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The ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara
Nalanda is located in India
Shown within India
Location Bihar, India
Type Centre of learning
Length 800 ft (240 m)
Width 1,600 ft (490 m)
Area 12 ha (30 acres)
Founded 5th century CE
Abandoned 13th century CE
Events Ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1197 CE
Site notes
Excavation dates 1915–1937, 1974–1982[1]
Archaeologists David B. Spooner, Hiranand Sastri, J.A. Page, M. Kuraishi, G.C. Chandra, N. Nazim, Amalananda Ghosh[2]:59
Public access Yes
Website Nalanda (ASI)
ASI No. N-BR-43[3]

Nalanda (Nālandā; pronunciation: ; ) was an acclaimed Mahāvihāra, a large Buddhist monastery in ancient Magadha (modern-day Bihar), India. The site is located about 95 kilometres southeast of Patna, and was a centre of learning from the fifth century CE to c. 1197 CE.[4]:149[5] Historians often characterize Nalanda as a university.[4]:148[6]:174[7][8]:43[9]:119

Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire as well as emperors like Harsha and later, the rulers of the Pala Empire.[10]:329 At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia.[6]:169 It was ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1197 CE.[11]


  • Etymology 1
  • Early History 2
  • Nalanda in the Gupta era 3
  • The Post-Gupta era 4
    • Xuanzang in Nalanda 4.1
    • Yijing in Nalanda 4.2
  • Nalanda in the Pala era 5
  • The Mahavihara 6
    • Library 6.1
    • Curriculum 6.2
    • Influence on Buddhism 6.3
  • Historical figures associated with Nalanda 7
  • Decline and end 8
  • Ruins and rediscovery 9
  • Surviving Nalanda manuscripts 10
  • Revival efforts 11
  • Tourism 12
    • Nalanda Archaeological Museum 12.1
    • Nalanda Multimedia Museum 12.2
    • Xuanzang Memorial Hall 12.3
  • Gallery 13
  • See also 14
  • References 15
  • External links 16


A number of theories exist about the etymology of the name, Nālandā. According to the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, it comes from Na alam dā meaning no end in gifts or charity without intermission. Yijing, another Chinese traveller, however, derives it from Nāga Nanda referring to the name (Nanda) of a snake (naga) in the local tank.[12]:3 Hiranand Sastri, an archaeologist who headed the excavation of the ruins, attributes the name to the abundance of nālas (lotus-stalks) in the area and believes that Nalanda would then represent the giver of lotus-stalks.[13]

Early History

Nalanda was initially a prosperous village by a major trade route that ran through the nearby city of Rajagriha (modern Rajgir) which was then the capital of Magadha.[14] It is said that the Jain thirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika and one of his two chief disciples, Shariputra, was born in the area and later attained nirvana there.[4]:148[10]:328 This traditional association with Mahavira and Buddha tenuously dates the existence of the village to at least the 5th–6th century BCE.

Not much is known of Nalanda in the centuries hence. Taranatha, the 17th-century Tibetan Lama, states that the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan and Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Shariputra's chaitya. He also places 3rd-century CE luminaries such as the Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, and his disciple, Aryadeva, at Nalanda with the former also heading the institution. Taranatha also mentions a contemporary of Nagarjuna named Suvishnu building 108 temples at the location. While this could imply that there was a flourishing centre for Buddhism at Nalanda before the 3rd century, no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support the assertion. When Faxian, an early Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India, visited Nalo, the site of Shariputra's parinirvana, at the turn of the 5th century CE, all he found worth mentioning was a stupa.[12]:4[7]:37

Nalanda in the Gupta era

Rear view of the ruins of the Baladitya Temple in 1872.

As historian Sukumar Dutt describes it, the history of the Nalanda Mahavihara "falls into two main divisions—the first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth—a period during which the Tāntric developments of Buddhism became most pronounced in eastern India under the Pālas …"[10]:344

Nalanda's datable history begins under the Gupta Empire[15] and a seal identifies a monarch named Shakraditya (Śakrāditya) as its founder. Both Xuanzang and a Korean pilgrim named Prajnyavarman (Prajñāvarman) too attribute the foundation of a sangharama (monastery) at the site to him.[7]:42 Shakraditya is identified with the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I (r. c. 415 – c. 455 CE), whose coin has been discovered at Nalanda.[6]:166[10]:329 His successors, Buddhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya, and Vajra, later extended and expanded the institution by building additional monasteries and temples.[12]:5

The Guptas were traditionally a Brahmanical dynasty. Narasimhagupta (Baladitya) however, was brought up under the influence of the Mahayanist philosopher, Vasubandhu. He built a sangharama at Nalanda and also a 300 ft (91 m) high vihara with a Buddha statue within which, according to Xuanzang, resembled the "great Vihara built under the Bodhi tree". The monk also noted that Baladitya's son, Vajra, who built a sangharama too, "possessed a heart firm in faith".[10]:330[7]:45

The Post-Gupta era

After the decline of the Guptas, the most notable benefactor of the Mahavihara was Harsha, the 7th-century emperor of Kannauj, who was a converted Buddhist. Harsha built a monastery of brass at Nalanda and remitted the revenues of 100 villages to the Mahavihara. He also directed 200 households in these villages to supply the monks with requisite amounts of rice, butter, and milk on a daily basis.[12]:6[4]:151

Much of what is known of Nalanda prior to the 8th century is based on the travelogues of the Chinese monks, Xuanzang and Yijing.

