The Story of Nalanda University: Ancient India’s Greatest Center of Learning

The Story of Nalanda University: Ancient India’s Greatest Center of Learning

Nalanda, which was established in 427 CE, is regarded as the first residential university in history. It was a medieval Ivy League school with nine million volumes and 10,000 students from all over Eastern and Central Asia. They assembled here to study with some of the most renowned thinkers of the day about medicine, logic, mathematics, and—most importantly—Buddhist teachings. “The source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have has come from Nalanda,” the Dalai Lama once said.

There was nothing else like Nalanda in the world throughout the more than seven centuries that it was prosperous. The monastic university is more than 500 years older than the University of Oxford and Bologna, the oldest institution in Europe. Furthermore, even after the university had closed, Nalanda’s enlightened philosophy and religion would influence Asia’s culture.

Archeological Excavations At Nalanda University

Archaeologist David Spooner described the finding of a 24-foot high wall, 600 clay tables, and 211 individually carved stone panels enclosing the Baladitya temple in modern-day Bihar in a 1917 report by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. One of the most exquisite wonders of its day was the digging that took place within a kilometer square of the Nalanda district.

Daily usage items and bronze ritualistic objects are two ancient artifacts discovered at Nalanda University. Around Nalanda, hundreds of more pieces of archeological evidence were found, including clay seals, terracotta ornaments, and metal sculptures of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist icons. The Nalanda Museum preserves symbols and panels from the Pala era, which were found by Dr. Spooner in 1915.

During the excavation, a few manuscripts and inscriptions were also discovered. The texts were preserved because the fleeing monks took them with them. Three of them are on exhibit, including the Dharanisamgraha folios (1075 AD) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita at the Asia Society, and the Yarlung Museum in Tibet, which has 139 leaves and painted wooden pages.

Ashtasahasrika PrajnaparamitaSource: Wikimedia Commons

How Nalanda University Began

According to legend, five hundred merchants paid ten kotis (an ancient currency) of gold for the area now home to Nalanda University. They gave the space to Lord Buddha, who gave sermons in a Pvrikmbavana (Pavarika’s mango orchard) for many years. According to another researcher, Kumaragupta I of the Gupta Dynasty founded the university (415-455 CE). The successive Gupta Emperors made quick investments in the university’s expansion in religion and knowledge. The structure housed eight monasteries, 11,000 cells, three libraries, and about 2000 students while they were in charge of it. The compassion and grace of their modern masters allowed the university’s monks and students to endure.

Nalanda held two hundred adjacent villages between 606 and 647 CE, thanks to the generosity of the Pala monarchs. In the following centuries, the Turks invaded the land given to the Indian monks.

Buddhist Study Center in a Monastic Setting

According to Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang, after the third or fourth century AD, Nalanda saw a flourishing intellectual exchange of information. There were 10,000 monks and 1510 teachers on the campus when he was a student. Archaeologists and contemporary Indologists estimate that there were between 1000 and 4000 people. The university’s monks practiced Buddhist rites, traditions, and customs to remember Lord Buddha.

The events are described by the Chinese philosopher I-Sing. Each morning they started with the beating of a gong, and in the evening, the monks met to perform chaityavandan.

The three-building, nine-story library of Nalanda University, with a volume of 9 million manuscripts, is described by Tibetan scholar Taranatha in his journey diaries. There have been many intellectual giants in history who were born at the old university. Eventually, other rival maha viharas appeared nearby in opposition to the university’s doctrinal predisposition toward tantric doctrines and magic rituals of Mahayana Buddhism. Dynastic Pala monarchs supported Vikramshila and Taxila, the new replicas of Nalanda, and urged the monks and prospective student populace to transfer there to perpetuate the university’s history.

Corridor Of Nalanda LibrarySource: Wikimedia Commons

The Value Of Teaching And Education

Nalanda University accepted students from a wide range of nationalities, including those from nations that were even further away, such as Iran, Greece, and Mongolia, as well as from nearby regions like Korea, Japan, China, and Indonesia. The educational facility offered a range of courses in medicine, the arts, philosophy, and religious studies, with concentrations in astrology, psychology, law, history, mathematics, economics, and medical science on the list.

The institution had higher academic standards than those of current American Ivy League universities. The value of knowledge was not based on its commercial utility. Whereas non-Buddhist students studied to understand the unknown, Buddhist students sought nirvana (salvation) through their studies.

Each participant was supposed to remain hip-tied to their gurus (teachers) for at least eight years. A teacher’s relationship with their student was revered. Buddha compared the students to “servants” engaged in a noble cause, and he reached the teacher’s level of commitment to a father’s love for his son.

The Buildings And Architecture

Each monastery and temple of Nalanda University had a specific mission and belonged to one of several different religions, primarily Buddhism and Hinduism. They had towers, panels, and votive stupas in their design. The Gupta dynasty is known for the ornate artwork on the buildings, which features images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and characters from Jataka stories. Hindu gods and goddesses were depicted in themes on the panels of another temple.

Stupas Near Nalanda UniversitySource: Flickr

The Tragedy That Befell Nalanda University

According to the historical account promoted by colonial historians, a small-time thief who was overly eager to advance Islamic interests in the Indian subcontinent was responsible for the demise of Nalanda University. Afghan-born Bakhtiyar Khalji frequently pillaged Magadha and the nearby villages in search of gold, food, and horses. He became a hundred times richer thanks to the gold he looted from Buddhist temples and found during his raids on them. The monks were compelled to escape because of Turkish incursions, and a century later; academics reported Nalanda as utterly empty and deserted.

Only two viharas (monasteries) survived the brutality of the Turks out of the eight temples and 98 viharas (fourteen great and 84 little) that comprised the complete building. Moreover, only the surrounding walls with the eastern and western entrances were unaltered.

The 21st Century at Nalanda University

In 2010, the Indian Parliament approved a measure that called for restoring the 1,600-year-old city of Nalanda. Nalanda University formally reopened for academic purposes on September 14, 2014. Out of 1000 applicants worldwide, only 15 individuals were ultimately accepted to commemorate the selection process of ancient Nalanda. Yale University, Chinese Peking University, the European Consortium for Asian Field Study, and the Archeological Survey of India are a few of the new university’s domestic and international partners.

India, both in its past and present, has always prioritized education. Whether Rishis imparted the mantras, Aryabhata found nothing; therefore, India has contributed significantly to the world through education since the beginning. As we examine India’s past, we can see that several institutions in India attracted researchers from all over the world and were well-known internationally. One of these prominent universities, Nalanda, significantly impacted the world.

About The Author

Rajika Nanayakkara

My name is Rajika Nanayakkara and I am a passionate writer with a deep love for ancient history. With a keen eye for detail and a natural curiosity, I have dedicated myself to exploring the mysteries and wonders of the past. Through my writing, I seeks to bring the stories of ancient civilizations to life, providing a glimpse into the rich and fascinating world of our ancestors. My writings has been featured through

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