Nalanda Travel Guide
¤ Nalanda- Most Ancient Seats of Learning
A nondescript suburb on the outskirts of Rajagriha played host to Buddha and Mahavira. Centuries later, it was destined to become the worlds most ancient seat of learning.
Nalanda owes its name to a naga (serpent) who lived in a tank, not very far from the royal capital Rajagriha. The Chinese legend accounts for the naga being injured while digging the foundation of a monastery. The soothsayers observed that "this is a very superior site. If you build here a Sangharama (monastery), it must of necessity become highly renowned. Throughout the five Indies it will be a model. For a period of a thousand years it will flourish still. Students of all degrees will here accomplish their studies. But many will spit blood because of this wound given to the Naga."
¤ The Significance of the Holy City
Buddha is believed to have travelled to Nalanda a number of times. He often stayed here at the Pavarika mango grove which was later purchased by the merchants and gifted to the Buddha. The town is depicted as prosperous and accounts for numerous buildings. One of them was a beautiful bathing hall supported by a hundred pillars. Buddhas favourite disciple, Sariputra was born here and he died preaching at this place. In the third century B.C. Mauryan emperor, Ashoka honoured the famous monk with a grand stupa. Gradually it became associated with the Buddhist map of India. Individual monks and scholars often gathered here for discourses. However, it was not until the fifth century A.D. that the monastery at Nalanda was established by the ruling king of the Gupta dynasty.
¤ Encouraging Learning
Since the time of Buddha, the bhikkus were always encouraged to study the variours arts and sciences. Learning was greatly encouraged as it served dual purposes: knowledge and practice. The monks travel across the globe to take admission in the famous Nalanda university. They took to learning so that they might practice it and realise Dhamma perfectly and thereby enrich the masses. The old and incapable were suggested to attach more importance to the practice of meditation. Buddha is believed to have said that if a man lived in a Sangha for a few days only and observed the precepts prescribed in the Patimokha his life would be more precious than his previous one.
¤ The Practice of Sangharama
A long succession of kings from fifth to twelfth century extended their royal patronage to ensure the progress and prosperity of the Sangharama. One of them was Harshavardhana (606-47), who considered himself to be the servant of the monks, and he is credited for the construction of a huge monastery plated in brass together with the revenues of a 100 villages to defray the expenses of the university. The Pala kings were great patrons of Mahayana Buddhism and during the four centuries of their rule in Bihar and Bengal they were very helpful to the cause of Nalanda. The Nalanda copper plate inscription reflects the international character of the Sangharama and informs us about the erection of a monastery by the king of Sumatra and records the grant of five villages by the Pala kings for the maintenance of the monastery at the request of the foreign king.
¤ Nalanda University
Most of what we know of Nalanda University during the sixth and seventh centuries is due to the accounts left by the Chinese pilgrims. Hiuen Tsang came to India in the first half of the seventh century and spent about three years at Nalanda. His subjects of study included Yoga sastra under Silabhadra, the head of the institution. Hiuen Tsang records Nalanda as a flourishing residential university with over 10,000 monks and 1,500 teachers. The university was marked by a lofty wall with one gate. He describes the tall Sangharama buildings which were three to six storeys high. One of them was capped with 80 feet high copper image of Buddha. Other accounts attest for monasteries with their pinnacles kissing the clouds and a white palace that eclipsed the splendour of the moon. Equally poetic were the names of the nine storeyed library complex called Ratnasagar (sea of gems), Ratnodadhi (ocean fo gems) and Ratnaranjaka (delighter of gems).
¤ Hiuen Tsang- A Noted Scholar
Following Hiuen Tsangs departure. no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travellers are known to have visited Nalanda. One such scholarly pilgrim was I-Tsing who travel to India by the sea-route and spent over ten years in the same monastery. He observes that the learned priests of Nalanda uses to ride in sedan chairs and never on horseback. He mentions eight monastic buildings and over 300 apartments. These apartments were small rectangular cells serving as single and double seated rooms for students. From these accounts we learn about the craze of Asian students to qualify for admission at Nalanda. Normally not more than two or three out of ten candidates were selected after routine screening that lasted for weeks. The admission seekers were lodged in guest houses where the Dwar Pandits (gate professors) who guarded entry to the institutions numerous discourses, studied the personality, behaviour and intellect of the candidates under scrutiny. The severity of the examination was necessary to maintain the high standard of learning for which the university was famous. The students seeking admission were supposed to have atained a degree of proficiency in Sanskrith grammar, Vedas, Upanishads and of course the canons of Buddhism.
