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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 26 New Delhi June 16, 2018

Nalanda Mahavihara — Victim of a Myth regarding its Decline and Destruction

Monday 18 June 2018

by O.P. Jaiswal

Nalanda1 has a very ancient history going back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. According to the Jaina texts, it was a suburb (bahariya), situated to the north-west of the famous city of Rajagriha. Indeed, so important was the place that Mahavira spent as many as fourteen rainy seasons there. The Pali Buddhist literature too contains many references to Nalanda. It is said that in the course of his sojourns the Buddha often visited the place, which was mentioned as prosperous, swelling, teeming with population and containing a mango-grove called Pavarika. The distance from Rajagriha to Nalanda is given as a yojana.

This place is mentioned in the Maha-sudassana-Jataka2 as the birthplace of the Thera Sariputra, a chief disciple of the Buddha. In other texts the same place, under the name of Nalaka or Nalakagrama, appears as a centre of Sariputra’s activities.3 The Mahavastu, a Sanskrit Buddhist text, also gives Nalanda-gramaka, half a yojana distant from Rajagriha, as the place of birth of Sariputra and finds support in some Tibetan texts, including Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India, a seventeenth-century Tibetan work.4 It is therefore reasonable to hold that Nala, Nalaka, Nalakagrama and Nalanda are all variants of the same place-name.

Hiuen-Tsang, the renowned Chinese traveller of the seventh century AD, says that according to tradition the place owed its name to a naga of the same name who resided in a local tank. But he thinks it more probable that the Buddha, in one of his previous births as Bodhisattva, became a king with his capital at this place, and that his liberality won for him and his capital the name Nalanda or ‘charity without intermission’.5

According to Taranatha, Asoka, the great Mauryan emperor of the third century BC, gave offerings to the chaitya of Sariputra that existed at Nalanda and erected a temple here; Ashoka must therefore be regarded as the founder of the Nalanda-vihara.6 The same authority adds that Nagarjuna, the famous Mahayana philosopher and alchemist of about the second century AD, began his studies at Nalanda and later on became the high priest here. It is also added that Suvishnu, a Brahmana contemporary of Nagarjuna, built one hundred and eight temples at Nalanda to prevent the decline of both the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism.7 Taranatha also connects Aryadeva, a philoso-pher of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism of the early fourth century AD, with Nalanda.4 Further, Asanga, a Buddhist philosopher of the Yogachara school, belonging to the fifth century AD,8 is said to have spent here twelve years of his later life and to have been succeeded by his still more famous brother, Vasubandhu, as the high priest of Nalanda.9

These statements of Taranatha would lead one to believe that Nalanda was a famous centre of Buddhism already at the time of Nagarjuna and continued to be so in the following centuries. But it may be clearly emphasised that the excavations have not revealed anything which suggests the occupation of the site before the Guptas, the earliest datable finds being a (forged) copper plate of Samudra-gupta and a coin of Kumaragupta. This is fully confirmed by the statement of Hiuen-Tsang that ‘a former king of the country named Sakraditya built here a monastery and that his successors, Buddha-gupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya and Vajra built some monasteries nearby’.10 As some of these names were borne by the Gupta emperors, it has been held that all of them refer to the Imperial Guptas of the fifth and sixth century AD.

The assumption that the monasteries of Nalanda were the creation of the Gupta emperors beginning with Kumaragupta I receives confirmation from the fact that Fa-hien, the Chinese pilgrim of the early fifth century AD, does not mention the monastic establishments of Nalanda. He speaks of the village of Nalo, the place of birth and death of Sariputra, and of a stupa existing here.11 As has been suggested above, this place is identical with Nalanda, but the absence of any other monument except a stupa at the time of Fa-hien is significant.

Hiuen-Tsang saw here an 80-ft. high copper image of the Buddha raised by Purnavarman,12 belonging to the early sixth century AD. And the illustrious Harshavardhana of Kanauj (606-647) no doubt greatly helped the institution by his munificence: he built a monastery of brass, which was under construction when Hiuen-Tsang visited the place. The biographer of Hiuen-Tsang says that Harsha remitted ‘the revenues of about a hundred villages as an endowment of the convent and two hundred householders in these villages contributed the required amount of rice, butter and milk’. ‘Hence,’ he adds, ‘the students here, being so abundantly supplied, do not require to ask for the four requisities. This is the source of the perfection of their studies, to which they have arrived.’ This statement makes it clear that the students did not have to beg for their daily food.

