Nalanda: More than just a premier monastic-cum-scholastic establishment of ancient and early medieval India

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Site 3 or Temple 3, popularly known as the Great Stupa or Sariputra’s Stupa, is the most iconic of all the monuments at the Nalanda site in Bihar. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The plinth of Temple 2, which was once a huge, imposing structure. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Carved stone panels of deities and figures, belonging to the late 7th century, that once adorned the plinth of Temple 2. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

One of the minor shrines in the Temple 3 complex. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 1, the largest of the monastic dwellings at the site, went through at least nine phases of construction. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The remains of Monasteries 1A and 1B in the background, which are connected to the Temple 3 complex (in the foreground). Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 6. These ruins give one a rough idea of the arrangement of monk cells around a central courtyard. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 8. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 9. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 10. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Monastery 11. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The gallery leading to the excavated-enclosed site. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Miniature shrines and votive stupas in the Temple 12 complex. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The remains of the stucco images that once adorned the base of the structures in the Temple 3 complex. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The Nalanda Museum, which was established in 1917. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

A pushkarni, one of the waterbodies lying outside the excavated-enclosed site. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The famous black Buddha, now enshrined at a temple in Bargaon, is popularly known as the Teliya Baba. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Temple 12. It comes across as the largest and most complex of the temples in the enclosed area. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The Xuanxang Memorial Hall, which also houses a museum. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The new art and craft centre village that lies close to the Xuanzang Memorial Hall. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Recent scholarship has brought about a shift in the way Nalanda, the world’s most ancient university, is seen. It appears to have had larger geo-cultural connections than were previously realised, and the monastery complex may have been twice the size of the present excavated site.

Nalanda, the ruins of one of the world’s most prestigious seats of learning, is located 95 kilometres from Patna, the capital of Bihar, and 110 km from Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Rajgir, a place closely associated with prominent dynasties of ancient India such as the Nandas, the Mauryas and, later, the Guptas, lies just 12 km from the ruins. Declared a Word Heritage Site in 2016, Nalanda is seen as the world’s most ancient university, flourishing much before Europe’s oldest university, Bologna, came into being in the 11th-12th century. Contemporary sources, however, describe the site as a mahavihara, a great monastery. Nalanda, therefore, functioned as a premier monastic-cum-scholastic establishment in ancient and early medieval India. Today, one can see there the remains of temples, monastic dwellings, votive structures and art works in stucco, bronze and stone dating from the 5th century C.E. to the 12th century C.E.

There are some significant gaps in the formation of knowledge about Nalanda. These emerge primarily from the discrepancies between literary accounts and archaeological findings. Archaeological excavations conducted in the periods 1915-37 and 1974-82 brought to light monuments, inscriptions, sculptures and artefacts that give one some idea of the layout of the site, phases of construction and artistic achievements. Most studies on Nalanda try to correlate the findings of these excavations with descriptions given in texts and encounter significant gaps.

As far as literary sources are concerned, most of the information on the history, functioning and, sometimes, the layout of the mahavihara comes from the accounts of Chinese Buddhist monks such as Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen Tsang) and Yijing (also known as I Tsing), primarily the former. Both travelled to India and stayed in the great monastery complex in the 7th century. It is important to note that Xuanzang’s account—available in the form of Samuel Beal’s English translation (1884), which in turn borrows significantly from Stanislas Julien’s French translation (1853) of the Chinese text—is based primarily on his memories recorded sometime after his return to China. Besides, scholars point out, the purpose of Xuanzang’s visit to India was to secure accurate translations of Buddhist texts from their place of origin. He was not writing a travelogue and did not make extensive travel notes during his stay. Unfortunately, most of the historical knowledge of Nalanda (including the official plaque of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the entrance) is substantially informed by Xuanzang’s accounts.

Historical context

Xuanzang’s account links both the Buddha (6th century BCE) and the Mauryan king Asoka (c. 268-232 BCE) with Nalanda. He writes that the site of the great monastery was originally a mango grove, which 500 merchants purchased for 100 million coins and gifted to the Buddha. The Chinese monk likewise credits Asoka with the construction of a stupa/temple in honour of Sariputra, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples. Temple 3 in the excavated-enclosed area is popularly believed to be Sariputra’s Stupa, though there are differences even between various Buddhist texts with respect to its location. Further, the archaeological findings—the material remains at Nalanda belong to the Gupta period/5th century C.E. onwards—do not support Xuanzang’s pre-Gupta history of the site.

