Nalanda, along with Bodh Gaya was one of the primary attractions for me to do a Bihar trip. The place just invokes a sense of pride and intrigue at the same time. The ancient global seat of learning, extremely well-planned premises that housed more than 10,000 students. And a place that lived for more than 700 years before it was brought down. It is also a place introduced to us by the writings of travelers like Huan Tsang and I-Tsing.
Nalanda – Giver of Knowledge
The word Nalanda is composed of the Sanskrit words Nal and Da meaning the giver of knowledge, a well-thought-out name. As you enter the well-maintained ruins, which still have a fair percentage of 1600-year-old red bricks, an overwhelming sense overtakes you. You suddenly find yourself walking the path walked by the scholars once. Get to look at their places of learning something like the lecture halls today, their dormitories, and their wells.
You see how the students and teachers lived together and pursued joint learning. Walk around and see the various generations of the same building built by successive generations of rulers.
You see long Chullahs and wonder if they were used to cook food or if they were a part of the chemical laboratories. You see a row of temples, all of them in ruins. But still have the elegance of a wise old man who has given up all the ornamentation but you cannot take away the glow of knowledge.
Nalanda – Ancient Global Seat of Learning
There is a long row of what looks like hostels and departments of Nalanda University. According to texts, there were 108 units in the University of which only 11 have been discovered. Each unit has a hall, about 30 rooms, a couple of bathrooms, and a well. Rooms had beds, bookshelves, and a niche to keep idols or other belongings. There are single and double rooms. And across a wide passage is another row that has temples.
It is assumed that most of these temples are Buddhist, but there are enough Hindu sculptures also. What you see most prominently is the empty niches, which obviously had some nice idols adorning them. Peeping out from bare walls here and there are the ornate designs, a lot of them in the typical shape of a Chaitya.
There are stone bases of pillars that might have stood steady on them and now only tell tales of their once-upon-a-time existence. The drainage system is still working and drains out all the rainwater even today. There are platforms that were meant for exercising and meditation. There are votive stupas and miniature shrines all around the main shrines and temples. These may have been added at different points in time by the devotees or they have been placed here post-excavation.
Even the small stupas have some plaster remaining at their bases and domes that tell about their original ornate state. In some stupas, the shape of the bricks has been molded to give some geometric and some auspicious shapes.
Historical Place in Bihar
There are only two stone pillars that I could see in the whole premises. There is evidence that these buildings were constructed during different periods of history and a lot of times one above the other. Excavators found images in stone, stucco, and bronze from here. All the excavated images can be seen in the ASI museum across the road from the ruins. An interesting discovery is the burnt rice that is about 900 years old from a granary.
Subjects Studied at the University
The range of subjects studied at this heritage university included theology, logic, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, grammar, and metaphysics. Students came from far and wide and studied here and took back their knowledge to their respective countries. Some, like Huan Tsang, were wise enough to document the life and times of Nalanda. Otherwise, we may not have known this beautiful part of our history and heritage.
But for these writings, we may have been guessing about these ruins just the way we are still guessing about the ruins of the Indus Valley. Texts say that this university was spread over an area of more than 10 sq. km or so. As of now, only about 1 sq. km has been excavated and ruins restored.
I wonder how it would be to see the whole university recreated before our eyes. It is said that when students came here for admission, the gatekeepers who were also very knowledgeable people tested them at the university gate. Only if the aspirants passed the test were they admitted to the university.
Nalanda University Libraries
It is said that there were three big libraries in this center of education and none of them have been located so far in the excavations. These were called Ratna Sagar, Ratna Ranjika, and Ratna Uday the first one being 9 storeyed. All these were burnt in a fire following the attack by Muslim invader Khilji. The signs of fire can be seen here and there on the walls. But some of the walls are exceptionally clean and would give an impression of having been constructed very recently. The buildings were also destroyed in an earthquake.
And were apparently covered by soil and mud and lived underneath till they were again excavated in the 20th Century. As libraries, the main gates of the university are also yet to be discovered.
There is a palm tree with eight branches, which is unusual as the palm tree has a single branch. the Buddhist tend to believe that this is representative of the Buddha.
Sariputra’s Stupa, Nalanda
The oldest part of this campus is Sariputra’s stupa which was built during the time of Ashoka. Sariputra was born here and he died here and was one of the most prominent disciples of Buddha. Unfortunately, you cannot go close to this stupa now, though this is the most well-known face of these ruins. It seems the temple is as much below the ground as it is above the ground today as this was built in 7 phases. To me, even in ruins, this heritage place exhibits grace and glory.
Nalanda Museum is small but beautiful. Like every other museum, I wish there was more documentation or a guide to explain the artifacts.
Huan Tsang Memorial at Nalanda
The Huan Tsang aka Xuan Zang Memorial is the new landmark in Nalanda. It is an impressive and huge building built in memory of Nalanda’s best-known scholar and teacher. The memorial takes you through the life of Huan Tsang through a series of wall paintings. The plaques will tell you more about him. A map traces his journeys across the civilizations.
As you enter through the simple but nicely designed gate, a life-size statue of the traveler in his typical pose welcomes you. The hall has another of his huge statue in black. When you stand there, you feel grateful to the man for providing the link between you and your history. Some samples from his writings have been put as bullets at the back of the memorial.
But what was missing was a book that you can bring back with you to read what he wrote about this city and the life thereof.
World Heritage Site?
Nalanda is not yet on the world heritage site list. But I strongly believe that it should be right there. I also recommend a visit to this heritage, it is a place, which is very difficult to describe in words or even in pictures. You have to be there to see and feel it for yourself. After visiting this heritage, my desire to see Taxila has increased manifold, I wish I am able to go and see that sometimes.
Recommend you to read the following Historical Places in Bihar. They are also Tourist places in Bihar.