Nalanda – The greatest university of its time

The ruins of ancient Nalanda university take us back to a long forgotten era that was symbolic of free thinking and intellectual excellence.

Nalanda – The greatest university of its time

Nalanda University, 95 kilometres southeast of Patna (capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar), was an international educational institution that functioned for almost a millennia until it was destroyed by foreign invaders during the end of the 12th century CE.  The ruins still evoke a feeling of pride unmatched by any other ancient construction within the Indian sub-continent.

The period from the 7th to 6th Century BCE saw the beginning and growth of new Indic paths based upon the pan-Indian philosophical concepts. The two great teachers of the 6th Century BCE were Buddha (Buddhism) and Mahavira (Jainism). Both the sects originated in eastern India, more specifically from the Magadha area of Bihar.

The ruins of Nalanda were buried under the soil for centuries till they were unearthed during the mid-19th century by British archaeologists. The ruins were under huge mounds of earth and the removal of various layers revealed highly advanced buildings and stupas. Thanks to the Chinese monks, who had travelled to the pilgrimage and educational sites during 4th – 7th Century CE and wrote accounts of what they saw and learned, there is clarity today about how sophisticated and advanced these universities were.

( A bird’s eye view of the campus)

Gautam Buddha had travelled through the regions of Nalanda, Rajgir and Gaya before he attained enlightenment. It was thus that Nalanda became a fertile ground for Buddha’s followers to continue their learning. The fertile terrain along with hills in Nalanda attracted more followers to stay here in search of their path to enlightenment. This place attracted monks and students from not only various parts of the Indian sub-continent but also from China, Tibet, and other places beyond the subcontinent. Multiple universities were established, with Taxila in northwest being the oldest. Nalanda, Vikramshila, Odantapuri and Telhara universities came up within the region of Bihar. Nalanda University was the biggest university as the ruins that have been excavated cover an area of 1.8 sq. kms while the total area was known to be around 16 sq. kms.

The Chinese Travellers, who visited India and left a permanent record

Buddhist thoughts and teachings had spread far into south-east Asia and into China besides the north-west of India. In the 3rd century BCE, King Ashoka had given a great boost to the spread of Buddhism. The ancient trade links served as a means for the exchange of goods and ideas. In the few centuries after the Buddha, there was continuous interaction between Indian kingdoms and the empires to its East and China who in turn had an influence in Central Asia and in the south-east Asian regions. There were cross-cultural exchanges with monks, pilgrims and itinerants in search of the right path to attain ‘Nirvana’.

Stupas were built throughout the land to store the relics of Gautama Buddha. Stupas were built even for the Bodhisattvas. Thus followed the art of image making wherein Buddha was depicted in various meditative poses. Bodhisattvas were also represented as images or in relief on the walls of the stupas. The figures radiate a calmness that reaches the viewers. Such stuccos are found on the Nalanda ruins as well. Female forms (Nature goddesses) and the lotus flower adorn the borders of these stuccos. The Chaitya design with a hemispherical top is also present in small stupas.

(The stuccos of meditating Buddha and Bodhisattvas on the smaller stupas near the Grand Stupa No.3)

Fa Hien or Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist monk, travelled to India in 399 CE via Mongolia and Khotan (a Buddhist site, south of the Taklamakan desert). Fa Hien wanted to learn Buddhist philosophy through real teachers and to get a first-hand account of the religion. He initially went to Taxila and Peshawar and later reached Nalanda where he stayed to learn Buddhist philosophy and collect Buddhist relics and ritual items. This was during the reign of Chandragupta Vikramaditya II when he also wrote the book Fo-Kue-Ki (Records of the Buddhist Kingdom). In the year 408 CE, Fa Hien travelled from the port of Tamralipti to Srilanka and further to China through the maritime trading routes. His records show that Nalanda during that time was a monastic institute and was growing into a renowned university. The Great Stupa of Nalanda has been mentioned in his accounts along with two other monasteries. These structures have been attributed to Ashoka, dating them to the 3rd Century BCE.

