When you want to start sharing experiences of the travels you have undertaken in this wonderful journey of life, the question that stares at you is “which one to begin with?” 

After visiting various places, I decided to go Nalanda which is situated in Bihar. From many of my friends were visited there and after heard the stories I make my decision.

The famous Nalanda was an acclaimed Mahavihara, a large Buddhist monastery in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, Bihar in India. At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from near and far with some traveling all the way from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex. The site is located about 95 kilometers southeast of Patna near the town of Bihar Sharif and was a center of learning from the seventh century BCE to c. 1200 CE. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This heritage site is what drew me to it. Having arrived by noon I had plenty of time to walk around the site. 

After buying tickets from the ticket counter, I had a guide who can explain the sites glory. The guide told that Nalanda was very likely ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Mameluke Dynasty of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate under Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1200 CE. While some sources note that the Mahavihara continued to function in a makeshift fashion for a while longer, it was eventually abandoned and forgotten until the 19th century when the site was surveyed and preliminary excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. Systematic excavations commenced in 1915 which unearthed eleven monasteries and six brick temples neatly arranged on grounds 12 hectares (30 acres) in area. A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions have also been discovered in the ruins many of which are on display in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum situated nearby. Nalanda is now a notable tourist destination and a part of the Buddhist tourism circuit. 

Though the heritage takes place highly formalized methods of Vedic learning helped inspire the establishment of large teaching institutions such as Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramshila which are often characterized as India’s early universities. Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries and later under Harsha, the emperor of Kannauj. The liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age resulted in a period of growth and prosperity until the ninth century. The subsequent centuries were a time of gradual decline, a period during which the tantric developments of Buddhism became most pronounced in eastern India under the Pala Empire. Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of pilgrim monks from East Asia such as Xuanzang and Yijing who traveled to the Mahavihara in the 7th century. Vincent Smith remarked that “a detailed history of Nalanda would be a history of Mahayanist Buddhism”. Many of the names listed by Xuanzang in his travelogue as products of Nalanda are the names of those who developed the philosophy of Mahayana. All students at Nalanda studied Mahayana as well as the texts of the eighteen (Hinayana) sects of Buddhism. Their curriculum also included other subjects such as the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, and Samkhya.

Nalanda was initially a prosperous village by a major trade route that ran through the nearby city of Rajagriha which was then the capital of Magadha. It is said that the Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika and one of his two chief disciples, Shariputra, was born in the area and later attained nirvana there. This traditional association with Mahavira and Buddha tenuously dates the existence of the village to at least the 5th–6th century BCE. Not much is known of Nalanda in the centuries hence. Taranatha, the 17th-century Tibetan Lama, states that the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan and Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Shariputra chaitya. He also places 3rd-century CE luminaries such as the Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna and his disciple, Aryadeva, at Nalanda with the former also heading the institution. Taranatha also mentions a contemporary of Nagarjuna named Suvishnu building 108 temples at the location. While this could imply that there was a flourishing center for Buddhism at Nalanda before the 3rd century, no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support the assertion. When Faxian, an early Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India, visited Nalo, the site of Shariputra parinirvana, at the turn of the 5th century CE, all he found worth mentioning was a stupa.

While its excavated ruins today only occupy an area of around 1,600 feet by 800 feet or roughly 12 hectares, Nalanda Mahavihara occupied a far greater area in medieval times. It was considered an architectural masterpiece and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. Nalanda was a residential school, i.e. it had dormitories for students. In its heyday, it is claimed to have accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Chinese pilgrims estimated the number of students to have been between 3,000 and 5,000. The subjects taught at Nalanda covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia, and Turkey. Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the school in the 7th century. He described how the regularly laid-out towers, a forest of pavilions, harmikas and temples seemed to “soar above the mists in the sky” so that from their cells the monks “might witness the birth of the winds and clouds”. The pilgrim states: “An 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.

