Nalanda, Bihar, India  (Overview, site map)

(See my updated and expanded article on Nalanda University. —Namit Arora, July 2009)

Nalanda was a famous Buddhist monastery and university. The region's traditional history dates to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira (6th-5th cent. BCE). Nagarjuna, it is said, studied there. Excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) reveal that the monasteries belong to the Gupta period (5th cent. CE), now considered the beginning of Nalanda University, where subjects like theology, grammar, logic, philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, and medicine were taught. The Gupta kings were a major patron of Nalanda, as was Harshavardhana, the powerful 7th-century ruler of Kannauj. During his reign, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang visited Nalanda and left a vivid account of the curriculum and of the general features of the community. I-ching, another pilgrim a generation later, also left an account of the life of the monks.

Between 8th-12th cent., Nalanda flourished under the Pala dynasty as a centre of learning and the arts (stone and bronze sculpture in particular), even as Buddhism began a broad decline in India. Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish invader (c. 1200), who is said to have looted and burned the monastery and killed its senior monks. Local legend has it that the three libraries of Nalanda were so large that they burned for six months.

10,000 monks and 1,500 teachers once inhabited Nalanda in 108 monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations have revealed a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks; each has rooms (single or double occupancy, with wooden doors back then) lining four sides of a courtyard, a main entrance on one side, and a shrine facing the entrance in the courtyard. A row of larger shrines, or stupas, in brick and plaster, stand in front of the monasteries. Teachers lived among the students in each monastery, other common features of which include a podium for lectures, a communal brick oven, a bathroom, a water well (often with octagonal cross-section, supposedly inspired by the Eightfold Path).

The local ASI museum houses many of the finds from Nalanda and the surrounding region. A notable theme in sculpture includes Buddhist deities trampling on Brahmanical ones: on Shiva and Parvati, on Ganesh. A Buddhist goddess has mighty Brahmanical gods like Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva as her "vehicle bearers", while she carries the severed head of Brahma in one hand. Buddhism in India, by the end of the first millennium, was losing out to Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and this probably put the Buddhists on the defensive. They had lost most of their royal patronage. They had to resort to more dramatic imagery to assert their religious superiority to the ambivalent. [— July 06; comments]

Approaching the ruins

Monastery #4

View from the upper floor

Many of the 108 monasteries that once existed here have two or more floors, with 30 or 40 rooms per floor. Only 11 monasteries have been excavated so far. Many of the rest are thought to lie buried under the surrounding villages.

Steps and passages (more)

Well inside monastery #4

Each monastery had a well, often with an octagonal cross-section.

Monastery #4 entrance (more)

Monks' rooms

Shrine across Monastery #4

Across each monastery was a chaitya, or temple, with an image of the Buddha.

A monk's room from above

Passageway (more)

The local guides say that this is where the visiting scholar Hiuen Tsang meditated, in a dark corner at the end of this corridor (the end where the photographer stands).

Wood fired ovens

These ovens apparently served multiple needs -- cooking ovens, smelting copper, and other laboratory work.

Bathroom with drains

Not a toilet but a bathing / washing place. Well-designed open drains are a common sight in these monasteries.

Catwalk between
Monasteries #1 and #4

Adjacent monasteries were connected by these catwalk like constructions. A narrow corridor between monasteries (this one used as the main entrance to the ruins) is typical.

One monk per room,
up to 40 rooms per floor

View of Temple #3 from
Monastery #1

Monastery #1 courtyard
and grain storage (left)

Temple #12 (more)

Temple #12 steps etc.

Brickwork sample

View from temple #12

Monastery #8 (more)

Monastery #9

Octagonal well

Podium in Monastery #9

Each monastery had one. It housed a Buddha image and/or was used as a lectern by the teachers.

Former monks' quarters

University corridor (1, 2)

Area near Monastery #4

Temple #13

Temple #3  

"This temple is a huge solid structure standing in the middle of a court surrounded by a number of small votive stupas ... [excavations have revealed that a] small original structure was enlarged by later temples built over and around the ruins of earlier ones, the present mound being the result of seven successive accumulations. The three different staircases that can be seen to the north belong to the fifth, sixth and seventh periods respectively ... The fifth of these successively-built temples is the most interesting and the best preserved.  It has four corner towers, of which three have been exposed, and was decorated with rows of niches containing well-modeled stucco figures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas ... The votive stupas sometimes contain in their core bricks inscribed with sacred Buddhist texts. The inscriptions belong to the sixth century A.D., so that it is possible to ascribe the fifth temple to that period. The same period is indicated by the stucco figures, which are fine specimens of Gupta art. Considering the huge accumulations over which the fifth temple was built, it seems that the foundation of the original structure must have been laid at least two centuries earlier.

[--Nalanda, by the Archaeological Survey of India]

Temple #2  

Stone base, brick top

Musician woman

Amorous couple


Amorous couple

Amorous couple

Warrior with sword

Half-human musician

Path leading to the ruins

Bodhi trees in the park

With the ruins of Nalanda directly behind

ASI museum at Nalanda

Nalanda Overview


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