Xuanzang in Nalanda

Xuanzang travelled around India between the years of 630 and 643 CE,[9]:110 and visited Nalanda in 637 CE. He was a contemporary of Harsha and catalogued the king's munificence in some detail.

Yijing in Nalanda

Inspired by the journeys of Faxian and Xuanzang, the pilgrim, Yijing arrived in India in 671 CE and stayed for fourteen years. Ten of them were spent at the Nalanda Mahavihara.[4]:144 He noted there being eight halls with as many as 300 apartments.[6]:167

Nalanda in the Pala era

A number of monasteries grew up during the Pala period in ancient Bengal and Magadha. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramashila, the premier institution of higher learning of the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapurā, and Jaggadala.[16] The five monasteries formed a network; "all of them were under state supervision" and there existed "a system of co-ordination among them … It seems from the evidence that the different seats of Buddhist learning that functioned in eastern India under the Palas were regarded together as forming a network, an interlinked group of institutions," and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.[10]:352

During the Pala period, Nalanda was less singularly outstanding, as other Pala establishments "must have drawn away a number of learned monks from Nālānda when all of them ... came under the aegis of the Pālās."[10]:344

The Mahavihara

The excavated ruins cover an area of around 12 hectares.

Nalanda was a residential school, i.e., it had dormitories for students. In its heyday, it is claimed to have accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Chinese pilgrims estimated the number of students to have been between 3,000 and 5,000.[17] The school was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of around 1,600 feet (488 m) by 800 feet (244 m) which is roughly 12 hectares.[18][7]:217

The library was located in a nine-storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced. The subjects taught at Nalanda covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.[5]

Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the school in the 7th century. He described how the regularly laid-out towers, forest of pavilions, harmikas and temples seemed to "soar above the mists in the sky" so that from their cells the monks "might witness the birth of the winds and clouds."[19]:158 The pilgrim states: "An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade."[19]:159

The entrance of many of the viharas in the Nalanda ruins can be seen with a bow marked floor; the bow was the royal sign of the Guptas.


The remnants of the library of Nalanda, which is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, ransacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the monks from the site.

The library at Nalanda was an immense complex called the Dharmaganja, or Piety Mart, and it was separated into three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Ratnadadhi (Ocean of Gems) was nine stories high and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.[20]:27[21]:22

The towers were supposedly immense, bejewelled and gilded to reflect the rays of the sun.[10] According to the Bhaskara Samhita, an ancient text on organizational practices, the library was to be built in a “finely built stone building” and each manuscript would have been placed on iron shelves or stack and covered with cloth and tied up. Furthermore, the librarian in charge, according to the text, was not only responsible for maintaining the materials but also for guiding readers in their studies.[20]:177[22]

The exact number of volumes of the Nalanda library is not known. But it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands.[23] The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine.[21]

It is clear that the Nalanda library had a classification scheme[20] which was possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the great Sanskrit linguist Panini.[22]:4 Buddhists texts were most likely divided into three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra, and the Abhidhamma.[24]:37 Like most other Indian ancient and medieval period libraries, Nalanda would have used a basic catalogue to help patrons find materials. This bibliography, or Anukamanikas, would have listed the books by hymns, authors, form of sutras, Rishi’s name, and the hymnal metre.[24]


Tibetan tradition holds that there were "four doxographies" (Tibetan: grub-mtha’) which were taught at Nalanda:[25]

  1. Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika
  2. Sarvāstivāda Sautrāntika
  3. Mādhyamaka, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Nagarjuna
  4. Chittamatra, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu

In the 7th century, Xuanzang records the number of teachers at Nalanda as being around 1510. Of these, approximately 1000 were able to explain 20 collections of sūtras and śāstras, 500 were able to explain 30 collections, and only 10 teachers were able to explain 50 collections. Xuanzang was among the few who were able to explain 50 collections or more. At this time, only the abbot Shilabhadra had studied all the major collections of sūtras and śāstras at Nalanda.[26]

A page from the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, a text widely used for its accurate descriptions of 7th century India

The Chinese monk Yijing wrote that matters of discussion and administration at Nalanda would require assembly and consensus on decisions by all those at the assembly, as well as resident monks:[27]