The rulers of the Gupta dynasty (c. 300-600 C.E.) were usually known for patronising Brahmanical cults, but some of them also supported Buddhism. Buddhist sources indicate that the Gupta King Vikramaditya sent his queen and son Baladitya to study under the famous Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu, who was based at Nalanda. Some texts mention that King Narasimhagupta became a Buddhist monk and gave up his life through meditation. Xuanzang also talks about the Guptas’ royal connection with Nalanda. He reports that shortly after the Buddha’s demise, a king called Shakraditya built a monastery at the site. His son Buddhagupta built one to the south of this monastery. Succeeding Gupta kings built monasteries near the one Shakraditya built: Tathagatagupta built one to its east and Baladitya to its north-east. An article by the missionary-cum-scholar H. Heras, published in 1928, tries to correlate the names of these kings with the rulers of the Gupta dynasty, and his scheme finds acceptance with most historians. Heras identifies Shakraditya with Kumaragupta I, Buddhagupta with Skandagupta, Tathagatagupta with Puragupta and Baladitya with Narasimhagupta. While it is not possible to imagine Gupta kings ruling soon after the Buddha’s death, as Xuanzang would have us believe, the seals of several Gupta kings, including those of Buddhagupta, Narasimhagupta, Kumaragupta III and Vainyagupta, have been excavated from Nalanda. These, the historian Fredrich Asher underscores, are substantive evidence of royal patronage under the Guptas. It is however impossible, he clarifies, to associate any of the remains of dwellings or temples with any particular Gupta king.

Nalanda seemingly continued to enjoy royal patronage in post-Gupta times as well: during the reign of Harshavardana (606-648 C.E.), the King of Kannauj (in Uttar Pradesh); and the Palas, who ruled over modern Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh from the 8th through 12th centuries. Xuangzang visited Nalanda during Harshavardana’s reign. Seals and inscriptions belonging to Harshavardana’s period at Nalanda also record a gift from a seventh-century king of Assam, Bhaskaravarma.

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The Palas were known to be Buddhists. Dharmapala (c. 781-821 C.E.), the second Pala king, is known to have supported the establishment of two monasteries: Somapura (better known as Paharpur, now in Bangladesh) and Vikramshila (in Bhagalpur in Bihar). An inscription from Nalanda records his gifting of a village for the upkeep of the great monastery. Another inscription from the site describes Devapala (c. 821 to 861 C.E.), Dharmapala’s successor, as helping the ruler of Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra), Balaputra, build a monastery at Nalanda and acquire five villages to support its maintenance. This inscription and the one recording a gift from a king of Assam point to much wider patronage for Nalanda. The Pala period is associated with the widespread production of sculptures and images, though not under direct royal patronage. It is also known for several gifts to the mahavihara, again independent of the Pala kings. It is widely held that Nalanda started declining in the late-Pala period and was given a death blow around 1200 C.E by the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khalji, the Afghan military commander of Delhi’s Turkish ruler Qutbuddin Aibek.

The mahavihara as a university

Most of the information on the functioning of Nalanda as a university—its student strength, curriculum and buildings—comes from Chinese and Tibetan texts, which also emphasise the purity of its monastic discipline. Xuanzang claims the mahavihara had 10,000 students, while Yijing puts that number at 3,000. Outsiders were reportedly allowed to enter the premises only after an oral examination conducted by the gatekeeper. Nalanda attracted students from China, Japan, Korea and from countries in South-East and Central Asia.

Hui Li, Xuanzang’s biographer, writes that during the time of latter’s visit, there were 1,000 monks at Nalanda who could explain 20 collections of sutras and shastras (religious texts), 5,000 who could explicate 30 collections and only 10 who could expound on 50 collections (including Xuanzang). Some scholars argue, though not on the basis of any direct evidence, that Nalanda’s curriculum went beyond religious texts to include literature, theology, logic, grammar, medicine, philosophy, the arts and metaphysics. Lectures, discussions and assemblies formed a part of the regular pedagogy at the mahavihara. Xuanzang mentions illustrious figures such as Gunamati, Sthiramati, Prabhamitra, Jinamitra, Jnanachandra, Sigrabuddha, Santaraksita, Silabhadra, Dhammapala and Chandrapala gracing the great monastery. They not only taught there but also composed treatises and commentaries. During the time of the Xuanzang’s visit, Silabhadra was the head of the university.