Harsha highly revered the Nalanda monks and called himself their servant.13 About a thousand monks of Nalanda were present at the royal congregation at Kanauj. Royal patronage was, therefore, the keynote of the prosperity and efficiency of Nalanda. As Hiuen-Tsang says, ‘A long succession of kings continued the work of building, using all the skill of the sculptor, till the whole is truly marvellous to behold.’14

Hiuen-Tsang also recounts a few of the monasteries and temples that he saw here, giving their directions in most cases. Thus, the monastery built by Buddhagupta was to the south of the one built by his father Sakraditya; to the east of Buddhagupta’s monastery was the one of Tathagatagupta; the one built by Baladitya was to the north-east of the last; while Vajra’s monastery was to the west. After this an unnamed king of mid-India is said to have built a great monastery to the north and erected a high wall with one gate round these edifices. Hiuen-Tsang also gives a long list of the other monsteries and stupas that he found. Modern attempts to identify them with the existing ruins have met with scanty success, as the six centuries that separated Hiuen-Tsang and the final desertion of the site must have produced many new buildings and modified the existing ones.

Hiuen-Tsang was very warmly received at Nalanda and resided here for a long time. The courses of study were based on secular ideals including the scriptures of the Mahayana and Hinayana schools, hetu-vidya (logic), sabda-vidya (grammar) and chikitsa-vidya (medicine), as well as purely Brahmanical texts such as the Vedas including the Atharvaveda. From the accounts of the pilgrim it is clear that Nalanda was bustling with literary activities.

Hiuen-Tsang received here the Indian name Mokshadeva and was remembered by the inmates of the Nalanda monastery long after he had left the place. Several years after his return to China, Prajnadeva, a monk of Nalanda, sent him a pair of clothes, saying that the wor-shippers every day went on offering to Hiuen-Tsang their salutations.

Nalanda had by then acquired a celebrity status spread all over the east as a centre of Buddhist theology and secular educational activities. This was evident from the fact that within a short period of thirty years following Hiuen-Tsang’s departure, no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travellers were known to have visited Nalanda.15

Next in importance to Hiuen-Tsang stands I-tsing, who reached India in 673 AD and studied at Nalanda for a considerable time. His work records very minute details about the life led by the Nalanda monks that he regarded as the ideal to be followed by the Buddhists all over the world. He said that the number of monks of the Nalanda monastery exceeded three thousand in number, maintained by more than two hundred villages bestowed by previous kings.16 He also gave details of the curriculum which, besides the Buddhist scriptures, included logic, metaphysics and a very extensive study of Sanskrit Grammar.17 He further testified to the strict rules of discipline that the monks observed, their daily life being regulated by a water-clock.18

The Pala emperors held east India from the eighth to the twelfth century AD and were noted for their patronage of Mahayana Buddhism. At the same time they established monasteries at Vikramasila and Odantapuri in Bihar.19 It was even stated by Taranatha that the head of the Vikramasila monastery had control over Nalanda. Still, there are ample epigraphic and literary evidences to show that the Palas continued to be liberal in their munificence to Nalanda.

Mention may here be made of some famous scholars who, by their deep learning and excellence in conduct, created and maintained the dignity which Nalanda enjoyed. It has been already stated above that the early Mahayana philosophers, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga and Vasubandhu, were all, according to Taranatha, the high priests (pandita) of Nalanda. Next in point of chronology comes Dinnaga, the founder of the medieval school of logic; he was a southerner who was invited to Nalanda to defeat in disputation a Brahmanist scholar and received the title tarkapungava. The next famous pandita was Dharma Pala, who had retired just before Hiuen-Tsang arrived. At the time of the pilgrim the head of the monastery was Silabhadra, under whom the pilgrim studied and whose scholarship and personal qualities he described eloquently. Silabhadra was probably succeeded by Dharmakirti, who is credited by Taranatha to have defeated a Brahmanical philosopher, Kumarila.

