Nalanda University: An Ancient Indian Ivy-League Institution

Nalanda University boasted a campus with 9 million books and architecture so vast, it took 3 months to burn down completely. Read about the world’s oldest, cultural, and international university.

Sep 16, 2020By Simran Sood, BA History and Anthropology (in-progress)
nalanda mahavihara archeological ruins
Archeological Ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara, 21st century, via UNESCO


Western establishments like Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, Harvard, etc. have been sanctified for their education and guidance for the past two centuries. However, a thousand years prior to the worldwide colonization of Europeans, Asian centers of learning such as Nalanda Mahavihara of Magadha were renowned for their academic excellence. The architecture of the Buddhist monastic center was similar to our modern university towns, which provide lodging and boarding for their students. 


Founded in 427 C.E., Nalanda Mahavihara, or Nalanda University, lasted for over 700 hundred years. It survived political waves, the rise and fall of civilizations, religious wars, and the birth of intellectual greats for almost a millennium before the Turks destroyed it.


Archeological Excavations At Nalanda University

nalanda excavations bihar
Nalanda Excavations in Bihar, India, 1917-35, via Google Arts and Culture


In a 1917 notice by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, archeologist David Spooner detailed the discovery of a 24-feet high wall, 600 clay tables, and 211 uniquely carved stone panels surrounding the Baladitya temple, situated in modern-day Bihar. The digging performed around a kilometer square of Nalanda district was counted as one of the most beautiful marvels of its time. 


Antiquarian artifacts found on the Nalanda University site are categorized under daily use objects and bronze ritualistic materials. Hundreds of other archaeological shreds of evidence were dug up near Nalanda: clay seals, terracotta ornaments, and metal figurines of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist icons. Symbols and panels from the Pala period, discovered by Dr. Spooner in 1915, are conserved at the Nalanda Museum.


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A few manuscripts and inscriptions were also found during the excavation. Fleeing monks preserved the manuscripts by taking it with them. Three of them include Dharanisamgraha’s folios (1075 AD) displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita is at the Asia Society center and 139 leaves and painted wooden pages are available at Yarlung Museum, Tibet. 


The Origin Of Nalanda University

stolen statue buddha
Stolen Statue of Buddha (surfaced after 57 years), 12th century, via the Smithsonian, Washington D.C.


Legend has it that Nalanda University land was purchased for 10 kotis (old currency form) of gold pieces by five hundred merchants. They gifted the land to Lord Buddha, who preached under a Pāvārikāmbavana (mango grove of Pavarika) for several years. Another scholar writes that the university was founded by Kumaragupta I of the Gupta Dynasty (415-455 CE). The succeeding Gupta Emperors promptly invested in the religious and epistemic growth of the university. Under their reign, the building had eight monasteries, 11,000 cells, three libraries, and around 2000 pupils in attendance. The monks and students of the university survived on the generosity and grace of their contemporary rulers. Between 606-647 CE, Nalanda owned 200 villages nearby with the grace of many generations of Pala kings. The land allotted to the Indian monasteries attracted the Turk invasions in the next centuries.


A Monastic Center Of Buddhist Learning

nalanda stupa monastery manasa snake goddess
Nalanda, Stupa and Monastery in Bihar, India, 8th– 10th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (left); with Manasa, Snake Goddess Bronze Figurine, produced at Nalanda, 750, via The British Museum, London (right)


Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang notes that the intellectual flow of knowledge flourished in Nalanda after the 3rd or 4th centuries AD. During his time as a student, 1510 teachers and 10,000 monks were present on the campus. Modern-day Indologists and archeologists predict that the number ranged somewhere between 1000 to 4000. The monks at the university practiced a set of Buddhist customs, rituals, and traditions to honor Lord Buddha. Chinese philosopher I-Sing narrates the proceedings: every morning, they began with beating a gong, and in the evening, the monks gathered around to perform chaityavandan


Tibetan scholar Taranatha writes in his travelogues about the three-building, nine-story library of Nalanda University, with a volume of 9 million manuscripts. The ancient university has birthed several intellectual greats in history. Eventually, in opposition to the university’s ideological inclination towards tantric doctrines and magic rites of Mahayana Buddhism, several competing mahaviharas cropped up in the area. To reproduce the university’s legacy, dynastic Pala rulers financed Vikramshila and Taxila, the new knockoffs of Nalanda, and urged the monks and potential student crowd to transfer there.


The Sacredness Of Education And Teaching

terracotta clay seal buddhist inscriptions
Terracotta Clay Seal with Buddhist Inscriptions, 10th century, via The British Museum, London


Nalanda University accepted students of reaching nationalities, including from neighboring regions such as Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, and even farther countries like Iran, Greece, Mongolia. The center of learning provided a mixture of courses in medicine, arts, philosophies, and religious studies; the list included specialties in literature, astrology, psychology, law, astronomy history, mathematics, economics, and medical science.


The institute had higher educational standards than today’s American Ivy League colleges. There was not a commercial value associated with the sanctity of knowledge. Buddhist students coveted to attain nirvana (salvation) through their learnings and non-Buddhist students trained to comprehend the unknown. 


Each attendee was expected to be attached-by-the-hip to their gurus (teachers) for eight years and more. The bond between a teacher and their pupil was sacred. The pupils were ‘servants’ following a noble pursuit and Buddha himself compared the dedication level of the teacher to the love a father has for his son.