Both Xuanzang and Yijing mention Nalanda having eight richly carved and adorned halls. Yijing also talks about 300 apartments on the premises. None of the Chinese monks however record the existence of a library though they are known to have copied several manuscripts during their stay at the mahavihara. Xuanzang is said to have carried with him 657 volumes loaded on 20 horses. Information about the library is given in 17th and 18th century Tibetan records. The library area was reportedly called Dharmaganja, and it consisted of three huge buildings: Ratnasagara, Ratnodadhi and Ratnaranjaka.

The excavated-enclosed site

To understand the layout and architectural landscape of the excavated and enclosed area, entry to which is allowed by tickets, one has to follow the ASI’s numeric scheme in which the sites/monuments are known by numbers rather than names (see site map). The enclosed-ticketed area broadly follows a rectangular plan with two parallel rows of monuments. One row is occupied by four temples, which appear to move south to north in the following order: Site 3 (Temple 3, popularly known as the Great Stupa or Sariputra’s Stupa), Site 12 (Temple 12), Site 13 (Temple 13) and Site 14 (Temple 14). The second row of structures, 11 monasteries, runs parallel to the temples. Again, known as sites, they appear to move south to north in the following order: 1, 4 (and 5), 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. Monastery 1A and 1B lie between Temple 3 and Monastery 1 in the south and lie perpendicular to the two sites. Site 5 (Monastery 5) is regarded as an extension of Monastery 4. The temples face eastwards towards the monasteries while the monasteries open westwards in the direction of the temples. Site 2 is a temple, which lies behind the row of monasteries, further eastwards. All the monuments were originally built in brick and decorated with stucco. Some of them also carry stone structures, which were added later.

Site 3/Temple 3 is the most iconic of all the monuments and features in all the visual representations of Nalanda. Excavations revealed that this structure went through seven phases of construction. It has a staircase that leads to a small shrine on the top. In terms of architecture, Site 3 follows the panchayatana, or fivefold plan, normally seen in temples dedicated to Vishnu, with towers at its four corners. These towers are square in shape, surmounted by an octagonal construction, and carry beautifully carved stucco images in their lower portions, which belong to the 6th or 7th century.

Next to Site 3 is Temple 12, which comes across as the largest and most complex of all the temples. This was probably built in two stages; the earlier phase belongs to the 7th century and the later one to the 11th century. The structure contains small shrines on its four corners and broadly follows the fivefold plan. The entrance to the south-east corner shrine has two carved stone pillars. One of the courtyards of the temple contains small stone and brick stupas and inscriptions of the Pala kings Dharmapala and Mahendrapala.

The other two temples, Temple 13 and Temple 14, are in a very primary stage. Both were built on plinths, carried stucco decorations and once contained images of the Buddha, details of which are difficult to discern now.

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The monasteries or monastic dwellings facing the temples are of varying sizes. One can now only see the remains of the lower portions. Archaeologists say that they went through different phases of building or renovation, with beginnings during the Gupta period through to modifications during the Pala period. All of them follow a somewhat uniform plan: a row of monks’ cells surrounding a large central courtyard; the entrance from the west; a staircase in the south-west corner leading to upper storeys; and a large cell (larger than the others) in the eastern wall that probably contained an image of the Buddha. These dwellings would have been several storeys high to accommodate the number of monks Xuanzang and Yijing talk about. Stucco images once adorned the entrances of the monasteries and the large cell in the eastern wall.

Each monastery was perhaps headed by an abbot or chief instructor. Monastery 5, which is an extension of the eastern wall of Monastery 4, is sometimes referred to as a guest house. Monastery 1 has a somewhat special character; it is the largest of the monastic dwellings and went through at least nine phases of construction. It is here the Pala inscription recording Devapala’s help to King Balaputra of Suvarnadvipa was found. Several copper plate inscriptions recording major donations to Nalanda were also found here along with bronze sculptures. The dwelling was entered through a portico supported by columns and flanked by stucco figures. Two rooms in the north, which come across as later additions, have corbelled entrances with true vaulted roofs, a feature rarely seen in pre-Islamic monuments. The dwellings 1A and 1B lie almost perpendicular to the rest and connect them to Site 3. 1B is the smallest of all the monastic dwellings and was perhaps the earliest one to be constructed.

East of the monasteries is Temple 2, of which only the large plinth and lower portions remain. From the fragments lying near the structure, one can make out that it once stood as a tall temple. The plinth carries carved stone panels of deities and figures belonging to the late 7th century.

Eastwards of the excavated site is also the Temple of Sarai Mound, which was excavated recently. It once housed a colossal stucco image of the Buddha. The image’s stucco-covered stone pedestal was found to contain paintings. The multistoreyed temple was once enclosed by a wall and contained votive stupas and miniature shrines.

