Seat of Timeless Wisdom
One of the world’s most ancient seats of knowledge is Nalanda, a university whose ruins are located at a distance of 12 km from Rajgir in Bihar. The ancient university is presently undergoing an extensive restoration by some of India’s most renowned architects and planners, and it reopened in early 2022 with a revived curriculum and fresh spirit.
Nalanda is best known for its wealth of Tibetan or Mahayana Buddhism, especially that which the Dalai Lama calls the ‘Nalanda Tradition’. The institution was founded in the 5th century in Rajagriha, or modern day Rajgir, (literally translating to ‘the abode of kings’), the capital of the ancient Magadha kingdom, by Gupta ruler Shakraditya or Kumaragupta I (415 – 455 AD) as a Buddhist monastery. Nalanda Mahavihara was eventually noted as the world’s first residential education centre that drew pupils and scholars from across South East Asia for nearly 700 years. It prospered from the 5th to 12th centuries, during the Gupta rule including Buddhagupta, Baladitya, Tathagatagupta and Vajra. King Ashoka, Harshavardhan and the Pala dynasty subsequently added more temples and cloisters to the compound. The admittance was rigorous at the time, with just two out of every 10 candidates qualifying for the prestigious opportunity.
However, it was not until 1811-1812 that this shining piece of history was rediscovered, when locals pulled British surveyor Francis Buchanan-Hamilton into a vast ground of ruins in the area. Buchanan-Hamilton surveyed the site, and it was only in 1847 that the remains and debris were linked to Nalanda by Major Markham Kittoe. In 1861-1862, Alexander Cunningham and the then newly formed Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted an official inspection, and a meticulous excavation of the ruins by the ASI was conducted in 1915, ending in 1937. It was after these examinations that Cunningham pieced together the history of the Mahavihara using the accounts of Chinese travellers Hiuen Tsang and Yijing, who had studied there.
What stands today may just be a small portion of the grand Mahavihara. Past reports state that Nalanda, with close to 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers across its campus, may have stretched over a few hundred acres. One can observe traces of the monasteries, brick temples and lecture halls, their red brick buildings divided by a central walkway and a remarkable drainage system. Monasteries for resident students are to the east of this and the temple is to the west.
Nalanda is also said to have accommodated a multi-storey library called Dharmaganja (piety mart), its three floors – ratnaranjaka (jewel-adorned), ratnodadhi (sea of jewels) and ratnasagara (ocean of jewels) – housing sacred manuscripts and texts on medicine, astronomy, astrology and literature among other subjects. The university boasted of multiple monastic buildings and a number of viharas that served as single or shared rooms. Each building had its own temple, personal locker system, kitchen and dining area with a granary. Most edifices show evidence of numerous constructions over the centuries, with new structures having been built atop the ruins of old ones.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its excavated remains, including Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, coins, seals, inscriptions as well as two huge jars from the first century and samples of burnt rice, are preserved at the neighboring Nalanda Archaeological Museum. Seminal to the Buddhist and Jain communities, Nalanda witnesses thousands of sightseers every year from across Asia and the world.
In 2018, then Indian President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated the 4th International Dharma-Dhamma Conference at the Rajgir International Convention Centre in Bihar. Held in collaboration with the India Foundation, Ministry of External Affairs and the Vietnam Buddhist University, the three-day conference highlighted the promotion of peace and human values by bringing together some brilliant minds from East Asia and Central Asia on one platform of knowledge.
The discourse embraced the universal values of Buddhism and unity. A vast revival project has also been underway to renovate the establishment and bring back its glory in the contemporary context.