Nalanda, the first known residential college in history was in India

Scottish Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, born in 1762, was a multidisciplinary scholar (physician, zoologist, botanist and geographer) who, after a professional period as a naval physician, served at the IMS (Indian Medical ServiceIndian Medical Service) of Bengal between 1794 and 1815. There he served as personal surgeon to Lord Wellesley, older brother of the future Duke of Wellington and then Governor General, as well as touring that vast subcontinent studying it for the British India Company Orientals.

In 1811, during one of those trips, some locals from the ancient region of Magadha told him about some nearby ruins with remains of Brahmanic art and he decided to go and inspect them. Without knowing it, he was discovering to the world what had been the first known residential university: Nalanda.

Buchanan-Hamilton was not an archaeologist, nor was history one of his specialties, so although he had been in India long enough to have heard of Nalanda, at the time he did not associate the overgrown mounds with the famous university. It was not until 1847 that Major Markham Kittoe, an officer of the 6th Bengal Native Infantry and an archaeological researcher for the Government of the North-West Provinces, realized the magnitude of the ruins.

Nalanda University Campus | photo Tajdaar Aman on Wikimedia Commons

But it was another military man, Alexander Cunningham, of the Bengal Engineering Group, who was an expert in Buddhism, who began excavating the site in 1861, the year he founded the Archaeological Survey of India (Archaeological Survey of India).

The works lasted decade after decade, reaching their greatest intensity during the campaigns that took place between 1915 and 1937, which not only cleared the land, brought out architectural structures and recovered pieces, but also carried out maintenance, conservation and restoration work. Budgetary exhaustion and the Second World War put a stop to everything and interventions did not resume until 1974, with India now independent, lasting until 1982. In 2016, Nalanda was incorporated into the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Plan of excavated remains at Nalanda | photo CarryAlong on Wikimedia Commons

By then, a couple of years ago a new university had been created there that emulated its predecessor, both in content and size. This was not negligible, since the remains of the historical Nalanda, including schools, residences, monasteries, stupas, sanctuaries and temples, extend for some 150,000 square meters, although this area is only excavated and some think that it represents no more than a tenth of what it really reached, the rest still being buried. It must be taken into account that that institution taught practically all the subjects that could be studied at the time and had professors from many places: China, Korea, Tibet, Japan, Indonesia, Persia, Turkey…

Located northwest of the town of Bargaon (which probably rests on part of those unexcavated ruins), a few kilometers from the city of Rajgir, today it is an archaeological site that has become a tourist destination, especially for Buddhist travelers. That is why it has a small museum to exhibit some of the rescued pieces and another attached multimedia, where its history is told through 3D animations. A story that, according to tradition, Buddha himself began when he passed through the town of Nalanda on a pilgrimage to Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha, and took the opportunity to teach in a nearby forest, which would lead to the founding of a monastery.

This is how Buddhist texts narrate it, which, in reality, are much later than the facts. Other documents, of a Jain nature, swell the legend telling that Mahavira (supreme preacher) was there for a time between the 6th and 5th centuries BC; the problem is that they were also written late, a millennium later. It is necessary to resort to the scientific dating of the black ceramics and other articles found in the neighboring Juafardih to determine that in 1200 BC, long before Buddha and Mahavira, the region was already inhabited.

19th century map showing the route followed by Fa Xian/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Sometime between the 4th and 5th centuries, between 399 and 414, a Chinese monk named Fa Xian traveled to Nalanda to acquire Buddhist books and sutras (discourses of the Buddha). Since, before returning and translating the collected material, he spent ten years moving around India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, he decided to write a kind of guide for his fellow pilgrims in which he outlined the location of monasteries and temples; Nalanda is not on that list, from which it follows that none existed at that location yet.

So we find the answer to the foundation in a clay seal in which King Śakrāditya is cited as responsible for building the monastery, something confirmed in several coins. This monarch is identified with Kumaragupta I, fifth ruler of the Gupta Empire, whose domains included what is now the northern half of India plus Pakistan and Bangladesh. Other sovereign descendants of his were expanding the monastery by adding temples and other structures, so that Nalanda lived a moment of splendor in the sixth century.

Residential structures in Nalanda | photo CarryAlong on Wikimedia Commons

In the following, the Gupta dynasty ceded its position to the Pushyabuthi, of which the main representative was Emperor Jarsha Vardhana, who, although a Hindu, was tolerant of other religions and had no qualms about showering donations on the Nalanda monastery. Among them he decreed the tributes of a hundred towns around him, later increased to two hundred, which gives an idea of ​​the dimensions that monastic university already reached; Chinese scholar Xuanzang’s figure of 10,000 students and 1,500 teachers is clearly exaggerated, but Yijing, another pilgrim who visited the site, says 3,000, which does seem feasible.

