Towards the Southeast of Patna, the Capital City of Bihar State in India, is a village called the ‘Bada Gaon’, in the vicinity of which, are the world-famous ruins of Nalanda University. The ruins of the world’s most ancient university lies here which is 62 km from Bodhgaya and 90 km south of Patna.
A combination of the Sanskrit words “Nalum” depicting lotus (a symbol of knowledge) and “Da”, giver is the root of the word Nalanda-The Knowledge Giver, which, in its simplicity, describes the legendary International University situated in the present state of Bihar in eastern India. According to history there were three major learning centres between the 4th and the 9th century: Takshashila, Vikramshila and Nalanda. Though Takshashila was the first to be established, Nalanda was the one that was most renowned for its huge capacity, its residential system of learning and the diversity of subjects professed.
Its existence came to light only in the 1800s by the preliminary report of Francis Buchanan Hamilton (a physician and surveyor for British East India Company). Official survey of the site was carried out by Sir Alexander Cunningham (founder of the Archaeological Survey of India) following the accounts of a Chinese traveller Hsuan-tsang.
Hsuan-tsang is believed to have travelled from China to research Buddhism and had come across Nalanda University that he described as “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 Nalanda University had thrived through the rules of three successive dynasties and three visibly distinct architectural levels are identifiable with each dynasty. Ancient Buddhist scriptures records Nalanda to be first established by Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty as a Buddhist temple in the 2nd century. It was the core of Budhdhist learning and home to the legendary alchemist: Nagarjuna. It became a full-fledged University under the patronage of the Gupta Dynasty in the 5th century and 6th century. Later, it flourished during the reign of King Harshavardana of the Pushyabhuti Dynasty. Finally, the Pala Dynasty saw the fall of the Great University when it was destroyed by the invader Bhaktiyar Khilji who mistook it to be a fort of the empire.
The architecture of the University was at par with the modern-day. The vast campus was divided into 8 separate compounds with an open air classroom surrounded by dormitories for the students and a bore well as a source of water.
The total area of the excavation is about 14 hectares. All the edifices are of the red brick and the gardens are beautiful. The buildings are divided by a central walk way that goes south to north. The monasteries or “Viharas” are east of this central alley and the temple or “Chaiyas” to the west. The Vihara-1 is perhaps the most interesting with its cells on two floors built around a central courtyard where steps lead up to what must have been a dais for the professors to address their students. A small chapel still retains a half-broken statue of the Lord Buddha.
The classroom could hold over 30 students and had a raised platform on one end constructed for the teacher’s seating.
The dormitories were series of small square rooms with one window and a door which could slide shut. It had shelves engraved into the walls to hold the boarder’s belongings. The walls were made thick to provide natural cooling in the intense summers and heating in the harsh winters. It also boasted of a highly efficient drainage system.
Along with the 8 compounds there is evidence of a communal kitchen, storage areas, lakes, parks and temples and memorials of students and teachers who were deceased during their tenure.
Nalanda also housed a library which held innumerable manuscripts and texts not only of Budhdhism but also of various literature and sciences like astronomy and medicine. It was said that the collection of texts were so huge in number, that the library burnt for three months when Bhaktiyar Khilji destroyed it.
The students of the University were highly regarded throughout. It was visited by both Lord Mahavira (founder of Jainism) and Lord Buddha (founder of Buddhism). Shariputra, one of the most notable followers of Buddha was born here and also attained nirvana. Other notable students include Aryabhatta (propagator of the decimal system) and Nagarjuna (The Father of Iatrochemistry). The students were admitted by gate keepers who were learned monks. Admission was granted only when the seeker passed a preliminary examination by the gate keepers. The historic version of Entrance Exams!
This historical site is painstakingly restored and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. It is a must visit for travellers with both historic and non-historic interests. You are welcome to marvel the art and architecture and the philosophy behind them or you can get into one of the student quarters and relive the pranks they would have played on their friends and teachers.
An interesting video to watch on this World’s oldest Nalanda University:
Author: Krittika Nandy – A molecular biologist with inherited homologous dominant travel genes, I have lived in or traveled to most Indian states and have friends from the rest. I am less of an adventurous traveler and more of a luxury vacationer. Put me in a middle of a city or a crowded beach, I am in my element. An uninhabited mountain trek or a forest camp would probably be the cause of my death. I absolutely hate stereotypes and yes, I am a Bengali who hates fish!