The next important figure was Santarakshita, who was invited by King Khri-sron-deu-tsan to Tibet, where he lived for many years till his death in 762. About the same time Tibet was also visited by Padmasambhava, who acquired great fame as the founder of the institution of Lamaism in Tibet. It was no mean honour for Nalanda that one of its scholars gave to the Tibetan religion a form that is continuing to the present day.

Thus, Nalanda succeeded in attracting the best Buddhist scholars whose fame spread to distant countries and persisted through the ages. Rightly has it been said that ‘a detailed history of Nalanda would be a history of Mahayanist Buddhism’.20

It is evident from the account of Hiuen-Tsang that Buddhism was slowly decaying when he visited India. Important centres of early Buddhism were deserted, though some new centres, such as Nalanda in the east, Valabhi in the west and Kanchi in the south, had sprung up. After some time Buddhism lost its hold in other provinces and flourished only in Bihar and Bengal, where royal patronage succeeded in keeping alive a dying cause. But it is clear that Buddhism was no longer popular and centred round a few monasteries. The Buddhism that was practised at these places was no longer of the simple Hinayana type, nor even had much in common with the Mahayana of the earler days, but was strongly inbued with the ideas of Tantricism, inculcating belief in the efficacy of charms and spells and involving secret practices and rituals.

The crusade of the Brahmanical philosophers and preachers such as Kumarila and Sankara-charya in the eighth century must have been another potent factor in rendering Buddhism unpopular. They are reported to have travelled all over India, defeating the Buddhists in arguments and retionale.

On the other hand it has been propagated that Muslim invaders drove away the monks and damaged the monasteries, but it does not stand correct in the light of scrutiny of the facts. The whole story of Muslim invasion has been woven on the basis of “Tabaqat-i-Nasiri” of Minhaj-i-Siraj, without going through the text honestly. The text reads as follows: “Bakhtiyar Khalji organised an attack upon the fortified city of Bihar and he advanced to the gateway of the fortress with two hundred horsemen in defensive armour and suddenly attacked the place. Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar Khalji, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the palace, and they captured the fortress and acquired great booty (Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, tr. H.G. Raverty, Calcutta, 1881, pp. 552) The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven; and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and, when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information regarding the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus were killed. On becoming acquainted with the contents of the books, it was found that the whole of that fortress and the city was a college called Vihara.

The above account mentions the fortress or Vihara as the target of Bakhtiyar’s attack. The fortified monastery which Bakhtiyar captured was known as “Audand Vihara” or “Odanda-pura—Vihara” (Odantapuri in Biharshariff, then known simply as Vihara). He did not go to Nalanda from Biharshariff, rather he moved Nadia in Bengal through the hills and jungles of the Jharkhand region, which is attested to by an inscription of 1295 AD. So, desctruction and burning of the university of Nalanda by Bakhtiyar Khalji is based on concoction and imagination. It is clear from the above mentioned facts that Bhaktiyar Khalji invaded and conquered parts of Bihar and destroyed the Mahavihara in the region,22 but he did not move towards Nalanda from Biharshariff; so, the question of destruction and burning of Nalanda Mahavihara does not arise. (The above facts in detail are from Professor D.N. Jha’s account in of July 9, 2014.)

Two Tibetan traditions tell a tale of destruction of Nalanda Mahavihara by Tirthika’s fire. History of Buddhism in India by Lama Tara Nath (17th century AD) and Pag-Sam-Jon-Zang by Sumpa Khan (18th century AD) narrate the event of destruction almost in the same manner. Both the narratives agree that “during the consecration of the temple built by Kakutsiddha at Nalanda, the young naughty Sarmanas threw slops at the two tirthika beggars and kept them pressed inside door panels and set ferocious dogs on them.” Angered by this, one of them went on arranging for their livelihood and the other sat in a deep pit and “engaged himself in Suryasadhana (solar worship), first for nine years and then for three more years and having thus ‘acquired mantrasiddhi’ he performed a sacrifice and scattered the charmed ashes all around”, which immediately resulted in a fire, that consumed all the eightyfour temples and the scriptures some of which, however, were saved by water flowing from an upper floor of the nine-storey Ratnodadhi temple.23 (Professor D.N. Jha’s account, op. cit.) The above facts indicate that there was longstanding antagonism between Brahmins and Buddhists which resulted in desctruction of Nalanda by fire.

