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NALANDA: The Other side of its history
NALANDA PDF Print E-mail
Written by Suresh Bhatia   
Thursday, 01 October 2009 11:00

From Bihar Sharif I wended my way towards Nalanda - what was once the first Buddhist University and seat of expansion of the Dhamma as a philosophy that would eventually reach the ends of the world over the Centuries. The teachers, who imparted knowledge to the monk-students, were people of extraordinary talent and true masters of the faith, both in knowledge and practice.
Nalanda is about 15 km from Bihar Sharif and just about the same distance north of Rajgir.  The ruins as you see them today is surrounded by villages that too have an ancient history and most possibly been built on the ruins of the ancient University. These villages are known as Baragaon, Begampur, Jagdishpur, Muzzaffarpur and Kapatya which cover a square kilometer and a half around in area.
 Buchanan was perhaps the first modern authority to notice its antiquity and importance as an ancient Buddhist site. He was however, told by the Hindus that the ruins represent the ancient city of Kundilapura, famous in the epic and Puranic tradition as the capital of the king Bhimaka of Vidarbha, the father of Rukmini, wife of Krishna. He, therefore, described the ruins accordingly as those of Kundilapura, as they were then "universally called" though he was also told by the Jains that it represented the city of Pompapuri, capital of the king Srenika and was equally known by that name too. But from his observations, he found the site to be primarily a Buddhist site and in spite of having previously served as a Doctor in a campaign to Burma, where he was exposed to Buddhism, yet he found it difficult to identify the images. But he did notice that the place 'for ages had been the quarry for bricks, and the devastation goes on rapidly, but still great quantities remain." After Buchanan, the site was surveyed by Kittoe who wrote about the site in his article on "The route of Fa-Hian through Behar" published in 1847. By standards today, the article was controversial and an armature attempt to place of Sariputta's birth and nirvana. After him we have Cunningham who visited the site and published his report for 1861-62 and then Captain Marshal who partially excavated one of the mounds. The full credit of a large scale excavation goes to Broadley, the then Sub-divisional Magistrate of Bihar somewhere in 1871. He undertook the excavation on a massive scale with a force of 1000 labourers and within a short period of 10 days laid bare the western and southern façade of the ruins of the great temple or stupa. A brief report of this excavation was also published by him along with a description of the numerous Buddhist and Hindu images recovered during the excavation. No further attempts to excavate the site were undertaken till the year 1915-16, when Spooner organized a regular excavation which continued till 1937.
I have no doubts that the famous Nalanda University was located in this area. What does leave me skeptical is the size of the University, and I believe that it was much larger than the site that has been excavated till date. However, this exploration done by me is not meant to give you a 'guided tour' of the ruins. For that, a visit to Nalanda, where you could either hire a Guide or buy a book that that will give enough information about the site.
On visiting the site, my interest lay in bringing to light places that people normally do not get to visit, yet Nalanda's history could not be complete without them. These sites remain to a large extent neglected. To these sites I devote the remaining section of this paper:
Nalanda, where a chapter of Buddhist history was written, when the site was excavated, has been identified as the greatest seat of learning of the medieval period. The early scriptures of both the Buddhist and the Jains refer to the area as a "suburb" (bahirika, pada) or as a hamlet or village situated in the outskirts of ancient Rajagriha, or modern Rajgir. The Pali texts contain innumerable references to the place, under various names, such as Nala, Nalaka, Nalakagrama or Nalanda and generally take it to be the birth - place of Sariputta, one of the most famous disciples of the Buddha. Taranath, the Tibetan philosopher in his 'History of Buddhism' indicates that Nalanda continued to remain as an important site even after the decline of Rajgir; since Emperor Asoka made offerings to the chaitya of Sariputta, which then existed here, and erected a temple over it. This statement was also confirmed in the accounts written by Huien Tsang, who mentions that a stupa was built by Asoka, where the Venerable Sariputta was born and attained nirvana, the relics of his mortal remains enshrined therein. Taranath further adds that Nagarjuna, the famous Mahayana Buddhist philosopher and alchemist of about the 2nd century AD, had studied at Nalanda and later became the high priest there. I do believe that an eminent teacher of his status studied at what was then the very inception of the study group that probably existed in the village of Saura, which on a miniature level could possibly have been the foundation of the elaborate Monastery-University that came into existence in the 5th Century AD. During the reign of the Gupta period when they sponsored elaborate monasteries, libraries, and halls for the stay of students etc