Hiuen Tsang or Xuan Zang visited India in 627 CE during the reign of King Harshavardhan of Kannauj. Nalanda was a part of his empire. Hiuen Tsang wrote the book Si-Yu-Ki or ‘Buddhist records of the Western Regions’ during the period of the great Tang Dynasty of China. His accounts deal extensively with Buddhism and pilgrimage sites. By this time, Buddhism was deeply rooted in China and the Buddhist doctrines had reached Japan and Korea. Hiuen Tsang was an expert translator and he translated many texts into Chinese(Mandarin). He took back with him around 657 Buddhist texts. His records give an account of his interactions with Harshavardhan, the philosophical debates, and the freedom given to intellectuals to enter into discussions. Hiuen Tsang continued promoting Buddhism and diplomatic exchanges between Harshavardhan and Tang China.

The people of China were in awe of the land of higher learning to their West. In those times ‘to be like the West’ meant to be enlightened like India.

I-Tsing or Y Jing was a Chinese pilgrim who visited India in 671 CE and returned to China in 695 CE. His accounts are titled Nan-Hae-Ki-Kwei-Niu or ‘The record of Buddhism as practised in India” and ‘Memoirs of Eminent monks who visited India and neighbouring regions during the reign of the Great Tang Dynasty’. His accounts mention 56 Chinese monks that had travelled to India. I-Tsing was so impressed by Nalanda and Yindu (Chinese name for India) in general that he wished to build a second Rajagriha city in the land of China.

(The stupas and reliquaries to the left side of the Grand Stupa No.3)

The Grand Temple No.3 is the oldest building in this campus. It hosts the ashes of Sariputra, one of the original disciples of Buddha. The first phase of major construction is attributed to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century CE. This Stupa is the Hallmark of Nalanda ruins and represents the entire university in all history books and postcards. It is a solid construct made up of bricks. The construction took place in seven phases under various rulers and builders. The fifth phase was during the 5th Century CE, the Golden period of the Gupta era. The 3 major stairways visible today are from the 5th, 6th and 7th phase of construction and additions made to the original stupa. Stupa No.3 is such a huge and solid construct that when one walks around its width and side, one is left trying to absorb the vastness, which is actually difficult to fathom. There are numerous reliquaries on its right side where tourists normally do not venture. The foreign students sometimes died while studying here and their ashes were placed in these smaller mounds.

(The reliquaries to the right side of Grand Stupa No.3)

When one enters the grand complex, the first impressive structure to catch the eye is a courtyard that precedes the Grand Stupa No.3. The constructions in the courtyard were built during various stages. Some during the Gupta era and some during the reign of Harshavardhan. The grand stairs with rounded edges are of the time of Harshavardhan. The floor looks smooth and is evenly constructed. There are various layers to the floor too and the size and style of flooring reveals the era during which it was made. Semi-circular raised floor is credited to Harshvardhan’s time.

(The courtyard of Stupa No.3)

The entrance way to the main complex is a pathway with huge walls on both sides. The thickness of these walls is roughly 1.5 metres of solid brick work. One must pause when entering this area and take in the enormity of the walls that stand strong even today. Any prospective student was examined at the gate itself and he was allowed to enter only after the gatekeepers were satisfied with his intellectual capacity and knowledge. There are rooms below the pathway level making it clear that a lot lies below the level at which visitors walk.

(The entrance pathway with the huge, thick side walls)

Not only are the walls very thick but the steps leading up to higher floors are solid brick work. There are ramps too that are inclined to function as a walkway to the next floor level. One can only imagine the meticulous planning and painstaking building of these strong stairs and constructs. One such ramp has a brick layout in a crisscross way maybe to ensure that one did not slip while walking on it.

(The constructs near the entrance reveal broad ramps made up of bricks that takes one to the next floor)

The monasteries are remarkably organised in planning and construction. The first monastery appears to be for the teachers who lived in these quarters. The central square courtyard has a huge well, various levels of areas to meditate, a grain storage room and steps that lead to the next floor level. The floors are smooth and level. The storage rooms had huge urns in which grain was stored.

(Monastery No.1 – the teacher’s living area)

Storage urns have been found in the storage room. They are massive in size and have been kept on display at the on sight museum. Imagine the size of the kiln in which such urns were baked to give it its durability.

(The Storage urn and storage room in which it was found)

The passage one walks to reach the teacher’s living quarters are long with the rooms on one side. The drainage system is clearly visible outside the rooms. The walls are high and a careful look reveals that the structure was originally double storeyed. The lower level is an older construct and the upper level was built during the reign of Harshavardhan.