¤ Nalanda Teachings
Strict code of conduct and disciplined life framed the alumni of Nalanda who were famous throughout the land for the their learning and high morals. The Nalanda method of teaching was based on the concept of discussion and debate among the scholars under the guidance of respective teachers, something akin to todays seminar. The freshers were lectured by the teachers but more advanced students worked in smaller groups and there are references of even one teacher for a single student.
¤ Nalanda University
A Buddhist University, as Nalanda was, its curriculum included a wide range of subjects in the Mahayana doctrine but the eighteen rival schools were not ignored. Even Brahmanical subjects were included alongwith Sankrith. One was required to be proficient in grammar before joining the Sangharama Besides theology, philosophy and grammar, logic was compulsory as students were expected to defend the Buddhist ideas and thoughts against others. Astrology, medicine, mathematics and much later tantric studies too became a part of the university syllabus.
The bhikkus were not confined to literature but were given to fine arts as well. It began with the creation of the statues of Buddha followed by painting and decoration of the viharas Jataka Stories
with Jataka stories. Though Buddha, by an injunction, had forbidden the painting of male and female figures in the viharas but the later scholars held that there was no harm in painting the monasteries with Jataka themes which created religious sentiments.
The university took care of the students requirements of cloth, food, bedding and medicine. A students breakfast consisted of rice water while midday meals included rice, fruits, milk etc. Hiuen Tsang accounts for his usual ration of Mahasali rice which was as large as bean and when cooked, it turned out to be aromatic and shining like no other rice. However, excavations have revealed a community kitchen with large ovens which indicates a common mess for the students. The revenues of several local villages were allocated to defray the expenses of the monastery.
¤ The Scholars At The University
The student teacher relationship was basd on reverence, respect and affection. In case of sickness, the students and teachers took care of each other. The students were responsible for over all care and maintenance of the university. Sweeping the floor, organising the kitchen, maintaining discipline, allotment of rooms and residential arrangements were the responsibilities of the monks. On completion of the study, the pupil paid as much as he wished to his teacher. Award ceremonies were periodically organised to honour the students with degrees and certificates. Seals were affixed on the certificates to distinguish them from the prevailing frauds. The general Sangharama seal of Nalanda depicted the wheel of law flanked two gazelles. After finishing their education in the University, the scholars proceeded to the kings court and presented themselves for appointments or assignments. Scholars from Nalanda went to far off places to preach and propagate Budhism. At times the were invited to countries like Ceylon, China, Tibet, Java and Korea for translating the leading works into foreign languages, establishing monasteries or simple for royal consultation. One such acharya from Nalanda was Padmasambhava, the chief tantric teacher who taught yoga and occult science. He left for Tibet where he established the first monastery and became the founder of Lamaism. Prabhakaramitra, along with his select monks left for Iran and at the invitation of Chinese emperor, he reached the Chinese capital in 626 where he was occupied in translation works. A century later, Vajrabodhi went to China via Ceylon and translated 500 Buddhist scriptures into 130 volumes in 25 years.
The glory on Nalanda ebbed with the violence of Mihiragula-the Hun king and later the Turks (Bakhtiar Khilji) fell upon the city in 1199 forcing the monks to flee. Few decades later when the monastery was once again trying to re-establlish itself, some aggriveved Brahmins finally torched the libraries and destroyed the grand sangharama.
¤ The Archaeological Site In Nalanda
The archaeological site in Nalanda is spread over an area of 1600 feet (NS) by 800 feet (EW). Unfortunately, most of the buildings mentioned by Hiuen Tsang and others have remained unidentified. Moreover, a good number of mounds continue to be unexplored. Excavations have revealed a symmetrical row of monasteries on the east that faces a parallel row of temples on the west with wide space in-between.
¤ Sariputra Stupa
The most imposing structure is the Sariputra Stupa (temple site 3) at the southern extremity. What we see here is the outcome of seven layers of successive constructions that shileds the original stupa which appears to be small and buried deep within. The corner towers and the surrounding stupas are deocrated with a stretch of niches depicting Buddha, Bodhisattvas and other events of Buddhas life. A stairway leads to the top which offers a better perspective of the grand university.