Apart from Nagarjuna, the other teachers who excelled in the study of the Dharma were teachers like Shuvishnu, Aryadeva and other famous Buddhist masters thus bringing us to the conclusion that the foundation of the Nalanda University was already a great seat of learning in the early centuries of the Christian era, which unfortunately has not been borne out by the results of the excavations so far carried out at the excavated site. Yet Saura, which is a far older site than Nalanda and only 5 Km. south-west from Baragaon or Nalanda has not been excavated and was only noticed by Broadley. A detailed report is mentioned further down this page.
The excavations, however, reveal that the foundations of the great tradition of learning and monasticism, for which Nalanda later came to be known all over the Buddhist world, were laid sometime in the middle of the 5th Century when Kumaragupta - I (413-455 AD.) of the great Gupta dynasty was the ruling sovereign. This was fully borne out by what Huien Tsang states later that " a former Raja of the country named Sakraditya (Kumara Gupta -I) selected by augury a lucky spot and built here a monastery. From this time onwards Nalanda slowly rose to the fame and importance it acquired afterwards and a long succession of kings continued the work of expanding the University. Over the centuries other kings too contributed to the development of the University, one such monarch was king Harsha of Kanauj (606-647 AD.) who, being an ardent Buddhist himself was perhaps the most benevolent of all the royal patrons of Nalanda. The last kings to patronize Nalanda were the Pala emperors who ruled over Bihar from the eight to twelfth centuries. What was the real cause of the downfall of the Nalanda University is a mere speculation. No one was sure of the actual cause of it losing its grace from a famous seat of Buddhist learning? All we have are a number of assumptions or speculations and not any concrete facts.
There are some sites other than the Ancient University complex that definitely need to be mentioned:
Saura: The village is situated about 5 Kilometers south-west from Bargaon or Nalanda. The site was only seen by Broadley in 1872 and no other Archaeologist visited the site. If a school of Mahayana study existed in the first century AD. I do believe that Saura was the site. Broadley wrote in his 'Annals'; "I found there the remains of a large stupa and nine very perfect Buddhist idols. The ruins here were apparently associated with the famous Buddhist ruins of Nalanda and would more or less belong to the same age."
On visiting the site, I was able to find only one image. No one in the village was aware that eight other images existed here. The only image existing here is now treated as a Hindu deity and worshipped by the local people. I search for the Stupa but could find no trace of it. (Broadley, JASB, 1872, p.259; Personal observations of the Author during his tour of the site)
Black Buddha Image: The image of the Buddha just outside the boundary wall of the ancient ruins to the west, famously known as "Teliya Baba" and considered to have efficacious powers to cure chronic illnesses, was earlier part of the images within the compound of the ASI boundary. The Brahmins, who claim its ownership as a deity, fought a bitter legal battle with the ASI and finally won complete control over the site. The colossal Buddha is seated in the Dharma Cakra Mudra Today the site has become popular with a group of Thai pilgrims who have implicit faith in the image. On their behest, a new road is being built to reach this shrine which is a little away from the main road. Behind this project is Ven. Withoon Putamee, an eminent Monk from Thailand.
Rukmini Asthan: More than a Kilometer and a half south west of the excavated site is the village of Jagdishpur. Here in a Hindu temple on a mound or Stupa. In  it is an image of a large size Buddha worshipped as Rukmini, the daughter of king Bhimika of Vidarbha As described by Cunningham, the image is fifteen feet high and nine and half feet broad and was regarded by him as one of the finest and largest pieces of sculpture seen by him. It is a figure of the ascetic Buddha, seated under the Bodhi tree, surrounded by horrible demons and alluring damsels seeking to seduce him away from his deep meditation. On each side other scenes from his life are represented, including the one of his death or Mahaparinirvana seen at the top of the slab.
There are many local Hindu Temple around Nalanda who display a number of Buddhist images - most of them from the Pala period.
References: Buchanan, Patna-Gaya, I, pp 220ffl; Kittoe, JASB, 1847, pp.954 ff; Cunningham, ASI, I, pp.28 ff. and plates XIII and XVI; Broadley, JASB, 1872, pp.299 ff. and his Ruins of the Nalanda Monastery at Buragon (1872), Bengal List, pp.242-56:

The Ruins at Baragoan:-


Monastery No.3
Nalanda Archaeological Site

Buddha Image near Monastery No.3

'Birds eye view' of Archaeological site

Pala Image of the Buddha found at Nalanda
(Courtesy: Lucknow State Museum)

Buddha Image in Saura village

Buddha image in Hindu Temple, Nalanda

Black Buddha Image

Phra Ajhan Withoon Putamee and well wishers
building road to Black Buddha Temple



Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 October 2009 10:07