They say, that the fire set by the Muslim invaders to burn down the Great Library of ancient Nalanda University had burnt for three long months; So huge was the library which was located in a nine storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced. That was probably 12th century. It was known as Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth) or Dharmagañja (Treasury of Truth). It was the most renowned repository of Buddhist knowledge in the world at that time. The library had three main buildings as high as nine stories tall, Ratnasagara (Sea of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Ocean of Jewels), and Ratnarañjaka (Delighter of Jewels).
While entering the premises of the excavated university ruins, I felt a thrill which can’t be explained in words. I felt immense pride. At a time 10000 students and 2000 teachers!!! And what not did they teach?
According to an unattributed article of the Dharma Fellowship (2005), the curriculum of Nalanda University at the time of Mañjuśrīmitra contained:
…virtually the entire range of world knowledge then available. Courses were drawn from every field of learning, Buddhist and Hindu, sacred and secular, foreign and native. Students studied science, astronomy, medicine, and logic as diligently as they applied themselves to metaphysics, philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Veda, and the scriptures of Buddhism. They studied foreign philosophy likewise.
It is worth mentioning that the university used to provide free education.
There’s so much to tell that I’m unable to understand where to start. Well, lets start from the beginning itself. Nalanda means insatiable in giving. Lord Buddha has stayed at Nalanda several times. Sāriputta, the right hand disciple of the Buddha, was born and died in Nālandā.
Nalanda University was established during the time of Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta. Ashoka the great is also supposed to have contributed to the construction of several monasteries. He had built a stupa in memory of Sāriputta.
In 1193, the Nalanda University was sacked by the Islamic fanatic Bakhtiyar Khilji, the Turkish invader. This event is seen by scholars as a late milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India. It is said that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword. The burning of the library continued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 CE at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal).
In 1235 the Tibetan pilgrim Chag Lotsawa found a 90 year old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, with a class of seventy students. Rahula Shribhadra managed to survive through the support of a local brahmin and did not leave until he had completed educating his last Tibetan student.
The university 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.
The known and excavated ruins extend over an area of about 150,000 square metres, although if Xuanzang‘s account of Nalanda’s extent is correlated with present excavations, almost 90% of it remains unexcavated!!!
The layout of the excavated area is shown below.
Eleven monasteries have been excavated. 9 in a row, facing West and 2 adjoining at right angles in the southern end. The monasteries were rectangular building. All the monasteries are having indications of being rebuilt, without any material deviation from a original plan , after natural distortion.
The following are the views from different points of the excavated area. The university was rebuilt twice before being finally destroyed. The first two times, the university was rebuilt by the rulers of those time. However, the university could not be rebuilt for the third time as none of the rulers were capable enough and Buddhism was in its decline.
There are references that the city was spread over an area of sixteen square kilometers of which only an area of around square kilometer is excavated. The extensive remains are of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged on a systematic layout.
Nalanda symbolizes an important exchange of human values, over a span of time and within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture, technology, monumental art, town planning and landscape design.
It has a central axis about 30 m wide running north-south with the row of temples on the west and monasteries on the east. The dimension and position of rooms within monasteries is almost identical.
The most imposing structure is Temple at the southern extremity which was constructed in seven phases (as someone mentioned). This follows the pancharatna concept of planning consisting of a central shrine and four subsidiary ones in the corner (I’ve no idea about the pancharatna concept, comments expected to clarify the same).
These monasteries were planned around a central open court. The monastries functioned both as hostels as well as place of learning. The lower storey contained the Dining Hall, areas of teaching and communal worship, while the upper floor built in timber was quadrangle of cells for the students. Each subsequent higher storey was stepped back from the previous one to create open air terraces for the cells. As per one source, these were used by better students who had improved to an advanced stage of learning.
A number of such monasteries were built close to each other like many colleges in a university campus. The architectural members were richly carved, painted and ornamented. Detail descriptions are available in accounts of the Chinese pilgrims about the place and this was destined to be of the Buddhist architecture in India.
All the temples were surrounded with the votive stupas of varying sizes. They mostly contained in their cores, tablets, bearing the Buddhist creeds or Dharanis or bricks inscribed with Sutras.
The area consists of rows of stupas placed side by side forming a central axis. Parallel to and on both sides of this axis were monasteries having hostels for students aspiring to become monks.
Other than structures, the cultural resources of the site include many sculptures and images in stone, bronze and other metals. Interesting sulptures are of Buddha in different postures, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Tara, Prajnaparamita, Marichi, Jambhala etc. A few sculptures are of Hindu deities like Vishnu, Shiva–Parvati, Durga, Ganesha etc. Other noteworthy discoveries of excavation include the tools, utensils, copper plates, stone and brick inscriptions, sealings, coins, terracotta, potteries etc. However, photographs of these are not available. The antiquities have been exhibited for the visitors in the nearby museum maintained by Archaeological Survey of India, where photography is prohibited 🙁
A large number of sculptures have been found from Nalanda . Nalanda not only has the images of Buddha and Bodisattavas but also such Tantric deities as Jhambhala, Tara, Aparajita etc. The presence of Hindu images at these centre of Buddhist theology is a interesting matter.