Padmasambhava, Atisha and Dharmapala are some of the famous Buddhist scholars, who studied here at Nalanda and later went to other locales across Asia to spread Buddha’s teachings. Hiuen Tsang’s records reveal that during the 7th Century CE, Nalanda University hosted 2000 teachers and 10,000 students. The ratio of teacher to students reveals the quality of attention that students were given.

(Long corridors – teacher’s rooms)

The rooms have thick walls ensuring that they withstood the vagaries of time and barbaric invasions. There are neat deep niches in the walls that must have had been used for placing books, personal belongings or lamps. The water from the first floor flows down into the drains inside the room of the ground floor. This drain further leaves the building through a lower level to the floor. How ingenious were the builders!

(Multi-storeyed drainage system inside the rooms)

It must be remembered that these structures are just the remains of the massive university after it was brutally destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1197 CE. During this attack, many students and monks were killed as the entire campus was burnt down. It is said that the university was in flames for over three months. The library was turned to ashes. Nothing written remained. The millennia of intellectual growth, exchange, philosophy, knowledge of nature, ayurveda, everything was burnt down. It was as if the raiders could not bear to see anything or anyone with intellect alive. The universities of Vikramshila and Odantapuri were also burned to the ground. What level of barbarism ran in these invaders that they could not bear the sight of intellectual development and free thinking? Such wanton destruction of a clearly non-military and non-political location is one of the most dastardly acts in the world history.

The library known as the ‘Dharmagunj’ was the biggest library in the world at that time. It hosted a cornucopia of knowledge in the form of thousands of volumes of text covering every topic known to humans at that time. This ancient repository had three main buildings that were 9 stories high. All of them were completely destroyed. The loss is so grave that it hurts every individual who values the intellectual heritage of mankind.

Near the entrance area, one can see the burn marks on the brick walls. There are various layers of construction visible on this wall but what stands out are the remains of the fused terracotta bricks.

(Burn marks on the walls)

Buddha had preached about the three Noble Truths that had a universal understanding – 1. There is pain in this world; 2. There is a reason for pain; 3. Pain could be removed by following the right path. This ‘Right Path’ leading to ‘Nirvana’ or liberation from the material body was what Buddha had attained and had wanted to teach all those willing to learn. Thus came about the system of monastic teaching. Many followers of Buddha found this path attainable when they could pray to an image of Buddha and seek guidance. There were many devotees who progressed on the path to enlightenment and these became the Bodhisattvas, thus expanding the scope of concept of Bodhisattva (Originally Bodhisattva referred to the stage in Buddha’s life and his earlier births when he was searching for the Truth). Enlightened beings came forward to teach the Right Path and so began the Mahayana Order of Buddhism, where temples of Buddha played an important role.

Temple Number 12

There are numerous temples in this excavated compound with temple No.12 as the largest temple. The base of this temple is a level below the pathway made for the visiting tourists. A closer look reveals different levels of construction. The upper level has remains of pillars, an open space and the remains of a Stupa. The first floor level may have been used for meditation by the monks who lived here.

(The sprawling temple on the premises)

On the way to this Temple No.12, one passes by a cloister of varied shaped and sized votives/reliquaries. These reliquaries are dedicated to scholars and monks, who lived their lives there.

(Reliquaries on the way to Stupa No.2)

Temple No.12 has beautiful brick walls. One cannot climb to the upper level but tourists are permitted to go near the lower level and view the side walls. Identical niches adorn these walls. These must have housed images of Buddha and bodhisattvas in earlier days.

(The side view wall decorations. The varied layers are visible)Get monthly updates 
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Generic hostels monasteries

During its peak, Nalanda housed 10,000 students. There are many monasteries in this complex with a typical layout of a huge courtyard with cubical rooms all around it. A well for drinking water, a place for cooking and raised platforms that may have been used by teachers to give lectures is the common infrastructure found in most of these hostels (Viharas).

Students that once got entry to this most prestigious institute did not have to pay any fees. Education and boarding were taken care of by the donation made by royalty, charity by merchants and locals along with the revenue and produce of numerous nearby villages that had been given for the upkeep of this Great University. Students had to prove their intellect and capabilities by facing rigorous tests before admission was given.

