The recent news of the Taliban terrorists burning down buildings in Afghanistan, automatically brought forth into people’s mind the historical image of massive plunder and burning down of the famous Nalanda university by Turk invader Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji in the late 12th century CE.

Persian historian Minhaj-I-Siraj in his book Tabaqat-I Nasiri recorded the series of plundering raids into Bihar by Khalji, where he described the Nalanda attack: “Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar, by the force of his intrepidity, threw himself into the postern of the gateway of the place, and they captured the fortress, and acquired great booty. The greater number of the inhabitants of that place was Brahmans [monks], and the whole of those 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 respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On becoming acquainted [with the contents of those books], it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindustani tongue, they call a college or Vihar.” (Ref: Tabakat-i-Nasiri – Translated by Major H.G. Raverty. p. 552)

As Sukumar Dutta (1962) wrote in his book Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History And Contribution To Indian Culture, Bakhtiyar Khalji, after massacring the scholars and monks and destroying the Nalanda University, further proceeded to destroy the Odantapuri,Vikramshila and Jagaddala universities, killing many Buddhist and Brahmin scholars during these raids. The fire that was set on Nalanda during the Khalji raid also destroyed its famous library that held priceless collections of books and manuscripts. The fire is stated to have burned for many days, and the smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for a long time like a pall of gloom.

Keeping aside the story of death and destruction, this article will take a look at how the Nalanda University, a democratically governed body (as per I-tsing records, 635–713CE), functioned in the pre-Islamic period, when it was counted among the top educational institutes of the world.

Nalanda, before becoming famous as an educational hub, was an ancient village which Alexander Cunningham identified (Ancient Geography of India) with the modern Baragaon in Bihar, near Rajgir. Both Jain and Buddhist texts make many references to this area as a sacred space. In Jain texts we find that Nalanda (also referred to as Burgaon) was then the bahira (suburb) of Rajgir, and it is here that Mahavira had met Gosala, while he was spending 14 monsoons in Nalanda. As per the Buddhist texts, Buddha met a rich citizen named Lepa here, who converted to Buddhism and became his devoted disciple. In another book History of Buddhism, written by Taranath (around 1500 CE), there is recorded the tradition that marked this place as was where Sariputta/Sariputra (considered one of the two first main disciples of Buddha) was born. When Ashoka came to visit Nalanda, he added a large temple beside Sariputta’s chaitya; thus, being the first to turn Nalanda into a vihara.

However, the worldwide fame of Nalanda as an educational institution started from the beginning of the Common Era. Taranath also records an interesting historical fact, where a Brahmin named Suvishnu (contemporary of Nagarjuna, the famous Buddhist philosopher, 3rd century CE), built 108 temples for the preservation of the Abhidharma of the Mahayana sect. It is also here that the famous Buddhist scholar Dinnaga (480 CE-540 CE) defeated the Brahmin Sudurjaya and other tirthakas in philosophical arguments. Thus, it is clear that in the 5th-6th century CE Nalanda was a great seat of learning for the Buddhists and Hindus (Brahmin tirthakas) alike, and many from the latter group made Nalanda their home for this very reason.


According to Hiuen Tsang,Nalanda started to develop as a reputed university by the land endowments gifted to it in honour of Buddha by 500 merchants, which were bought for as many as “10 koti gold coins”. Thereafter a series of endowments continued over the centuries, which came in the form of buildings and land, the latter being used for taking care of the regular maintenance of the university. Hiuen Tsang talks of six such monasteries (residences of the monks) built within the complex by 6 kings—Sakraditya, Buddhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya, Vajra, and an unnamed king from a central state that is likely to be Harsha. The university was enclosed by a lofty wall that supposedly, as per Hiuen Tsang, had only one gate. The gate opened into the great college from which 8 other halls branched out. The buildings were multistoried ones, lofty, and were adorned with towers, turrets, and observatories. The upper floor rooms, as Hiuen Tsang described them, towered above the clouds, while the high eaves glowed in splendid sunset colours and sparkled in moonlit glories.