Xuanzang also writes:[19]:159

Influence on Buddhism

A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the late 9th–12th century teachers and traditions at Nalanda. The scholar Dharmakirti (ca. 7th century), one of the Buddhist founders of Indian philosophical logic, as well as one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism, taught at Nalanda.[28]

Rear view of the stupa of Shariputra

Other forms of Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna Buddhism followed in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, flourished within the walls of the ancient school. A number of scholars have associated some Mahāyāna texts such as the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, an important sūtra in East Asian Buddhism, with the Buddhist tradition at Nalanda.[10]:264[29] Ron Epstein also notes that the general doctrinal position of the sūtra does indeed correspond to what is known about the Buddhist teachings at Nalanda toward the end of the Gupta period when it was translated.[30]

According to Xuanzang's biographer, Hwui-Li, Nalanda was held in contempt by some Sthaviras for its emphasis on Mahayana philosophy. They reportedly chided King Harsha for patronising Nalanda during one of his visits to Odisha, mocking the "sky-flower" philosophy taught there and suggesting that he might as well patronise a Kapalika temple.[10]:334 When this occurred, Harsha notified the chancellor of Nalanda, who sent the monks Sāgaramati, Prajñāraśmi, Siṃharaśmi, and Xuanzang to refute the views of the monks from Odisha.[31]:171

Historical figures associated with Nalanda

Nalanda was visited by both Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries BCE.[1] It is also the place of birth and nirvana of Shariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha.[4]:148 Many scholars and historical figures of note are associated with Nalanda including,

Decline and end

Evidence in literature suggests that in c. 1197 CE Nalanda was ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji,[11] a Turk.[21]:22[33] The Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his chronicle the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism. The burning of the library continued for several months and "smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills."[34][35]

The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal). In Tibet, he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivada lineage to complement the two existing ones.

When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197–1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students.[36][37] During Chag Lotsawa's time there, an incursion by Turkic soldiers caused the remaining students to flee. Despite all this, "remnants of the debilitated Buddhist community continued to struggle on under scarce resources until c. 1400 when Chagalaraja was reportedly the last king to have patronized Nalanda."[2]:60

According to Tibetan legend, the school and library were reportedly repaired shortly after by Mudita Bhadra, a Buddhist sage. Unfortunately, the library was again burned by Tirthaka mendicants.[20]:28

Ruins and rediscovery

After its decline, Nalanda was largely forgotten until Francis Buchanan-Hamilton surveyed the site in 1811–1812 after locals in the vicinity drew his attention to a vast complex of ruins in the area. He, however, did not associate the mounds of earth and debris with famed Nalanda. That link was established by Major Markham Kittoe in 1847. Alexander Cunningham and the newly formed Archaeological Survey of India conducted an official survey in 1861–1862.[2]:59 Systematic excavation of the ruins by the ASI did not begin until 1915 and ended in 1937. A second round of excavation and restoration took place between 1974 and 1982.[1]

A number of ruined structures survive. Nearby is the Surya Mandir, a Hindu temple. The known and excavated ruins extend over an area of about 150,000 square metres, although if Xuanzang's account of Nalanda's extent is correlated with present excavations, almost 90% of it remains unexcavated. Nalanda is no longer inhabited. Today the nearest habitation is a village called Bargaon.

Surviving Nalanda manuscripts

Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra manuscript from Nalanda, Pala period in Asia Society collection

Fleeing monks took some of the Nalanda manuscripts. A few of them have survived and are preserved in collections such as those at:

Revival efforts

In 1951, the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (New Nalanda Mahavihara), a modern centre for Pali and Buddhism in the spirit of the ancient institution, was founded by the Government of Bihar near Nalanda's ruins.[41] It was deemed to be a university in 2006.[42]

September 1, 2014, saw the commencement of the first academic year of a modern Nalanda University, with 15 students, in nearby Rajgir.[43] It has been established in a bid to revive the ancient seat of learning. The university has acquired 455 acres of land for its campus and has been allotted ₹2727 crores (around $454M) by the Indian government.[44] It is also being funded by the governments of China, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, and others.[45]


Nalanda is a popular tourist destination in the state attracting a number of Indian and overseas visitors.[46] It is also an important stop on the Buddhist tourism circuit.[45]

Nalanda Archaeological Museum

Replica of the seal of Nalanda set in terracotta on display in the Archaeological Survey of India Museum in Nalanda

The Archaeological Survey of India maintains a museum near the ruins for the benefit of visitors. The museum exhibits the antiquities that have been unearthed at Nalanda as well as from nearby Rajgir. Out of 13,463 items, only 349 are on display in four galleries.[47]

Nalanda Multimedia Museum

Another museum adjoining the excavated site is the privately run Nalanda Multimedia Museum.[48] It showcases the history of Nalanda through 3-D animation and other multimedia presentations.

