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Nalanda is one of the most ancient international centers of education and learning equivalent to modern universities, with a very rich library. An inscribed seal written "Sri-Nalandamahavihariy-Arya-Bhikshu-Sanghasya" identifies the site as Nalanda Mahavihara.
Nalanda has a very ancient history and goes back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Many references in the Pâli Buddhist literature mention about Nâlandâ. It is said that in course of his journeys Buddha often halted at this place. It is also the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha.
The place rose into prominence in 5th Century A.D. as a great monastic-cum-educational institution for oriental art and learning in the whole Buddhist world, attracting students from like Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing from China and other distant countries. The galaxy of luminaries associated with it includes Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Dharmapala, Suvishnu, Asanga, Silabhadra, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita. Another important mention in history, is that around second century, Suvishnu built one hundred and eight temples at Nalanda to prevent the decline of the Hînayâna and Mahâyâna schools of Buddhism.
Various subjects like theology, sabda-vidyâ grammar, hetu-vidyâ (logic), astronomy, metaphysics, chikitsâ-vidyâ medicine and philosophy were taught here. The accounts of pilgrim state that Nâlandâ was bustling with literary activities.
Nâlandâ had now acquired a celebrity spread all over the east as a centre of Buddhist theology and educational activities. This is evident from the fact that within a short period of thirty years following Hiuen Tsang's departure, no less than eleven Chinese and Korean travelers are known to have visited Nalanda.
Life lead by Nalanda monks is regarded as the ideal to be followed by the Buddhist all over the world. This celebrity status persisted through ages. It is also attributed that a detailed history of Nalanda would be the history of Mahayanist Buddhism.
The institution was maintained by the revenue collected from the villages bestowed specifically for the purpose by the contemporary rulers as evident from inscriptions. Royal patronage was therefore the key note of the prosperity and efficiency of Nâlandâ.
Cultural Resources of Nâlandâ
Nâlandâ is primarily a archaeological site exposed during the excavations conducted by Archaeological Survey of India during 1915-37 and 1974-82. There are references that the city was spread over an area of sixteen square kilometers of which only an area of around square kilometer is excavated. The extensive remains are of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged on a systematic layout.
It has a central monumental axis thirty meter wide running north-south with the row of temples on the west and monasteries on the east. The dimension and disposition of rooms within monasteries is almost identical. The most imposing structure is Temple No. 3 at the southern extremity which was constructed in seven phases. This follows the pancharatna concept of planning consisting of a central shrine and four subsidiary ones in the corner.
Other than structures, the cultural resources of the site include many sculptures and images in stone, bronze and stucco. Significant among the Buddhist sculptures are Buddha in different postures, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Tara, Prajnaparamita, Marichi, Jambhala etc. A few images are of Brahmanical deities like Vishnu, Siva-Parvati, Mahishasur-Mardini, Ganesha, Surya etc. Other noteworthy discoveries of excavation include the murals, copper plates, stone and brick inscriptions, sealings, plaques, coins, terracottas, potteries etc.
The antiquities have been exhibited for the visitors in the nearby museum maintained by Archaeological Survey of India.
(iii) Bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which has disappeared
(vi) Be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas or beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal value.
Nalanda has a very ancient history going back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha 6th Century B.C. According to the Jain text Mahavira spent as many as 14 rainy seasons over there . Nalanda acquired sanctity as having being the birth place of Sariputra one of the disciples of Lord Buddha . Taranath a buddhist philosopher states that Asoka worshipped at the chaitya of Sariputra and erected a temple here. Taranath also connects Aryadeva with Nalanda. Further Asanga a buddhist philosopher of great repute (5th Century A.D.) is said to have spent 12 years of his life and was succeeded by his brother Vasubandhaa as the high priest of Nalanda.
Nalanda not only enjoys a special place in the history of Buddhism but also in the history of art, religion, architecture and scriptures as it is a great monastic - cum educational institution for Buddhist art and learning in the whole world and has attracted students from distant countries like China, Korea etc from 5th Century A.D. onwards.
