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Nalanda University in Bihar reopens after 800 years

Approximately 800 years after the ancient education institution was ruined, on September 1, 2014, Nalanda University (also known as University of Nalanda), in Bihar’s Rajgir district, commenced its first academic session. Nalanda is a Central University in Rajgir, about 55 miles south east of Patna, near Nalanda, Bihar, India. The university is envisioned to re-establish the older Nalanda University which was one of the oldest ancient higher-learning institutions. Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen is the Chancellor of the University.

Background:

Historical studies advocate that the University of Nalanda was originally established in the 5th century AD during the reign of a Gupta King called Śakrāditya (also known as Kumāragupta, reigned (415-55)). Both Xuanzang ((602-664) a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator) and Prajñavarman (a Bengali Buddhist writer) cite Śakrāditya as the founder. A Seal discovered at the site also confirms Śakrāditya as the founder of the University. Śakrāditya’s identity is uncertain and who is not a historical character, he might  have been either Kumaragupta I or Kumaragupta II.

Some buildings were constructed by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great (273–232 BCE). As per the Historians, Nalanda prospered between the reign of the Gupta king Śakrāditya and 1197 CE, supported by patronage from Buddhist emperors like Harsha as well as later emperors from the Pala Empire.

Nalanda University (NU) was one of the world’s first residential universities, as it had dormitories for students. In its peak it housed over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of 14 hectares. The university was respected as an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a tall wall and one gate. There were 8 distinct compounds and 10 temples, together with many meditation halls and classrooms. There were lakes and parks on the grounds. The library was located in a 9-storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced.

Xuanzang (a Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim and scholar) studied, taught and spent nearly 15 years at Nalanda University. He left thorough descriptions of the university in the 7th century. Yijing ((635–713 CE), was a Tang Dynasty Chinese Buddhist monk, originally named Zhang Wenming) also left information about kingdoms lying on the route between China and the Nālandā university. He was translated a large number of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese.

At its peak, the university appealed scholars and students from China, Greece, Indonesia,  Japan, Korea, Persia, Tibet and Turkey. The subjects taught comprised: Astronomy, Architecture, History, Law, Linguistics, Medicine, Metallurgy, Pharmacology,  Public HealthReligion and Sculpture. 

Nalanda University was ruined 3 times by invaders, but reconstructed only twice:-

  • First Destruction: By the Huns under Mihirakula during the reign of Skandagupta (455–467 AD). Later, Skanda’s successors started the restoration, developing it with even larger buildings, and gifted it with ample resources to let the university sustain itself in the longer span.
  • Second Destruction: By the Gaudas in the early 7th century. This time, the Bauddha King Harshavardhana (606–648 AD) restored the Buddhist university.
  • Third Destruction: Destroyed in a Turkish attack led by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. Scholars also mark this event as a late milestone in the fall of Buddhism in India. The Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his records the ‘Tabaqat-i Nasiri’, reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism.

Notable scholars who studied at Nalanda included:

Asanga, Aryadeva, Dharmakirti, Dharmapal, Harshavardhana, Hwui Li, Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, Suvishnu, Vasubandhu and Xuanzang (the reputed founder of Buddhism in Tibet). Shilabhadra (Silavadra) was a Buddhist monk and philosopher. He is best known as being an abbot (a man who is the head of a monastery) of Nālandā monastery in India, He was an expert on Yogācāra teachings, and was personal tutor of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang.

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