporn / Adobe Stock)

Many powerful kings patronized the monastery, some from as far away as the kingdom of Indonesia. After the Gupta period , Buddhism went into a slow decline, but the monastery and its university continued to attract the support of powerful figures such as Emperor Harsha who briefly reunited much of northern India in the 7 th century AD.

Changes in Buddhism in eastern India undermined Nalanda and the growing popularity of Tantric Buddhism led to its decline as many people became increasingly drawn to the magical and esoteric practices.

From the 11 th century AD, Muslims raided extensively in northern India and eventually established the Delhi Sultanate. The Nalanda monastery was attacked twice by raiders and rebuilt, but finally destroyed by an army of the Turkish Mamluk Dynasty in the 12 th century. The Muslim conquests led to a rapid decline in Buddhism and today it is no longer a leading religion in India.

In 1915, the site was excavated by British archaeologists and in 2010 the Indian government commissioned a new University to be built at Nalanda. For the first time in 800 years, students are studying at the historic site.

Remains of Nalanda Monastery and University

The Nalanda archaeological site extends to over 12 hectares (30 acres). A number of excavations have unearthed much of the original complex consisting of at least six brick temples and eleven Buddhist monasteries at the site. A road dissects the site with the monasteries on the west side and the temples on the east.

Archaeological heritage of India, plan of the ruins of university of Nalanda. (Dymov / Adobe Stock)

Archaeological heritage of India, plan of the ruins of university of Nalanda. ( Dymov / Adobe Stock)

The monasteries are all centered around a courtyard and have numerous cells. In addition to the prayer hall, the ruins of kitchens, granaries and more can still be seen. The temples were built in a traditional Buddhist style and are typically surrounded by stupas. Galleries of stucco sculptures that depicted scenes from the Buddha’s life and Buddhist mythology were once a feature.

The largest temple, situated to the south of the site, was originally designed and built with a tower at each corner. Two remain. A few niches cut into the walls contain Buddhist images dating from the Gupta period and inside the temple, sculpted panels display masterpieces of Indo-Buddhist art.

Archaeologists found a mound close to the monastery that was once a temple and many important archaeological finds have been made.

The ancient university was constructed using of red brick and was surrounded by gardens. Near the university is the Great Stupa, which is a pyramid-shaped structure surrounded by smaller stupas. The modern university is located nearby, as well as a memorial hall to the pilgrim-scholar, Hiuen Tsang, whose meticulous translations helped recover lost Buddhist texts .

Visiting Nalanda Monastery

The Nalanda archaeological site is located on the northern Indian plain, in Nalanda district, and not far from Patan, the capital of Bihar state. Public transport to the archaeological park is available and a fee is charged to enter the complex. The museum on site has many Buddhist artifacts that were found at the ancient monastery and university.

Top image: Nalanda University                         Source: disha / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Pal, P. (1988). A Forgotten Monastery of Ancient Bihar . South Asian Studies, 4(1), 83-88

Available at:   https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02666030.1988.9628370?journalCode=rsas20

Rajani, M. B. (2016). T he expanse of archaeological remains at Nalanda: a study using remote sensing and GIS . Archives of Asian Art, 66(1), 1-23

Available at: https://read.dukeupress.edu/archives-of-asian-art/article-abstract/66/1/1/97193

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