The remarkable aspects of the teacher-scholar philosophy here was that great intellectual freedom was given to the students and there was no limit to the diversity of intellectual growth. Enlightened teachers had different approaches to what they considered was the right path. This had led to the birth of numerous schools of thought. What is to be remembered is that the thoughts were based on the continuing ancient knowledge blended with personal experiences and understanding of reality. 

(A typical layout of a monastic hostel)

Every monastery had its own cooking area normally in one area of the courtyard. It is to be remembered that these courtyards were not open areas but had wooden roofs for protection. There is no trace of any protective covering. The intriguing cooking furnaces that were constructed on the brick floors have survived the destruction. Wood must have been piled inside these rectangular furnaces and used for cooking meals. Two furnaces are connected with a square hole that must have let the extra heat pass on to the next furnace. The slim rectangular furnaces must have ensured effective heat utility for cooking. 

(Close up of cooking pit)

One monastery has a brick structure that resembles a present-day stage in any typical educational institution. It could have been a place where students performed or the teachers gave lectures. This university was only for higher learning. Seeing all these hostels clustered together, one can easily imagine the halcyon days of these institution when students from all over the world came here to study. The practise of Zen meditation owes its roots to the Mahayana teachings developed at Nalanda. Hiuen Tsang perfected his understanding of Mahayana thought, including Yogakara (meditation-based practise) and carried it back to China during the Tang dynasty period. The concept of Zen Buddhism arose out of these developments.

(Stage in the courtyard)

In another monastery, we can see remains of the base of pillars that in those days must have held roofs above the courtyard and buildings. The walls of the hostel cubicles are rather thick, proof that it must have been multi-storeyed. There are thick ramps that take one to the next floor.

(Cell structure of rooms and thick walls with ramps)

Temple Number 13

This stupa temple has stairs that extend up to a platform. The stupa remains has a passage that leads inside the structure. These solid brick constructions are fascinating. These massive thick walled and solid structures indicate that they had been built to last for eternity. Despite burning for months during the tragic destruction in 1197, the solid brick structures still stand.

( Temple number 13)

The On-sight museum has a fascinating collection of artefacts and statues that have been recovered from this site. Terracotta artefacts, metal statues of Lord Buddha and even Hindu deities, coins, etc. are a must see. Terracotta seals have been found with ‘SriNalandaMahaVihara RiaryaBhikshuSanghasya’ (Sanskrit language in Devanagari script) imprinted on them. In the region of Magadh, the languages in use were Magadhi, Sanskrit, Magadhi, Prakrit, Apbhransha and Pali. Magahi or Magadhi is still the common language of this region.

There is a unique terracotta pitcher that has multiple short spouts. It is not clear as to what it was used for. A famous terracotta tablet in the shape of a Peepul leaf shows a meditating Buddha in the centre with miniature stupas all around him.

(Multi spout pitcher, terracotta seals, metal statue of Vishnu and terracotta tablet with Buddha in the centre: displayed in the museum)

Nalanda, in its prime, was much bigger than this current excavated area open to the tourists. The ruins are still being unearthed. Just outside this campus, there are the remains of another Stupa. There are remains of the old stone and brick passage way that must have led to the brick buildings and this grand Stupa that stands alone yet proud. The march of civilisation has buried these structures underground and the great buildings seem to be lost forever.

(The stupa that stands outside the campus)

Telhara University: Site excavations

Apart from the famous universities of Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri, another monastic education centre has been discovered in Nalanda district near a place called Telhara, 29 kms away from the Nalanda ruins. It has been identified with the monastic university named as Teleadaka in the travelogue of Hiuen Tsang in 7th century CE. A lot of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures have been found from this location. The excavations have shown the remains of at least 3 storied structures. This place traces its history from much earlier days, as excavations have yielded artefacts from the Kushana period, 1st century CE.

(Telhara excavation site)

The excavations have indicated the existence of thick walls indicating sturdy construction. There are pieces of evidence of large prayer halls and cell-like structures like in Nalanda for the hostel area including wells. At present this site is right in the middle of an existing settlement and the excavation is happening right beside the houses which exist there. Only time will tell as to how much of its magnificent details will be discovered.