An 8th century stone inscription of Yasovarman also gives a similar description of the beauty of the viharavalis (rows of monasteries) of the university. The grounds of the university were equally beautiful with a series of deep translucent ponds that held blue lotus mixed with the deep red of the kanaka flowers. At intervals between the lakes stood the Amra groves that cast their contrasting shades of deep green. The external beauty of these massive awe-inspiring buildings however contrasted with their delicate artistically decorated insides. The outside courts that held the monks’ rooms had dragon-faced projections, delicately carved and ornamented pillars of pearl red, richly decorated balustrades, and the roofs were made of polished tiles that reflected the sunlight in a myriad of colours. These added to the overall beauty of the university, and made it the grandest Sangharama among all the other contemporary ones in India.

Hiuen Tsang writes about a beautiful Buddha image in the Sakraditya vihara, and extols the patronages of the various kings over the centuries that had given Nalanda its grandeur and its beautiful sculptures. During Hiuen Tsang’s time, the king had remitted the revenues of 100 villages for maintenance of the Nalanda vihara. I-tsing, a Chinese monk and interpreter, who had visited the Nalanda university and stayed there for 11 years in the 7th c. CE, recorded that the king had then remitted the revenues of 200 villages for the upkeep of the monastery, and he had seen 8 halls and 300 buildings within the vihara complex. Besides the aforementioned kings who had endowed land and buildings as gifts to the Nalanda vihara, some of the rulers from Maulkhari dynasty also patronised it. However, the biggest benefactions came from the Pala kings of Bengal until the 1200s, as evident from the various found inscriptions that recorded different kinds of royal grants to the vihara, and literary works of those times that speak of the Pala kings’ gifts and grants.

I-tsing, among the various details in his book, gives us the daily meals taken by the monks. As per his records the diet during his time were as per the rules of the Vinaya and comprised of Panchabhojaniyas—rice, boiled mixture of barley and peas, baked cornflour, meat, and cakes; while the Panchakhadaniyas comprised of roots, leaves, flowers, stalks, and fruits. There was also gruel served, made of dry rice and bean soup, in which hot butter sauce (made of melted butter and cream) was added for extra flavor. Milk, ghee, and oil were used in abundance. There were variations based on regional differences of the crops grown, such as, the entire north ate wheat cakes, while west had their baked flour in barley or rice, and the south and east made their baked cakes with rice flour. I-tsing further tells us that a monk’s breakfast generally consisted of rice-water; his lunch thali had rice, butter, milk, sweet melons and other fruits; while his day ended with a light meal as supper or dinner.

The university provided free lodging, food, clothing, and education to its residents, and as per Hiuen Tsang, the number of priests, students, and guests present in the university were always around 10,000. Foreign scholars from China, Korea, Tibet, and Tokhara were regulars at Nalanda, which was globally considered the most advanced research institute for higher studies at that time; and a fellowship from Nalanda was regarded as the highest academic degree of those times. Entrance examinations into Nalanda, an Open School for Discussions (as it described itself back then), were very tough, and as per Hiuen Tsang, only 20% could secure admissions among all the applicants. After entering the institute, the academic life of a student was rigorous, and since the university took care of all other needs, it was expected that the student would give 100% focus on his studies. Fifteen hundred teachers were in charge of the estimated 8,500 students, as per Hiuen Tsang, and 100 lectures were arranged daily, which consisted of both Buddhist and Hindu scripture studies that included study of the Vedas, Yogasastras, and Panini’s grammatical works.

The Nalanda university, during the pre-Islamic times, was truly an open school of discussions, where scholars would hold regular arguments on all religious topics as a way of learning and further adding to their knowledge. It was indeed a place for higher learning in all branches of studies, and claimed the rare merit of collecting all available experts and scholars from all branches of academia under one roof for many centuries.

The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. Views expressed are personal.

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