The Excavation site of ancient Nalanda University

Nalanda University ruins

In India lotus is often associated with knowledge and the word Nalanda translates to “Giver of Lotus stalks“.  At its prime Nalanda University was one of the best centres of excellence and attracted students from as far as China, Mongolia and Persia. Nalanda University was established in 5th century by the Gupta dynasty rulers with subsequent additions by the rulers of Kanauj and the Pala dynasty of Bengal.

Best time to visit? October – April.. As in the case of most places in India, avoid summers.. I realized it the hard way by traveling in the month of May.. It is an excavated site and there is no shade at all baring a few trees.

How to reach? Board any bus traveling from Rajgir or Gaya towards Bihar Sharif. The bus drops you at a point from where to need to take a rickshaw or a horse tonga to reach the site which is about 3 km away. I suggest you try the horse tonga (sorry animal lovers).. Here is a video of the ride:

A free advice: Do carry a bottle of water and shades with you.. You really gonna need them..

Along with Taxila and Vikramshila, Nalanda formed a trio of educational institutes which were considered to be the best in Asia. Nalanda at its prime accommodated about 10000 students and 1500 teachers and is regarded to be the first residential educational institute in the world. A wide range of subjects including astronomy, metaphysics, medicine, philosophy, etc was taught in this university. The lifestyle and teaching methodologies at Nalanda were greatly inspired by Buddhism. The rulers who established and developed it were also great proponents of Buddhism and constructed many monasteries to facilitate the accommodation of the scholars.

Rooms for professors with a bed like arrangement

Lord Buddha and his teachings formed an integral aspect of life at Nalanda University. The rulers had built many temples within the campus to help promulgate the teachings. The altars in the temples are intact while the statues of Lord Buddha are believed to have been plundered or destroyed during the invasions.

A temple of Lord Buddha. One can see the altar inside the temple

Nalanda University was completely destroyed in 1200 by the Turk invader Bhaktiyar Khilji. His army plundered the site and set the university on fire burning millions of ancient manuscripts and books. Inform of dark patches, the bricked walls still behold the evidence of the horror that engulfed the university. The university over time fell into oblivion and was covered with mud and debris. Much later in 1861, the Archeological Survey of India conducted a survey of the region. Later between 1915-37, excavation was carried out at the site which unearthed the famed Nalanda University. Another round of excavation was conducted between 1974-82.

Most information about Nalanda University is obtained from the accounts of the legendary traveler and scholar Hieun Tsang who came here in the 5th century. The atmosphere inside the university was extremely competitive and only the very best of the students were allowed admission in it. It is recorded that the entrance test was conducted by the gatekeeper of the university who used to conduct the exam at the gate itself. Those who passed the difficult test were only allowed inside while the rest were asked to leave from the gate itself.

The gate of Nalanda University where entrance exams were held

The most iconic structure at the excavation site of Nalanda University is a huge mound with stairs leading to the top. Hieun Tsang mentioned this place as the stupa of Sariputta. Sariputta was one of the prominent followers of Lord Buddha and is believed to have been born and died at the place where the stupa stands. Archaeological findings suggest that there are at least seven subsequent layers of construction at the stupa. Some suggest that Sariputta was one of the earliest philosophers who started imparting education at the site, much before the original university came up. He was much revered and the subsequent rulers might have thought that protecting the stupa of Sariputta to be of paramount importance and hence kept constructing it. Just in front of the giant stupa, there are graves marked with stones which are believed to be of the other prominent professors who taught in the university.

The stupa of Sariputta
Graves of the professors

There was an elaborate system of hostels for the scholars. There were large granaries, evidence of which could be found in the form of large quantities of burnt rice found at the place. There were wells, bathing areas and kitchens. In the monasteries constructed at later stages, there are separate areas for the kitchen and reading rooms.

An open courtyard surrounded with hostel rooms
The hostel rooms

In the above picture, one may see a podium in the left side which is believed to be used for group studies and lectures. There are hearths on the ground where firewood was burnt to cook food.

Hearths on the floor used for cooking

The government of India in association with the governments of China, Sri Lanka, Singapore, etc is making an effort to revive the ancient seat of learning and is trying to reestablish Nalanda as an international university.

If you are enthusiastic about history and archaeology, this place is a marvel for you. If not, you can avoid it. Apart from the archaeological site, there is a museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India which contains artifacts excavated from the site. It has a rich collection of statues, coins other other articles recovered during excavation. If you go a little ahead there is a memorial dedicated to Hieun Tsang built in traditional Chinese architecture. It contains a bone relic from the skull of Hieun Tsang. Again visiting this site also depends on your interests. I suggest you to avoid it unless you have a personal vehicle.

If my travel to the site was made enjoyable by the tonga ride, the return was even more unexpected. I had an opportunity to travel on top of a bus which was something I never imagined. I won’t recommend you to try it. Bihar is full of surprises, you never know what you may get to experience. Here is a video of that as well:

After a long day of travel and wandering under the scorching sun, it returned to Gaya. Later in the night, I boarded the Rajdhani Express and returned to Bhubaneswar. Hence concludes my trip of Bihar. The memories of Bodh Gaya and the brief experience of the Buddhist way of living is the piece of learning which I take back. Within a couple of days of reaching, a weekend trip to Visakhapatnam is planned.. See you soon..  If you have visited the Nalanda archaeological site, please share your experience in the comment box below.

Keep Travelling & Spread Love.

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