Xuanzang, who was a monk, made a pilgrimage to India between 629 and 645, returning with more than half a thousand boxes full of relics and Sanskrit Buddhist texts that he himself was going to translate. Two of those sixteen years were spent in Nalanda, where he was given the name Mokshadeva and studied grammar, logic, and Yogachara (a little-known Buddhist philosophical school in China) with the teacher Shilabhadra, who was also his personal tutor as abbot of the monastery. He left an account of his experience, as did Yijing, who arrived some thirty years later and stayed from 673 to 695, also returning with an enormous number of books. Thanks to Yijing’s testimony, we know what daily life was like in the monastery.

Not all the visitors came from China; there were also Koreans like Hyon-jo and his student Hye-ryun (renamed Prajnavarman), Tibetans like Thonbi Sambhota (considered the inventor of Tibetan writing from Sanskrit) and many other lands, some of which we have already listed. before. In fact, a new dynasty, the Palas, was even imposed, coming from Bengal, where it had ruled since 750, expanding westward until it reached its apogee in the 9th century. The Pala were Buddhists, not Hindus, which in principle favored Nalanda. However, they practiced the Vajrayana branch, tantric and esoteric, as opposed to the traditional Mahayana of the monastery, which was the one that attracted pilgrims from East Asia.

Dominion of the Palas and the other medieval Indian empires/Image: Planemad on Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps for this reason, Gopala I, creator of the dynasty, encouraged the construction of other nearby monasteries to compete with it. Even so, Nalanda did not decline and with later kings -Dharmapala, Devapala- things returned to their course, filling the monastery with gifts; after all, it was a quid pro quo, since the leaders also obtained commercial and diplomatic benefits thanks to the pilgrimage routes with Southeast Asia. That led to the heyday of the place, which was maintained until the political winds changed and a new dynasty, the Gurid, arrived, overthrowing the previous one.

The Ghurids were of Iranian origin, from the Ghor region that gives them their name, located in Afghanistan. They reigned from 1149 to 1212 and, of Persian culture, were not Buddhists or Hindus but Sunni Muslims. At their zenith they reached northern India and even Bengal, in a campaign of conquest led by the Turkmen general Muhammad Bajtiiar Jalyi, who strove to destroy every Buddhist symbol in his path. Nalanda was destroyed along with its splendid library in 1193, and with it other monasteries and temples, according to Indian, Tibetan and Islamic sources, causing the exodus of monks, teachers and students.

Ruins of Nalanda University | photo Hideyuki Kamon on Wikimedia Commons

This did not mean its total abandonment, since it is clear that there continued to be teaching activity until a good part of the 13th century. But, of course, it was not the same. Almost the entire architectural complex had been burned down and the few books that were saved were taken to Tibet, in exile and together with a handful of teachers, the last great scholar to emerge from their classrooms, Shakyashri Bhadra. That is why Tibetan Buddhism is considered to be the son of the Nalanda tradition, as the Dalai Lama himself has recognized.

The archaeological remains that remain today are made up of the university complex, made up of eleven monasteries and six brick temples spread over a dozen hectares; Many stamps, coins, sculptures, stelae and other pieces have been found in them. The whole complex is also surrounded by a series of pokhar (ponds), more than a dozen of various sizes that integrate it in surface area with neighboring Bargaon (we said before that the town sits on top of more unexcavated remains).

The impressive library would deserve special mention, which received the name of Dharmaganja and whose headquarters were three buildings with several floors each; the eldest had nine and the most valuable sacred manuscripts were kept in the last. It is impossible to know exactly how many copies the library had, but taking into account the volume of international donations and the many books that were given to Chinese monks, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands. The most curious thing is that they were cataloged following the method of the Indian grammarian Panini.

Stupa intended for student meditation/Image: Sibhushan on Wikimedia Commons

For seven and a half centuries, that unique university taught a wide range of subjects that included philosophy, theology, astronomy, law, mathematics, medicine or grammar, for example, attracting students and professors from all over the world, publishing thousands of texts , and playing an important role in promoting Mahayana and Vihjarana Buddhism. In summary, it has part of the responsibility for the flowering of the so-called Golden Age of India, which took place between the 4th and 6th centuries, and during which advances such as the decimal number system or the concept of the number zero, were devised. among others.

The passing of the Ghurids and that of the subsequent Mamluk dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, this one in 1202, put an end to the splendor of what is considered the first known residential university in history. Education ended and, after centuries of oblivion, the memory of the site was recovered for a new activity: tourism.


Archeological Survey of India, Excavated remains of Nalanda Mahivara | Kamlesh Kapur, History of Ancient India. Portraits of a nation | MB Rajani, The expansion of archaeological remains at Nalanda: a study using remote sensing and GIS | manoj kumar, Ancient Nalanda University | Wikipedia