The real importance of Nalanda began during the Gupta rule in the 5th Century A.D. The monasteries of Nalanda were the creation of the Gupta emperors beginning with Kumaragupta I. Harshavardhana of Kanauj (606-647) also helped the development of the Institution by his munificence. He built a monastery of brass here as has been recorded by the great traveler Hiuen Tsang in his chronicler. As has been recorded by Hiuen Tsang that a long succession of kings continued the work of building using all skills till the whole is a marvelous creation. In the time of the Palas, Nalanda rose even to a greater importance. They established other monasteries such as Vikramshila , Somapura, Odantapuri and Jagaddala which must have created a diversion in the activities of the Buddhist scholars. It was during this period that celebrities like Padmasambhava, a great luminary of Nalanda visited Tibet.
There were many renowned scholars who by their deep learning and excellence of conduct maintained the dignity which Nalanda enjoyed. Early Mahayana philosophers Nagarjuna, Aryaveda Asanga and Vashubandhu were the high priests of Nalanda. Next in point of chronology comes the name of Dinnaga who also received the title "tarka -pungava". Dharmapala Silabhadra, Dharmakriti were some of the famous scholars of Nalanda whose excellence used to attract best students from different corners of the world. The fame of these scholars spread to distant countries and persisted through ages.
From the record of Ising in 673A.D. we get a detailed picture of the subject studied in Nalanda . His work not only records the minute details about the kind of life he led in Nalanda but also talks about the curriculum which besides the Buddhist scriptures included logic , metaphysics and a very extensive study of Sanskrit grammer. The monks used to follow a strict rule of discipline.
Towards the close of the 12th Cent. A.D Nalanda fell a prey to the destructive hands of the muslims when Dhramasvamin visited the place in 1235-36 A.D. the establishment was a shadow of the past. The skeleton establishment disappeared shortly but not before14th Century A.D. before he went to Srilanka.As Dhyanabhadra of a Korean inscription who was a native of Magadha is said to have studied in this institution before he went to Srilanka.
Even the name of Nalanda was forgotten , the locality having assumed the name "Bargaon". The Bargaon renamed as Nalanda is certain , this is proved by the discovery of large number of seals with the inscription of "Nalanda Mahavihara Arya Vikshu Sanghasya".
The first European account of the village Bargaon containing the ruins of Nalanda was given by Buchanon-Hamilton who visited the place in the 1st quarter of the 19th Century and found here some Brahman and Buddhist images But it was only in the 60's of that century that Cunningham identified the place with ancient Nalanda.
The remains of Nalanda have been extensively excavated as a result of which the ruins of a large number of structures extending length wise from South to North along a range of monasteries along the East side have come to light. The temples thronged by small stupas along the west of an avenue have also been revealed.Even in their ruinous state they are conspicuous enough to enable one to visualize the glory of Nalanda Mahavira in its palming days.
Nalanda exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental art, town planning or landscape design. Most of the structures date from the Pala period though a number of them have an earlier nucleous.
The campus has rows of magnificent stupas placed side by side forming a central monumental axis. Parallel to and on both sides of this axis were monasteries along with establishments for housing students aspiring to become monks.
Eleven monasteries have been unearthed; nine in a row, facing West and two adjoining them at right angles on the Southern side. The monasteries were imposing rectangular building. All the monasteries bear indications of having being rebuilt again and again, without any material deviation from a original plan , after natural decay or conflagration.
These monasteries or Viharas were planned around a central open court. These functioned both as units of residence as well as learning. The lower storey contained the refectory, areas of instructions and communal worship, while the upper floor built in timber was quadrangle of cells for resident students. Each subsequent higher storey was stepped back from the previous one to create open air terraces for the cells. These were used by more preserving students who had graduated to an advanced stage of learning.
A number of such monasteries were built close to each other like many colleges in a university campus. The architectural members were richly carved, painted and ornamented. Detail descriptions are available in accounts of the Chinese pilgrims about the place and this was destined to be of the Buddhist architecture in India.
