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Nalanda and the ruins of the ancient Mahavihara are almost synonymous. The name ‘Nalanda’ conjures up a picture of the ancient Mahavihara, which was one of the great seats of Buddhist education for nearly seven hundred years between the 5th and 12th centuries.  It is said that at one time, 10,000 monks and students resided in Nalanda. The word ‘Nalanda’ is derived from nala meaning lotus flower, which is a symbol of knowledge or wisdom and da meaning to give―giving wisdom.

During the lifetime of the Buddha and his contemporary Mahavihara, Nalanda was a prominent centre of religious activity. The Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, came from the nearby villages of Nalaka and Kulika. The names of several lay followers of the locality also figure prominently in the literary sources.

According to early sources, Nalanda was a yojana away from the outskirts of Rajagraha, the capital of the Magadhan empire. It lay on the route from Buddha-Gaya to Kapilavastu via Rajagraha. The Buddha and his disciples often stayed for a night in the Pavarika Mango Grove. The Pali literature records that Prince Pavarika constructed a halting place in the grove, then donated it to the Buddha. The Buddha delivered ten discourses there. On his last journey from Rajagraha to Kushinagar, the Buddha spent one night at Nalanda.

King Asoka, in the third century BC, constructed a stupa at the birthplace of Sariputta in the village of Nalanda . On his way to Rajagraha, the Chinese traveller Fa-hien worshipped at the stupa, but made no reference to Nalanda or the Mahavihara, perhaps because the Buddhist monastic establishment at that time had not taken a viable shape.  


The most illustrious of the Chinese pilgrims, Xuanzang, who was also an alumnus of the Mahavihara, wrote that Gupta King Sakraditya, otherwise known as Kumara Gupta I (415-455 AD), constructed a vihara in the middle of the Mango Grove. Successive Gupta kings also constructed viharas, which eventually led to the establishment of the Nalanda Mahavihara.

The Nalanda Mahavihara was an example of a common phenomena found in Buddhist history. Resting places in the form of aramas, or viharas, that were originally intended to provide a night’s stay for wandering monks, gradually turned into places of permanent residences for monks and thus quite naturally into places of spiritual learning and upliftment, the ultimate motive of education in ancient India. In the process of imparting teachings, these places were ultimately transformed into prominent centres of higher learning.

The Gupta kings, famous for their love of education, art and culture, bestowed royal patronage on the Mahavihara. During the patronage of the king of Kannauj, the Mahavihara reached the height of its development and was considered a model academic institution with a reputation that spread far and wide in East and South East Asia . During Harsha’s reign, the famous Chinese traveller Xuanzang, came to Nalanda to study. Many foreign students and scholars were attracted to Nalanda because of the high quality of teaching. Students came from as far as Indonesia , Korea , Japan and China . Similarly, because the acaryas, or teachers were so learned, they were often invited by Buddhist countries to come and assist in the dissemination of the teachings of the Buddha.

The cultural legacy of Nalanda was finally taken over by the Pala kings who promoted the Mahavihara for several centuries. Their contribution is preserved in the ruins, most of which date back to the Pala period.




The contribution of the Mahavihara in the development of Buddhist education, particularly in the field of philosophy was well recognised. Silabhadra, reportedly the only one having mastery over the Sutras, instructed Xuanzang in the intricacies of philosophy and the latter in turn founded a new school after his return to China. Nalanda also specialized in Buddhist Logic. Dignaga, an acarya at Nalanda, was the father of Buddhist Logic. Dharmakirti further developed the subject. Prajnakaramitra of the Pala period was another luminary in this field.

The Mahavihara was also a centre of esoteric Buddhism, and its contribution to the spread of Buddhism abroad, particularly in Tibet , forms a golden chapter of its history. Santaraksita was first invited to Tibet by King Thri-song. On his recommendation, the Tibetan king also invited Padmasambhava from the Mahavihara, who converted Tibet to the Tantric form of Buddhism and came to be deified as the Guru (Lama). His contemporary, Kamalasila of Nalanda, was also invited to Tibet .

Before they established contact with Tibet and Bhutan , the acaryas of Nalanda had gone to Central Asia and China . Prabhakaramitra, Vajrabodhi, Amoghavajra, and others figure prominently as translators of Buddhist texts. Dharmapala went from Nalanda to Sumatra at a ripe age and disseminated true Dharma. Other renowned scholars trained at Nalanda were Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and Asanga.  





Due to conflicting forces, Nalanda Mahavihara was gradually deserted and eventually forgotten. The site was eventually reduced to mounds of earth. Francis Buchanan was the first to initiate a survey of the site in January 1812. However, it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who finally identified the complex of ruins of the Mahavihara in 1861-62. In 1870, A.M. Broadly excavated a portion of the site, but systematic excavation work did not start until 1916 under Spooner. The work continued for 20 years under several excavators. Shri Hirananda Shastri eventually completed the major portion of the work. The findings are now preserved at the site in Nalanda and the antiquities in the form of inscriptions, icons, terracottas, seals, and sculptures, are preserved in the Archaeological Museum opposite the ruins.
















































Ancient Nalanda Mahavihara

Nava Nalanda Mahavihara

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Administration & Faculty


Nalanda & Surroundings

Xuan Zang Memorial