Nalanda – Exploring the Buddhist circuit in the Indian state of Bihar (Part1)
India has 35 World Heritage Sites, the sixth highest in the world, behind only Italy, China, Spain, France and Germany ! The latest inclusion of Nalanda – the first residential international university in the world prompted me to research and write about the Buddhist circuit around this ancient Indian University town. This one is dedicated to Nalanda, so stay tuned for more in this series.
Being from the state – it definitely makes it to the top of my must visit places and it makes me proud to be part of it , even in an infinitesimal way.
Nalanda (Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2016)
The ancient Nalanda University, established during the Gupta dynasty, was a large Buddhist monastery that also doubled up as a centre of learning from the 5th to 12th century. It was the first residential international university in the world with 1500 teachers and 10,000 students living on campus. During its time, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, and Persia and was known to have very strict admission norms, with typically 3 out of 10 applicants being selected. This ancient university offered courses in Medicine, Astronomy, Philosophy, Mathematics etc.
1) Nalanda University Ruins Archaeological Complex:
Excavations, since 1915, have revealed eleven monasteries and six major brick temples in an ordered layout. Meticulously planned, the red brick buildings are divided by a central walk way.
The monasteries that housed the resident students are east of this central path and the temple to the west. The university consisted of 8 monastic buildings and over 300 apartments (viharas) – serving as single or shared rooms for students.
Each monastic building had its own temple, community kitchen and dining area, as indicated by this well.
There is proof of personal locker system, effective drainage system and granary.
A walk through the ruins show evidence of impressive lecture halls. The 3 layers of visible construction indicate distinct period of patrons like Ashok, Harshavardhan and Pala kings, who built temples and monasteries here.
2) Sariputra stupa (Temple number 3) – Nalanda was a prosperous temple city in the time of Buddha, which he visited more than once. Apparently, this was a mango grove prior to the construction, where Buddha stayed and gave sermons during his visit.
This is the most ornate temple built by Ashoka for one of the 2 chief disciple of Buddha, Sariputra. It is decorated with beautiful stucco terracotta images of Buddha. Surrounded by smaller stupas, a stairway leading to the top, it provides a birds eye view of the grand university of yore.
3) Nalanda Archaeological Museum
Located opposite the entrance to the ruins of the university , it has a collection of beautiful Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions that have been discovered in the ruins. One can see a number of undamaged statues of the Lord Buddha and 2 enormous terracotta jars from the first century on display, along with samples of burnt rice found among the ruins here.
Nalanda University turned to ruins when it was ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turk in 1193 AD. It was reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and many beheaded as part of Khilji’s effort to uproot Buddhism.
The university boasted of a nine-storeyed library which did not only contain religious manuscripts but had a large collection of books on literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. It is said that the library continued to burn for 3 months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”
What I walk away with, is a sense of pride for what Nalanda was able to achieve so so many years back.
4) Modern day Nalanda University
I was not the only one proud of Nalanda’s achievements. There has been efforts for many years now, to try and bring back the glory and educational eminence, that was Nalanda. As a result, we have the Nalanda International University, located in Rajgir, 15 kms from Nalanda. The University’s first academic session began on September 1, 2014 with 15 students including five women. Set up in temporary facilities in Rajgir for now, a modern campus is expected to be finished by 2020. It is exclusively a post-graduate and doctoral school. More details here
5) Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall
This is a new construction, about 4.5 kms from Nalanda university ruins, built in memory of the great Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang, who has helped us understand the excellent education system, ambiance and structure of this unique university in great detail by his writing. Hiuen Tsang stayed here in the 7th century AD.
Things you may want to know before the travel (Travel tips)
- Best time to visit is in winter (from October to March). Summer can be very hot and tiring with the sun beating down on you
- Nalanda is reachable by Air, Road or Rail
- Air : The nearest airport is at Patna (89 kilometres)
- Rail : Rajgir (15 kilometres) is the nearest railway station to Nalanda, though the nearest major railhead is at Gaya (95 kilometres)
- Road : Nalanda is well-connected by road with Rajgir (12 kilometres), Bodh Gaya (110 kilometres), Gaya (95 kilometres) and Patna (95 kilometres
- There are no taxis available in Nalanda. Cycle rickshaws and tongas are the recommended modes of transport
- A official guide is highly recommended. Options are available at the ticket counter for Rs. 200.00 onwards and depends on the tour group size
- You can spend at least 2-3 hours for a guided tour in the magnificent ruins
- Nalanda University ruins are open on all days from 0900 – 1700 hrs. Entrance Fee is 5.00 INR for Indians and 100.00 INR for foreigners
- Nalanda Archaeological Museum is open during 1000 to 1700 hrs, except on Friday when its closed
- No private taxi is allowed to Hiuen Tsang memorial. Taxis must be parked at Nalanda parking area and one can walk the 4.5 kms or take a horse cart ride to it
- There are a number of moderately priced hotels available at Rajgir (15 kms from Nalanda). Tourists can choose to stay at any of the three Tourists Bungalows of Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation as well
- One can plan to visit the lake with its temple of Surya (Sun God) at Surajpur, Baragaon. It’s just 4 kms away and is a pilgrim destination during the Chhath Puja or Sun worship (twice a year April-May and October-November)