Destruction by fire is confirmed by excavations also. While excavating the sites the excavators are frequently seen commenting that the particular monastery was probably destroyed by fire; but they do not state the probable causes of such fires. We have nowhere any evidence to suggest that the fires were caused by outside agencies or in the course of any political catastrophe except for a solitary instance as quoted in a Tibetan source alleging that the Brahmins deliberately set fire to the famous library.

One inscription of about 1003 AD, found at the temple site no. 12, actually refers to such destruction by fire and something saved from it and a grant made by one Baladitya of Telhada near Nalanda. It does not, however, say how the fire was cuased. Unfortunately, the inscripton does not refer to what was actually destroyed, whether it was the temple itself in the ruins of which it was found or a monastery nearby. The record is on a piece of a stone door-jamb. It does not mention Nalanda by name. It has been presumed that it refers to the restoration of the temple. From the list of inscriptions from Nalanda it may also be observed that this is the last datable inscription so far known to us and found at Nalanda.

It has been stated that the temple shows clear indications that it was restored during the declining day of Buddhism as inferred from its “plain exterior” and from traces of a protective compound wall seen around it. If Baladitya had really restored this temple, or had done a part of the work, as appears quite probable, the fact would be very significant for the history of Nalanda and its final end. It would give an impression that the end of Nalanda was fast approaching by the first decade of the 11th century AD.24 Unfortunatley, the antiquities and finds from the excavations have not been closely studied and dated; though we can say that the above is the latest datable inscription so far known and recovered from the ruins. There is, therefore, reason to believe that Nalanda had met its final end some time in the 11th century AD, that is, more than hundred years before Bakhtiyar Khilji invaded Bihar in 1197 AD.


1. In ancient literature both the forms Nalanda and Nalanda occur indiscriminately.

2. Hirananda Sastri in Proceedings of the Fifth Oriental Conference, I (Lahore, 1930).

3. B.C. Law, Geography of Early Buddhism (London, 1932).

4. Chattopadhyay, D.P., History of Buddhism in India, Calcutta.

5. S. Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World (London, 1906), II, p. 167. The derivation na-alam-da has been proposed, but it does not convey the sense that it is intended to.

6. Chattopadhyay, D.P., op. cit., pp. 65 ff.

7. Ibid., p. 68ff.

8. Ibid., p. 83.

9. Some scholars are in favour of a date earlier by a century.

10. Chattopadhyay, D.P., op. cit., p. 122.

11. For Hiuen-Tsang’s description of Nalanda, see Beal, op. cit., pp. 167ff. His biographer, Hwui Li, adds some interesting details: S. Beal, Life of Hiuen-Tsang (London, 1911), pp. 109ff.

12. Legge, Travels of Fa-hien (Oxford, 1886), p. 81.

13. Beal, Records, II, p. 118.

14. Beal, Life, p. 160.

15. Beal, Life, p. 177.

16. For a list, see Beal, Life, pp. XXVIIIff.

17. J. Takakusu, A Record of the Buddhist Religion (Oxford, 1896), pp. 65 and 154.

18. Takakusu, op. cit., pp. 167ff. It appears from his account that all the existing grammatical texts of the Paninian school, including the Ashtadhyayi itself, were taught to the students. It is strange that in spite of this the Buddhist texts in Sanskrit should have been written in incorrect language.

19. Ibid., p. 145.

20. Vikramasila was founded by Dharmapala (Chattopadhyay, D.P., op. cit., p. 217) and is generally identified with Patharghata in Bhalgalpur District, Bihar. Odantapuri or Uddandapura was erected near Nalanda by either Gopala or Devapala, ibid., pp. 204 and 206, and may be identified with modern Biharshariff in Nalanda District. Jagaddala was founded by Ramapala, one of the last kings of the dynasty, somewhere in North Bengal.

21. Chattopadhyay, D.P., op. cit., p. 2018.

22. Chattopadhyay, D.P., op. cit., p. 131ff.

23. The identification with the famous Brahmana mimamsaka Kumarila is at once suggested but does not seem to be very likely as Kumarila probably lived somewhat later.

24. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, IX (Edinburgh, 1917), s.v. Nalanda.

Professor O.P. Jaiswal is a Retired University Professor, Patna University.

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