Bihar: Nalanda's Evocative Ruins

Bihar: Nalanda's Evocative Ruins
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The beauty and power of ancient Nalanda's ruins overwhelm the senses

Syed Saad Ahmed
February 01 , 2017
07 Min Read

It is hard to not be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the ruins of Nalanda, the first international residential university in the world. Currently spread over an area of 14 hectares, the red-bricked monasteries and temples are said to once have housed 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Besides, past excavations suggest that a large part of the university is yet to be excavated.

In 2006, several nations including Singapore, China, India, and Japan announced a plan to restore and revive the ancient site as Nalanda International University (nalandauniv.edu.in). The board aims to re-create the university as a centre of knowledge. The new site will be located 12 kms away from the historical site.

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History

Although its history goes back to the times of the Buddha, the university at Nalanda was founded in the 5th century CE, and it flourished for the next 700 years. Its decline began in the late Pala period, but the final blow was the invasion by Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 CE.

The subjects that were taught at Nalanda included Buddhist scriptures (of both the Mahayana and Hinayana schools), philosophy, theology, metaphysics, logic, grammar, astronomy and medicine. The university received royal patronage from Harshvardhana, the emperor of Kanauj as well as several Pala kings. Many visitors from abroad visited and studied at the university, including the Chinese travellers Hiuen Tsang and I Tsing, who have written detailed accounts about the university.

Things to See & Do

The ruins of Nalanda University

The ruins have now been largely restored and the complex has been turned into a landscaped garden with trimmed hedges and walkways. Unfortunately, many parts of the monument are now out of bounds and can be seen only at a distance, but these views are still plenty impressive. While earlier you could climb up the imposing Temple no. 3 for a bird’s eye view of the entire ruins, now you have to make do with the small mound to the east of the temple for a vantage point. The tourist cafeteria at the entrance of the complex serves snacks.

Temple No. 3

Excavations conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India during 1915-1937 and 1974-1982 exposed ruins on a central path that runs from north to south with six temples on the west and eleven monasteries on the east. The most iconic is temple no. 3, which was constructed in seven stages and has many minor shrines and stupas around it. On the basis of the architectural style, which includes beautiful stucco images in the niches of the temple's exterior walls, this ancient edifice has been dated by archaeologists to the 6th century CE.

Monasteries

To the east of the main temple and on a higher level are the remains of two monasteries, facing a brick-paved courtyard. The shrine-chamber of each of the monasteries is situated in the middle of the south row of cells, facing the entrance gate. A flight of concrete paved steps at the northeast corner of the structure suggests that an upper storey originally existed on each of these monasteries.

Details of statues carved into stone

In Monastery Site 1, there are many as nine levels, each of which is indicated by concrete pavements and superimposed walls and drains. The main entrance lies in the west wall through a large portico, which was later converted into a porch with an antechamber. There are still stucco figures in the niches of the walls that evince the effects of the fire that was part of the destruction of the complex. The lower monastery, of which the cells are seen near the entrance on the western and along the southern and eastern sides, is believed to have been constructed during the reign of Devapala, the third Pala king, by a king of Sumatra, as stated in a copper-plate inscription found in the north-west corner of the entrance.

The cells of the upper-level monastery were built with recesses meant to contain beds for the, a feature that cannot be seen in the earlier monasteries.

There are regular buses between Rajgir and Biharsharif, which will drop you at the turning to Nalanda, from where you can get shared autos, tongas or cycle rickshaws to cover the remaining 2 km to the university ruins. The Nalanda railway station is 2 km away in the other direction.

Entry Fee: Indians ₹5, foreigners ₹100, Cameras Videography ₹25 Timings: 9.00am — 5.30pm

Nalanda Archaeological Museum

The Nalanda Archaeological Museum was built in 1917 to house artefacts excavated from the Nalanda ruins, Rajgir and surrounding villages. There are four galleries in the museum.

Among the 349 exhibits on display are stone, bronze, basalt stone, stucco and terracotta sculptures, seals, iron equipment, inscriptions and some charred rice.

Ancient ruins at the excavated site

The main gallery showcases sixteen sculptures among which Trailokya Vijay (a Vajrayana diety), Maitreya, Buddha in Varad, Dharmachakra and Bhumisparsh posture, Samantbhadra, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Parshvanath and Nagaraj are worth a look. A scale model of the excavated remains of Nalanda University occupies the central place of the hall.

The fourth gallery houses stone sculptures. There are some exquisite artefacts here, but the two stone panels that depict kinnaras (celestial beings) worhipping a kalpadruma or kalpavriksha (a divine, wish-fulfilling tree) should not be missed.

Two massive jars found in the monastic complex of Nalanda are displayed in a separate shed.

Entry Fee ₹5; free for children upto the age of 15 Timings 9.00am-5.00pm, Closed on Fridays

Nalanda Multimedia Museum

The multimedia museum, a few hundred metres ahead of the ruins on the road to Kundalpur, was built in 2008. Its main attraction is a 3D animation film (20 minutes) on the history of the Nalanda university.

Entry Fee: ₹50 Timings 9.00am — 6.00pm daily Contact Cell 09801399926

Kundalpur

Kundalpur is one of the holy sites of Jainism as it is believed to be the place where three of Lord Mahavira’s 11 disciples were born. Some Jains of the Digamber sect believe that Lord Mahavira was born here.

Four kilometres away from the Nalanda ruins, you will find the Shri Kundalpur Digambar Jain temple on your left. The temple houses a 4½ feet high idol of Bhagwan Mahavira. A kilometer ahead lies is a large complex with five Jain temples. There are a few dharamshalas (resthouses) on the premises of the temples for pilgrims and there is also a canteen nearby.

Timings 6.00am — 6.00pm Contact Temple Tel 06112-281893

Nepura Tourist Village

In an attempt to promote ‘rural tourism’ and local arts and handicrafts, the tourism ministry developed 15 villages across the country as tourist destinations. Nepura was the only village in Bihar selected for the project. The village is famous for its Sujni, Khatwa and Bawan Buti art, which the Tanti and Patwa communities have practiced for centuries. The artisans of the village use tussar silk to make quilts, bed-sheets, wall-hangings and clothes and embellish them with embroidery. The most commonly used motifs in their art are stories of the Buddha as well as other historical and contemporary folk tales. At Nepura, you can see the artisans at work, try your hand at weaving, and also buy handicrafts and art works directly from the craftpersons. There are plans underway to initiate ‘home stays’ in the village.

Nepura, a short detour off the Rajgir-Biharsharif Road, is 4 km away from the Nalanda University and 9 km away from Rajgir. For more information about visiting the village, contact the Tourist Information Centre at Rajgir (Cell: 09471006728), or email nepura@exploreruralindia.org.

Where to Stay & Eat

There are no good hotels in Nalanda. Most visitors choose to stay at Rajgir, which has quite a few decent hotels, and come to Nalanda as a day trip. However, rooms are available for Jain pilgrims at Bhagwan Mahavira Jain Mandir, Bhagwan Rishabh Dev Jain Mandir as well as Prachin Digamber Jain Mandir (Tel: 06112-281846, Cell: 09431022376; Tariff: Donations only). The complex also has a canteen.

Nalanda does not have any good restaurants, although there are a few small eateries near the Archaelogical Museum. You could also carry a packed lunch and snacks along.


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