Nalanda is one of the most ancient centres for higher learning, and is known as one of the first great universities in recorded history. The ruins of this great historical university, only half excavated are located at a distance of about 62km from the holy town of Bodhgaya and 90km south of the capital of Bihar, Patna. Rajgir, the ancient capital of the Magadh Empire is at a distance of 15km from Nalanda.
Buddha is known to have visited this university several times during his life, however, on the basis of historical studies it is believed that Nalanda flourished between the 5th and the 12th century under the rule of Gupta king, Sakraditya. Nalanda was the biggest residential centre for learning that history has ever known. The downfall of Nalanda occurred when Turkish Muslims under the rule of Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed Nalanda in the 12th century A.D., which also saw a decline of Buddhism in India.
Nalanda covered the total area of 14 hectares, constructed with red bricks and gardens in the old Kushan architectural style. The university initially had around 2000 teachers and 10,000 Buddhist monks. It is also a known fact that between the 5th and 12th centuries, Emperor Ashoka and Harshvardhana, among a few other rulers, built temples and monasteries on campus that helped develop Nalanda. Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim is known to have spent 3 years in Nalanda, and made detailed notes and records of the architecture, education, activities and curriculum in the flourishing days. On the other hand, the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin who spent time in Nalanda in 12th century has made records of the destruction of the once flourishing and the first university of Nalanda. In 1951, an International Centre for Buddhist Studies was established here.
The ruins seen at Nalanda today are just that- ruins, but the structure and construction that can be seen today give a fairly good impression of the scholars and the kind of life they lived. The red bricked architecture site today is divided into zones consisting of 11 monasteries and temples. There is a Nalanda Archaeological Museum right opposite the entrance to the ruins that displays the various relics that were found in the area, both Buddhist and Hindu bronzed and many undamaged statues of Lord Buddha, copper plates, stone inscriptions, coins, pottery and even samples of burn rice among other things. Rajgir, Baragaon, Nava Nalanda Mahavir and Hieun Tsang Memorial are some of the other sites around the ruins that must be visited.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Nalanda is during autumn and winters, when the weather is cool and makes sightseeing and exploring the ancient ruins a much enjoyable experience.
If you visit during April-May or October-November, you can get to experience one of the biggest Chhath Puja (prayer to the God Surya- the Sun God), that takes place at the Sun Temple in Baragaon, which is just 2 km from the ruins of Nalanda.
There are various theories that decipher the meaning and the significance of the term Nalanda. Some say Nalanda means ‘insatiable in giving’. However, there is another theory that says ‘Nalam’ means lotus and ‘Da’ means to give, put together it means giving of lotus. Since, lotus symbolises knowledge, Nalanda means Giver of Knowledge.
There is another theory that Nalanda is named after a Naga (snake) that lived in the middle of a mango orchard.