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Nalanda

Located in Rajgir, Nalanda University, a religious center of learning from the fifth century CE to 1197 CE, was the first great university in recorded history and one of the world’s first residential university as it had dormitories for students. It is also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday, it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The university was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The library was located in a nine storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced.

The name “Nalanda” may have derived from one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s former births, when he was a king whose capital was here. Nalanda was one of his epithets meaning “insatiable in giving”.

The subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. During the period of Harsha (an Indian emperor belonging to Pushyabhuti Dynasty, who ruled northern India from 606 to 647 CE from his capital Kanauj), the monastery is reported to have owned 200 villages given as grants.

The Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the university in the 7th century CE. He described how the regularly laid-out towers, forest of pavilions, harmikas and temples seemed to “soar above the mists in the sky” so that from their cells the monks “might witness the birth of the winds and clouds.” The pilgrim states: “An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.”

The library at Nalanda University was an immense complex. Called the Dharmaganga, or “Piety Mart”, it was separated into three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Ratnadadhi, meaning the “Ocean of Gems”, was nine stories high and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya. The towers were supposedly immense, bejewelled and gilded to reflect the rays of the sun. According to the Bhaskara Samhita, an ancient text on organizational practices, the library was to be built in a “finely built stone building” and each manuscript would have been placed on iron shelves or stack and covered with cloth and tied up. Furthermore, the librarian in charge, according to the text, was not only responsible for maintaining the materials but also for guiding readers in their studies. The exact number of volumes of the Nalanda University Library is not known but it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands. The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine.

Nalanda was known for its superior scholarship. The Gatekeepers of Nalanda were erudite scholars of the highest repute, well versed in their subjects and drawn from the best in the country to examine the fresh entrants at the Gate itself. A student desiring admission had to be well-versed in both Sanskrit and the Buddha Dharma. Only one in ten students gained admission. So they came to the gates of Nalanda again and again, till they were selected. Once admitted, monks had to be fastidious with their study, discipline, and attention to detail - whether they were attending for two or for 20 years. Wake up was at dawn, bathing was done in outdoor ponds, and food was prepared in their cell-like rooms so that the rest of the day could be devoted to study.

To study or to have studied at Nalanda was a matter of great prestige. Its multi-disciplinary approach to learning attracted students from far off lands. Although the subject of theology was compulsory, Nalanda was not a sectarian or a religious university imparting only Buddhist thought; other subjects were taught as fervently. Almost all sciences, including the science of medicine were taught. So were the Upanishads and the Vedas. Panini’s grammar, the science of pronunciation (Phonetics), etymology, Indology and Yoga were all included in the curricula. Surprisingly, even archery was taught. All three yanas (Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) were taught at Nalanda. In fact, Nalanda is considered one of the birthplaces of Vajrayana.

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