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Nalanda: Where Ruins Ooze History – Part 1

Nalanda: Where Ruins Ooze History – Part 1

Nalanda Site

Nalanda was the first residential university in Asia with around 2000 teachers and 10,000 students. It thrived during an era when India was a coveted place for studies. In a two-part series, the author Prasanta Paul, tries to explore trappings of history

Towards the southeast of Patna, the capital city of Bihar, is a village called the ‘Bada Gaon’ in the vicinity of which are the world famous Nalanda University.

The university flourished from the 5th to the 12th century, acquiring a unique fame and name for being the ancient seat of learning where nearly 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world lived and studied.

Folios from a Dharanisamgraha, manuscript from Nalanda, circa 1075
Folios from a Dharanisamgraha, manuscript from Nalanda, circa 1075. Image courtesy : Wikipedia Public Domain

Nalanda is one of the few places distinguished as having been blessed by the presence of Lord Buddha. Buddha literally means a stage after attainment of  ‘Learning’, something which is vast and infinite.

The place later became the site of the great monastic learning and knowledge. Gradually as it turned into a university, it became the crown jewel of the development of Buddhism in India.

The name -`Nalanda’ – is derived from one of Shakyamuni’s former births, when he was a king whose capital was there.

There are many versions of what the term `Nalanda’ means. One theory says ‘nalam’ means lotus and ‘da’ means to give. Both combined together, Nalanda means Giver of Lotus. And since Lotus is symbolic of knowledge, Nalanda means `Giver of Knowledge.’

According to a Chinese legend, a naga was injured during the digging of earth to lay the foundation of a monastery. Soothsayers observed : “This is a very crucial site, superior to many. If you build here a sangharama (monastery), it will become highly renowned throughout the five Indies.”

“For a period of thousand years, it will flourish. Students of all degrees will accomplish their studies here. But many will spit blood because of the wound given to the naga.”

Nalanda was one of the epithets of the king, which means ‘insatiable in giving.’ This place saw the rise and fall of many empires and emperors who contributed to the development of Nalanda University. They built many monasteries and temples.

Nagarjuna, a Mahayana philosopher, Dinnaga, founder of the school of logic and Dharmapala, a Brahmin scholar, taught in the university.

Excavated ruins of the monasteries of Nalanda.
Excavated ruins of the monasteries of Nalanda. Picture courtesy : Wikipedia Public Domain

Series of excavation have unearthed many stupas, chaityas, ancient Buddhist establishments, temples, monasteries, hostels, meditation halls, lecture halls and many other structures which speak of the grandeur the place had enjoyed, when it was the centre of serious study and learning.

The finds also highlight the significance of the place as the most important Buddhist centre of worship and culture.

According to Jain scriptures, Vardhamana Mahavira spent as many as fourteen rainy seasons in Nalanda.

Pali Buddhist literature has ample references to Nalanda which used to be visited by Lord Buddha. During the days of Mahavira and Buddha, Nalanda was reported to be a very prosperous temple city, a great place for pilgrimage and the site of a celebrated university.

Nagarjuna, the famous Mahayana philosopher of the 2nd century AD, studied at Nalanda. The Gupta kings patronized the monasteries, built in the old Kushan architectural style, in a row of cells around a courtyard.

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The Buddha Statue
The Black Buddha Statue, Nalanda

King Harshavardhana had gifted a 25 meter tall copper statue of Gautam Buddha. Hie-un-Tsang, the famous Chinese traveller and scholar, had carefully described ecstatic accounts of both the ambience and architecture of this unique university.

Nalanda was a flourishing centre of learning in many a way like a modern university. A rigorous oral entry examination used to be conducted by extremely knowledgeable gatekeepers and students used to be turned away if their answers failed to satisfy the keepers.

To study or to have finished one’s study at Nalanda was a matter of great prestige. However, no degree was granted nor was a specific period of study required.  Monks measured time by a water clock which was divided equally for study and religious rites and practices.

Thangka image depicting Shakaymuni Buddha and 17 Nalanda Pandits.
Thangka image depicting Shakaymuni Buddha and 17 Nalanda Pandits. Image courtesy of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Nalanda eventually developed into the greatest centre of Buddhist learning in Asia as a result of which a large number of students from China, Korea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and from various other regions of India flocked to Nalanda to study.

The libraries were vast and widely renowned, although there is a legend of a malicious fire in which many texts were destroyed and irrevocably lost.

During the Gupta age, the practice and study of the Mahayana, especially the Madhyamaka, flourished. However, from 750 AD, in the Pala age, there was an increase in the study and propagation of tantric teachings. Pandit Abhaya Kargupta, a renowned tantric practioner, left ample evidence of it.

(To Be continued)

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