Exclusivity And Elitism: The Difficult Admission And Learning Process

Asthasahasrika Prajnaparamita
Inked palm-leaf folio, Asthasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, via The Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Similar to the way the much-gritted and difficult to crack SATs and IELTS haunt today’s young generation, the challenging ‘entrance exams’ of Nalanda were administered by Dwaracharyas (learned pundits), various gatekeepers, and finally, through a separate board of teachers specially assigned to handling the admission process. 


Chinese philosopher Xuanzang (602-644 AD) recited that a series of tasks were set for a prospective student prior to admissions. They had to be well-versed in religious and philosophical Hindu and Buddhist texts. Debates, conversations, and tutorials were part and parcel of the teaching methods. The final exams were conducted with the help of innovative modes: the students had to participate in debates/discussions with the gatekeepers, and their grading system was regulated by the satisfaction level of the examiner’s assessment. 


The education was not for all. The main goal of Nalanda University, the most famous institute of its time, was to impart spiritual lessons and moral code to its students. The patriarchal and religion-based society ensured that the student body only consisted of upper caste, male candidates.


The Architecture And Buildings 

nalanda temple bihar india
Nalanda, Temple 3 in Bihar, India, 7th-8th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Each monastery and temple of Nalanda University was assigned different purposes and had ranging religious affiliations, namely Buddhism and Hinduism. They were designed with towers, panels, and votive stupas. The decorative art on the towers, depicting figures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and characters from Jataka tales, can be dated back to the Gupta dynasty. The panels of another temple illustrated motifs of Hindu gods and goddesses. 


In the 3rd century, Ashoka, the propagator of Buddhism in India, constructed a stupa to honor Lord Buddha’s second discipline, Sariputta, the native of Nalanda. An Emperor from the Gupta Dynasty ordered the construction of a six-level pavilion and installation of a twenty-four-meter high copper Buddha. The 12th descendant of the Guptas, Narasimha Gupta Baladitya (470-535 AD) erected a ninety-one-meter vihara around the statue of Buddha. In the 7th century, Emperor Harshavardhana of Kannauj built a brass monastery inside the area. 


The Devastating Destruction Of Nalanda University 

sculpture bohisatva head
Sculpture of a Bodhisattva head, 7th-8th century, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The historical narrative, propagated by the colonial historians, recounts that the decline of Nalanda University was caused by a petty plunderer, overzealous in forwarding Islamic interests in the Indian subcontinent. Bakhtiyar Khalji, a native of Afghanistan, repeatedly plundered Magadha and the neighboring villages for gold, food supplies, and horses. The gold found during his loots and raids of the Buddhist monasteries made him a hundred times richer. The invasions of the Turks forced the monks to flee and a century later, scholars described Nalanda to be completely deserted and empty. Out of the eight temples and 98 viharas (fourteen large and 84 small) of the entire architecture, two viharas (monasteries) survived the brutality of the Turks; also, only the bordering walls with eastern and western gates were left intact. 


In Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, Minaj-i-Siraj describes the burning of 9 million scripts and the campus building of Nalanda: “Thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism. The burning of the library continued for several months and smoke from the burning manuscripts hung…like a dark pall over the low hills.”


Post-Khilji And The Decline Of Buddhism

brahmakund hot water springs
Brahmakund (Hot water springs) near Nalanda, via Google Arts and Culture 


Mahipala was the last ruler to provide patronage to Nalanda before it was ransacked. In the next period of Indian history, the Rajputs (10th-12th century), and the Gahadwala kings directed their grants towards Brahmanical institutions. Bhagavad Gita, a holy script of ‘Puranic Brahmanism’, systematically charged at the epistemological learning of Nalanda. Queen Kumardevï of Sārnāth had attempted to restore Nalanda to its previous glory, but it was in vain. The rise of Brahmanism and the decline of Buddhism were occurring in parallel lengths.


Nalanda University In The 21st Century 

buddhist monks nalanda
Buddhist monks at Nalanda, 21st century, via The Smithsonian, Washington D.C.


A bill proposing the revival of 1,600-year-old Nalanda was passed in Indian Parliament in 2010. On 14th September 2014, Nalanda University officially opened its doors again for learning. To honor the selection process of ancient Nalanda, only 15 candidates, out of 1000 applicants worldwide, were admitted after rigorous screening. Some of the national and international partners of the new university are Yale University, Chinese Peking University, European Consortium for Asian Field Study, and the Archeological Survey of India.


The revivalism of Nalanda has been a failure up until now. The plan was to open seven graduate and postgraduate world-class research universities by 2020. However, several students and faculty have dropped out because it is situated on the rural outskirts of Rajgir, disconnected by two hours from the capital city of Patna. 


Amartya Sen, a reputed Indian economist, recently stepped down from the position of University Chancellor, amidst a lot of controversies. If the Nobel Prize-winning polymath could not see to it, then what chance does the rest of the world have in aiding Nalanda to retain its past glory?

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By Simran SoodBA History and Anthropology (in-progress)Simran works independently as a writer and researcher. She is a student of History and Anthropology. Currently, she is assisting in the writing of an archaeological and historical book. She is also a part-time assistant for philosopher Volker Zotz. When she’s not busy typing at the rate of sixty words per minute, you can find her lazing around and hopelessly devouring historical romance dramas.