Beyond the excavated-enclosed area

Recent scholarship has brought about a shift in the way Nalanda is seen. It appears to have had larger geo-cultural connections than were previously realised, and the monastery complex may have been around twice the size of the excavated-enclosed area. The scholar M.B. Rajani, who uses remote sensing and Landsat images in her work, points out that there were at least three more temples, which now lie outside of the ticketed area: two of them to the north of Temple 14 and one to the south of Site 3. Landsat imagery also reveals the existence of several water tanks, or pokhars, around the enclosed site. These carefully planned, man-made tanks once demarcated the physical boundaries of the monastery complex.

Friedrich Asher makes some pertinent points that indicate the larger network and connections of Nalanda. First, the mahavihara must have had a dynamic relationship with the agricultural villages and habitations surrounding it. This would have helped the monastery meet its food requirements and source goods and services for the numerous resident monks who were exclusively consumers. Second, Nalanda was connected to the network of monasteries found in the vicinity. These include the famous Uddandapura monastery (also known as Odantapura and reportedly located in modern Bihar Sharif), lying 16 km to the north, where Atisha, the monk credited with spreading Buddhism in Tibet and Sumatra, reportedly taught; the Yashovarmapura monastery at Ghosrawan, lying 22 km to the east; and Telhara (Tiladhaka in ancient times), located 33 km to the north-west, from where the famous Black Buddha, now housed in the Teliya Bhandar Bhairav Mandir at Bargaon, was found. Nalanda’s history likewise is also connected to the images that were found in surrounding villages and are currently housed in modern temples and worshipped locally. A list of the villages would include names such as Ghosrawan, Tetrawan (where a huge, seated image of the Buddha was found), Bargaon, Jagdishpur (known for the huge, seated stone image of the Buddha now housed in the Rukmini-Harana-Sthana temple in Jagdishpur), Surajpur and Begumpur. These images formed a part of Nalanda’s artistic and sculptural achievements. To this list, one may add the stone and bronze sculptures excavated from Nalanda and now kept in the Nalanda Museum; the Patna Museum; the Indian Museum, Kolkata; and the National Museum, New Delhi. Asher also suggests the possibility of Nalanda having an artistic exchange with nearby regions such as Rajgir—whose urban secular culture may have supported the needs of a growing monk population at the mahavihara—and important Jaina pilgrimage sites such as Pawapuri and Kundalipur.

Rethinking the decline

The two major theories that explain the decline of Nalanda both talk about a possible destruction of the mahavihara and of a somewhat sudden or cataclysmic decline. Interestingly, both theories are based on texts written in the aftermath of the moment of sudden decline: one is based on a Persian text written around 60 years after the “destruction” and the other is based on Buddhist texts written 500 years after the alleged incident took place. There are some conspicuous gaps in both explanations.

The most common theory for the decline of Nalanda says the site was ransacked and destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khalji. This theory is entirely based on a Persian work by Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani (1193-1260) called Tabaqat-i Nasiri, which forms an elaborate history of the Islamic world during the reign of the Delhi sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah (1246-66). In this work, Minhaj writes that he learnt about the attack on the “fortress of Bihar” from two people who had participated in the sacking. The text reports that all the inhabitants of the region were Brahmins and their heads were shaven and all of them were killed. The invading army discovered a large number of books there, and when they tried to find out about the site, “it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindui [Hindi] tongue, they call a college Bihar”.

It is important to note that the word “Nalanda” is mentioned nowhere in Minhaj’s account; he talks about the ransacking of the “fortress of Bihar”, which many later historians, including Jadunath Sarkar, opine could have been “Odantapura-vihara”, or Odantapuri, in present-day Bihar Sharif, then known simply as Bihar. Odantapura’s precise location has never been known though. Others maintain that Nalanda “escaped the main fury of the Muslim conquest because it lay not on the main route from Delhi to Bengal but needed a separate expedition”. Some also argue that Bakhtiyar Khalji went from Bihar Sharif to Nadia in Bengal through the hills and jungles of present-day Jharkhand.