All the temples were surrounded with the votive stupas of varying sizes. They mostly contained in their cores, tablets, bearing the Buddhist creeds or Dharanis or bricks inscribed with the Pratitya Samutpata Sutras.
A large number of sculptures have been found from Nalanda . Nalanda not only has the images of Buddha and Bodisattavas but also such Bajrajana deities as Jhambhala Trailokyavijaya, Tara, Aparajita and Marichi.. The presenceof Brahmanical images at these centre of Buddhist theology is a interesting feature. Mention should be made of red painted Vishnu, Balarama, Durga, Mahisasuramardini and Ganesha.
Nâlandâ is primarily an archaeological site and retains its original location and settings. It is still not much disturbed by the forces of urbanization, industrialization or modernization.
Nâlandâ has also maintained the authenticity of form and design. The site is a archaeological site and the planning of the campus is clearly identifiable. It demonstrates a systematic layout and a remarkable uniformity in the construction plan of monastic units.
It preserves a number of art forms at a single place which include sculptures representing classical Gupta art of imperial character; sculptures representing Medieval Eastern Indian Regional Style namely the Pala School of Art; mural painting tradition, tradition of stucco figures; the art of bronze images; and number of very important inscriptions over stone, seal or sealing.
In a way the place preserves a living tradition. The Nav- Nalanda Mahavihar is a modern institution under Government of India. It still attracts national and international Buddhist community for imparting education specially Buddhist language (Pali) and literature, as in the ancient times.
The site is protected by Archaeological Survey of India and is recognized as national monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Site and Remains Act 1958. After exposing the site, throughout the period, repairs have been carried out using original materials and traditional methods due to which authenticity of the site remains undisturbed.
The site has close resemblance to the architecture and layout of Buddhist sites in India and South East Asia. Temple no. 3 of the Nâlandâ has the pancharatna concept of planning consisting of a central shrine and four subsidiary ones in the corner. This style is the essence of design of the Buddhist style of architecture that flourished subsequently in South East Asia. The temple at Angkor Vat in Cambodia is the most glorious of these.
Other similar properties in World are:
Taxila - Nâlandâ and Taxila were recognized as international school of learning of Buddhist studies at the same time. Most of the Buddhist Stupas and monasteries at Taxila date from 1st to 5th Century A.D. except Dharmarajika Stupa which was originally founded by the Emperor Asoka of the Mauryan dynasty in 3rd Century B.C.
Other similar properties in India are:
Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya - The Temple was erected during 5th-6th Century A.D. where Lord Buddha achieved Bodhisattva under the Bodhi tree. The Temple has already been inscribed as a World Heritage Monument.
Sarnath - It is one of the major sites related with the Buddha himself and Buddhism. Here Buddha gave His first sermon to the public along with His five disciples after attaining Bodhisattva. This site is already in the tentative list of World Heritage Nomination from India.
Vikramshila - Also identified as Vikramshila Mahavihara, another contemporary seat of learning patronaged by the same Royal Lineage.
Kumrahar - Identified as Pataliputra, the 2nd Capital of the then Magadh Kingdom, dated back to 5th Century B.C. Excavation also unearthed a hospital-cum-monastery complex known as "Arogya-Vihara" which is of Gupta period.
Vaishali - Related with one of the major events of the Buddha's life where a local chief of monkey offered a bowl of honey to Lord Buddha as referred in the Buddhist literatures.
Rajgir - The site has Karanda tank and Venu Vana mentioned by the Chinese pilgrims and Buddhist scriptures.
Kesariya - Is also a famous Buddhist site related with Lord Buddha. Here on His last Journey towards Kushinagar He left His begging bowl to the Lichhavis.
Lauriya Areraj - The site is marked with an Asokan pillar.
Lauriya Nandangarh - Presence of a huge Buddhist stupa and an intact Asokan pillar in its vicinity marks the site as one of the major Buddhist destination.