(Images from the excavation site at Telhara)

Nalanda area was right at the centre of the intellectual flux during 7th– 6th century BCE, when India was witness to the birth of 2 new religious streams. Apart from the Buddhist links embodied by the Nalanda and Telhara universities, it is an important location for Jainism also, as one of the holiest sites for Jains, the Mahaparinirvana place of its founder Lord Mahavira is just a few kms away from the Nalanda University ruins.

Pawapuri: Mahaparinirvana place of the 24th Thirthankara

Pawapuri is said to be the site where Lord Mahavira, the last Jain Thirthankara attained Nirvana. This site is a few kms east of the Nalanda University ruins. There is a beautiful Jain temple built in the centre of a water tank. This water body is full of lotus plants. One can reach the temple by walking on a pathway built on the water body. The water is clean as one can see fish of all sizes swimming in it. There are a variety of water birds including Grey-headed swamp hen, Bronze-winged Jacana, Moorhens, coots and ducks.

(Pawapuri Jalmandir in the centre of a beautiful lake)

The temple in the centre of this lake is made of White Marble. Black marble has been used to bring about geometric designs and add more beauty to the layout. It is a square structure with carved pillars all around.

(The beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Mahavir)

The interior of the temple is very simple. There is a lotus flower carved into the wall and surrounded by a gold exterior. Archaeological records reveal that there was a shrine to the North of this tank that had the footprints of Mahavira. There are a few Jain temples located in the vicinity.

(Serene and peaceful interiors)

Pawapuri is a venerated site for the followers of Jainism and also for Hindu and Buddhist tourists.

Other locations

The present-day district of Nalanda is a treasure trove of ancient cum medieval buildings and artefacts that can be dated from the 3rdCentury BCE Ashokan era to the 12th Century Pala era. The Archaeological Gazetteer of Nalanda District reveals the sites where extensive field work has been done to reveal such structures and artefacts. Some of the blocks wherein ASI has unearthed such findings are Bihar Sharif, Bind, Chandi, Islampur, etc. The present name of the state of BIHAR is derived from the name of Buddhist monasteries (VIHARA).

An iconic image of Lord Vishnu holding the Shankh – Chakra – Padma and a basalt image of Lord Buddha have been found at Village Beshwak. In a remarkable show of inclusiveness by the community, these ancient images have been included as their village deities. Buddha is revered in the same way as the images of traditional Hindu Gods Vishnu, Shiva and Parvati. A Garhi or mound exists in the village that is yet to disclose the archaeological wonders of the golden past.

(Stone images found at Beshwak Village dated the 9th-11th Centuries. The mound that is yet to be excavated)

The village Bind also holds ancient artefacts of the Pala era. Most of the artefacts have been given a place in the village temples. There are many images of the Hindu pantheon that are damaged. This has not stopped the locals from giving the due respect that an image of God deserves.

(Stone images found at Bind village dated to the 10-12th Centuries)


Nalanda area as a whole, not only its iconic university, is testament to the unfortunate aspect of human history, where barbarism prevails over civilisation and intellectual development. Whether it was burning of the library of Alexandria 1600 years ago, destruction of Aztecs by conquistadors 500 years ago, more recent destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas, Artefacts of Palmyra and other Mesopotamian-Sumerian era symbols or forced migration of particular sects of populations, etc., the innate violence of human nature is never far away. In the case of Nalanda University, the destruction was so unmitigated that the memory of that great institution was wiped off the memories of the local populace. It was civilisational extermination that was revealed only with the archaeological findings and the records of the Chinese Buddhist monks.

Standing on the doorsteps of this once proud institution and reflecting on its brutal destruction, it seems that human nature is incapable of going past its inherent violence. It is so essential to learn from history, to ensure that such unfortunate incidents are not repeated. A nation or society has to be strong enough to ensure that economic and intellectual achievements are safeguarded. Any complacency in this regard will ultimately lead to ruination. That seems to be the message of history emblazoned across the silent but magnificent ruins of Nalanda. 

About Author: Ruchi Pritam

Ruchi is a History and Law Graduate from Delhi University with an MBA from Madras University. She is a Bank-empaneled lawyer and has taught at several MBA institutions as a visiting faculty. She has always had a fascination for Indian art, temples and culture that has led her to travel and write on the various architectural wonders of India. She believes that making one connect with the ancient roots through an understanding of heritage brings one closer to others. After all, humans are one big family.

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