The second theory broadly locates the decline in the context of the animosity between Brahmins and Buddhists. It finds expression in the writings of historians such as D.N. Jha, B.N.S. Yadava, R.K. Mookerji and Sukumar Dutt. Unlike the first theory, this one specifically mentions the destruction of Nalanda and Buddhist viharas by a fire produced by Tirthika (a term used by some Buddhists for Hindus) beggars who had been humiliated by some resident monks. There are two versions of this incident. According to the version mentioned in the Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang, written by the monk and scholar Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor (1704-88), two angry Tirthika beggars, on whom the monks had thrown some washing water, set on fire the three building shrines of Dharmaganja—Ratnasagara, Ratnaranjaka, and the nine-storey Ratnodadhi, which contained the library of sacred books. According to the other version of the incident, recorded in History of Buddhism in India written by the Tibetan monk-cum-scholar Taranatha in the 17th century, one of the two angry Tirthika beggars engaged in surya sadhana (Sun worship) for 12 years and then destroyed 84 temples and the scriptures by a “miraculously produced fire”. Water flowing from an upper floor of the Ratnodadhi temple is said to have saved some of the scriptures.

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There is no doubt though that Turkish/Afghan invasions contributed to the decline of the Palas and Buddhist monuments and monastic establishments in Bihar and Bengal. Some monks inhabiting the region fled to Tibet and Nepal and some converted to Islam. However, some questions have still not been answered adequately. Did Nalanda decline suddenly in the wake of such invasions? Did Buddhism disappear completely from the region? When the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin visited Nalanda in 1234, he found “some buildings unscathed” in which some pandits and monks resided and received instruction from Mahapandita Rahulshribhadra. Available evidence suggests that from the 12th-13th century onwards Nalanda started losing its prominence as a centre of learning. It is important to note that around this time, Buddhism itself went through a period of overall decline in India and started acquiring stronger roots in other countries. Recent research, however, suggests new frameworks for looking at the process of the “decline” of Nalanda and the career of Buddhism in the region.

Reconfiguration of the sacred space

Departing from theories of a sudden and complete decline in the 12th-13th century, scholars such as Salila Kulshreshtha put forward an alternative history of Nalanda and Buddhism. She argues that in the period prior to the 12th-13th century and in its aftermath, one sees a reconfiguration of the sacred landscape of Nalanda that was characterised by a blurring of religious boundaries between Buddhism and Shaivism (a Hindu sect that worships Siva and related gods such as Ganesha and Kartikeya) and the mutual assimilation of rituals, icons, shrines and religious practices. Salila Kulshreshtha points out that the Buddha was not only assimilated within Hindu traditions through epics and Puranas as an incarnation of Vishnu but also through a close overlap with Shaivism as Bhairav. This partly explains how the giant Buddha image enshrined at the Rukmini-Harana-Sthana temple became associated with the Vaishnava tradition and came to be worshipped as Krishna and the accompanying Boddhisatva as Rukmini. Likewise, the large black Buddha image enshrined in the temple at Bargaon came to be worshipped as the Hindu god Bhairav and is popularly called Teliya Baba.

At another level, Mahayana Buddhism went through a process of gradual decline and change between the 7th and 11th centuries under the influence of Shaivism and Saktism (a sect that worships the power and energy of Hindu goddesses under names such as Parvati, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati) and moved towards a tantric form of Buddhism known as the Vajrayana or Mantrayana. Nalanda became one of the centres of Tantric Buddhism and developed close ties with Tibet and Nepal. These complex developments explain the presence of both Buddhist and Hindu images such as Saraswati, Surya, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Kubera, Kamadeva Trilokavijaya, Heuka, Marichi, Tata and Vageshwari among the artefacts recovered from the site and kept in the Nalanda Museum. They also help one understand the occurrence of sculptures of Hindu deities in the monastic dwellings and in the niches of the temples of the Buddhist mahavihara.

The debate regarding the decline of Nalanda goes on in academia and in the public domain, sometimes taking acrimonious forms. However, two things are clear. First, Nalanda was not just a premium centre of learning. Second, it needs to be studied in the context of its larger geo-cultural connections. The Nalanda region had a complex and multilayered past whether one talks about its artistic and sculptural achievements; or about the spatial and cultural overlapping of different religious affiliations and faiths; or about the agricultural and mercantile ecosystems that once sustained cities, empires, religious establishments and urban and rural cultures; or about the mahavihara’s linkages with individuals and institutions in other countries. So, while there have been efforts to revive the idea of Nalanda as a centre of learning—seen in the development of institutions such as the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, the Nalanda International University and the Xuanzang Memorial Hall—there should also be efforts to systemically excavate the site and its surroundings. A lot of history remains buried in those mounds and ruins.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history at undergraduate colleges in the University of Delhi. He is the author of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories (2021).

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