 

Its evident from the large numbers of texts that Yijing carried back with him after his 10-year residence at Nalanda, that the Mahavihara must have featured a well-equipped library. Traditional Tibetan sources mention the existence of a great library at Nalanda named Dharmaganja (Piety Mart) which comprised three large multi-storeyed buildings, the Ratnasagar (Ocean of Jewels), the Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels), and the Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-adorned). Ratnodadhi was nine floors high and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Guhyasamaja. The exact number of volumes in the Nalanda library is not known. But it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands. The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The Nalanda library must have had a classification scheme which was possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the Sanskrit linguist, Panini. Buddhist texts were most likely divided into three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra and the Abhidhamma.

In his biography of Xuanzang, Hwui-Li states that all the students of Nalanda studied the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) as well as the works of the eighteen (Hinayana) sects of Buddhism. In addition to these, they studied other subjects such as the Vedas, Hetuvidyā (Logic), Shabdavidya (Grammar and Philology), Chikitsa Vidya (Medicine), the works on magic (the Atharvaveda), and Samkhya. Xuanzang himself studied a number of these subjects at Nalanda under Shilabhadra and others. Besides Theology and Philosophy, frequent debates and discussions necessitated competence in Logic. A student at the Mahavihara had to be well-versed in the systems of Logic associated with all the different schools of thought of the time as he was expected to defend Buddhist systems against the others. Other subjects believed to have been taught at Nalanda include law, astronomy, and city-planning. Tibetan tradition holds that there were “four doxographies” (Tibetan: grub-mtha’) which were taught at Nalanda: Sarvastivada Vaibhashika, Sarvastivada Sautrantika, Madhyamaka, the Mahayana philosophy of Nagarjuna Chittamatra, the Mahayana philosophy of Asanga and Vasubandhu. In the 7th century, Xuanzang recorded the number of teachers at Nalanda as being around 1510. Of these, approximately 1000 were able to explain 20 collections of sutras and shastras, 500 were able to explain 30 collections, and only 10 teachers were able to explain 50 collections. Xuanzang was among the few who were able to explain 50 collections or more. At this time, only the abbot Shilabhadra had studied all the major collections of sutras and shastras at Nalanda.

A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the teachers and traditions at Nalanda. Shantarakshita, who pioneered the propagation of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century was a scholar of Nalanda. He was invited by the Tibetan king, Khri-sron-deu-tsan, and established the monastery at Samye, serving as its first abbot. He and his disciple Kamalashila (who was also of Nalanda) essentially taught Tibetans how to do philosophy. Padmasambhava, who was also invited from Nalanda Mahavihara by the king in 747 CE, is credited as a founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The scholar Dharmakirti, one of the Buddhist founders of Indian philosophical logic, as well as one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism, taught at Nalanda. Other forms of Buddhism, such as the Mahayana Buddhism followed in Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan, flourished within the walls of the ancient school. A number of scholars have associated some Mahayana texts such as the Shurangama Sutra, an important sutra in East Asian Buddhism, with the Buddhist tradition at Nalanda. Ron Epstein also notes that the general doctrinal position of the sutra does indeed correspond to what is known about the Buddhist teachings at Nalanda toward the end of the Gupta period when it was translated.

The decline of Nalanda is concomitant with the disappearance of Buddhism in India. When Xuanzang traveled the length and breadth of India in the 7th century, he observed that his religion was in slow decay and even had ominous premonitions of Nalanda’s forthcoming demise. Buddhism had steadily lost popularity with the laity and thrived, thanks to royal patronage, only in the monasteries of Bihar and Bengal. By the time of the Palas, the traditional Mahayana and Hinayana forms of Buddhism were imbued with Tantric practices involving secret rituals and magic. The rise of Hindu philosophies in the subcontinent and the waning of the Buddhist Pala dynasty after the 11th century meant that Buddhism was hemmed in on multiple fronts, political, philosophical, and moral. The final blow was delivered when its still-flourishing monasteries, the last visible symbols of its existence in India, were overrun during the Muslim invasion that swept across Northern India at the turn of the 13th century.

 

At sundown, around 6:00 p.m. I returned to the car who took me to my next destination. The ruins give me a memorable day and lots of knowledge

 

Travelogue by Dibyendu

 

 

He loves to take photos of various places, especially the heritage sites. He lives in Kolkata and works for an NGO. His desires to visit many places. You may find him on FB @chatterjee dibyendu. 

 

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