Xuanzang Memorial Hall

The Xuanzang Memorial Hall at Nalanda

The Xuanzang Memorial Hall is an Indo-Chinese undertaking to honour the famed Buddhist monk and traveller, Xuanzang (more commonly referred to in India as Hiuen Tsang). Born in China in 602 CE, he travelled to Nalanda and stayed there for five years, studying Buddhism under the elderly Shilabhadra.[31]

A relic, comprising a skull bone of the Chinese monk, is on display in the memorial hall.[49]


A Buddha statue at Nalanda in 1895
A Buddha statue at Nalanda in 1895. 
Ruins of Nalanda.
Ruins of Nalanda 
A statue of Avalokisteshvara found at Nalanda.
A statue of Avalokiteshvara found at Nalanda. 
A sign detailing the history of Nalanda.
A sign detailing the history of Nalanda. 

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Nalanda". Archaeological Survey of India. Retrieved 18 September 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Le, Huu Phuoc (2010). Buddhist Architecture. Grafikol. pp. 58–66.  
  3. ^ "Alphabetical List of Monuments - Bihar". Archaeological Survey of India. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Scharfe, Hartmut (2002). Education in Ancient India. Handbook of Oriental Studies 16. Brill.  
  5. ^ a b Garten, Jeffrey E. (9 December 2006). "Really Old School". 
  6. ^ a b c d  
  7. ^ a b c d e f g  
  8. ^ a b c  
  9. ^ a b  
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Sukumar Dutt (1988) [First published in 1962]. Buddhist Monks And Monasteries of India: Their History And Contribution To Indian Culture. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London.  
  11. ^ a b  
  12. ^ a b c d  
  13. ^  
  14. ^  
  15. ^  
  16. ^ Elizabeth English (2002). Vajrayogini: Her Visualization, Rituals, and Forms. Wisdom Publications. p. 15.  
  17. ^ Sharma, Suresh Kant (2005). Encyclopaedia of Higher Education: Historical survey-pre-independence period. Mittal Publications. p. 29.  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ a b c  
  20. ^ a b c d Datta, Bimal Kumar (1970). Libraries & Librarianship of Ancient and Medieval India. Atma Ram. 
  21. ^ a b c Bhatt, Rakesh Kumar (1995). History and Development of Libraries in India. Mittal Publications.  
  22. ^ a b Patel, Jashu, Kumar, Krishan (2001). Libraries and Librarianship in India. Greenwood Publishing Group.  
  23. ^ Khurshid, Anis (January 1972). "Growth of libraries in India". International Library Review 4 (1): 21–65.  
  24. ^ a b Taher, Mohamed, Davis, Donald Gordon (1994). Librarianship and library science in India : an outline of historical perspectives. New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co. p. 37.  
  25. ^  
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Walser, Joseph (2005). Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 102.  
  28. ^ a b  
  29. ^  
  30. ^ "The Shurangama Sutra (T. 945): A Reappraisal of its Authenticity". 
  31. ^ a b c  
  32. ^  
  33. ^ Scott, David (May 1995). "Buddhism and Islam: Past to Present Encounters and Interfaith Lessons". Numen 42 (2): 141.  
  34. ^ Gertrude Emerson Sen (1964). The Story of Early Indian Civilization. Orient Longmans. 
  35. ^ History of Libraries - Nalanda University
  36. ^ "About Us". Nalanda Open University. 29 December 2009. Retrieved 22 February 2010. 
  37. ^  
  38. ^ Kim, Jinah (2013). Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia. University of California Press. p. 52.  
  39. ^ "Five of the Leaves from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Manuscript". Asia Society. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  40. ^ "Astasahahasrika Prajnaparamita Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscript". Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  41. ^ "Getting to Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM), Nalanda". Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  42. ^ "Welcome to Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM)". Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  43. ^ Singh, Santosh (September 1, 2014). "Nalanda University starts today with 15 students, 11 faculty members". The Indian Express. Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  44. ^ "Sushma Swaraj inaugurates Nalanda University". Economic Times. 19 September 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2014. 
  45. ^ a b "Nalanda University reopens". Times of India. 1 September 2014. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  46. ^ Chatterjee, Chandan (1 September 2014). "Nalanda route to prosperity — Varsity will boost trade, feel residents". The Telegraph. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  47. ^ "The Archaeological Museum, Nalanda". Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  48. ^ "Nalanda Multimedia Museum". Prachin Bharat. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  49. ^ Chaudhary, Pranava K (Dec 27, 2006). "Nalanda gets set for relic". Times of India. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 

External links

  • Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Centre list: Excavated Remains at Nalanda (Submission by the Archaeological Survey of India)
  • Nalanda travel guide from Wikivoyage
  • in the Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper NamesNalandaEntry on
  • Manuscript originally from Nalanda
  • Photographs of Nalanda
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