Facing the Sariputra Stupa are two monasteries (sites 1A and 1B) on the east. The main gates are on the north and it leads to the wide verandah, the roof of which rested on pillars. Monkss cells are spread on all four sides. In Site 1B we find an octagonal well in the corner of the courtyard and well planned drains for sewage disposal. Further north there are 9 other monasteries following the same layout, except for the entrances facing west. Each monastery was provided with a shrine chamber which contained the colossal image of Buddha (most evident in Monastery Site 1). The monasteries were well worked out with thick plaster walls within which there stood the monastic cells, a safe, a well, and drains. The monasteries clearly reveal the different layers of constructions and thereby indicating various periods of occupation. Monastery Site 1 suggests no less than nine different levels while other monasteries show two or three layers.
Most of the rectangular temples are two tiered brick structures with sanctum being centrally built on the upper tier with ample space marked for circumambulation. Temple Site 2 is somewhat unusual in absence of the prevalent brick structures. This temple is dressed in stones and its beauty lies in over two hundred sculptured panels. The themes borrow heavily from the Hindu mythology like Siva and Parvati, Gaja Lakshmi, Kubera, Agni etc. Some of the panels are interesting geometric patterns while others are amazing decorative devices depicting birds, animals, couples, musical instruments, etc. These panels are separated by pilasters with pot and foliage designs.(1919words)
¤ Around Nalanda
1. Close to the archaeological site is a sum temple housing interesting images of Surya, Vishnu, Siva Parvati, Avalokitesvara among others. On the outskirts of the archaeological site but lose to Chaitya Site 4 lies a colossal image of Buddha. It is popular withthe villagers who claim its existence prior th the excavations at Nalanda. Further east lies an interesting image of Marichi amidst the paddy field.
2. 2 kms form the archaeological site is the Nava Nalanda Mahavihar, a post graduate institute for research into Buddhism and pali literature. Close to this Mahavihar is a beautiful Thai temple.
3. 3 kms from the archaeological site is Jagadishpur where an impressive image of Buddha can be seen.
4. 1.6 kms from Nalanda is Kundalpur. The Digamber jains beleive it to be the birth place of Lord Mahavir. (90 word)
1. Nalanda is 90 kms south of Patna (nearest airport) and is well connected by road.
2. The archaeological museum remains closed on Fridays.
3. Choice of accommodation at Nalanda is limited to PWD guest house and the inexpensive youth hostel.
It is advisable to consider Rajgir (15 kms away) as a better option. (52 words)
¤ Archeological Museum
Nalanda archaeological museum is a treasure house of antiquities discovered during excavations in and around Nalanda and Rajgir. It offers a veritable peep into the Pala art which establishes that the university was equally famous for its prolific school of stone sculpture, bronze casting and manuscript painting. General Cunningham evaluates the Nalanda sculptures to be the finest in India. Beside the artistic skill, the variety of sculpture elucidate us on the dress, jewellery and other aspects of life during the Pala period.
¤ Famous Sculptures
Buddhism during the 8th century had started drifting towards Tantra and Vajrayana with elaborate emphasis on rituals and esoteric practices which included the use of mudras, magical spells and mystic diagrams. The influx of Shiva and Shakti cult further heightened the need for worship of the female energy which greatly expanded the list of Buddhist divinities. A number of female deities were introduced and the museum offers an interesting study of whos who in Buddhist pantheon.
¤ Buddhal In Abhaya Mudra (Pose)
The most dominating image is that of Buddha which took shape in the first century and thereon became the artists first priority. The Pala school at Nalanda depicts him in all available postures. However, the finest bronze depicts him in Abhaya mudra which is noted for its simplicity and convincing modelling.
¤ Tara - The Goddess Sculpture
Next to Buddha, most of the sculptures account for Tara (the goddess of compassion and consort of Avalokitesvara) clad in a saree that reaches her ankle while her head is decorated with a crown and the wrist is replete with bangles. Other female deities depicted at Nalanda are three faced Marichi, Prajnaparamita, Hariti, Sarvvani, Aparajita, Vasudhara, Mahasarasvati, etc. The representations of Bodhisattvas include Padmapani, Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani, Manjuvara, etc.
¤ Images of Shiv and Parvati
Among the Brahmanical images found at Nalanda, mention may be made of Shiva and Parvati assembled in one sculpture as seated in Lalitasana, Vishnu, Surya and his son Revanta, Ganesha, Sarasvati, Chandika and Ganga. They seem to suggest the need of an appeal to the masses of the people to attract the votaries of Hinduism by introducing some element of their religion. However,one wonders at some of the rare and unexplained statues like those of Tralokyavijaya trampling upon Siva and Parvati lying prostrate. In another statue Ganesha is seen subdued by Aparajita.
Besides copper, stone and brick inscriptions, the museum has numeorus coins, seals and plaques on display which includes the official seal of the Sangharama.