Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda University)


The “Excavated remains of Nalanda Mahavihara”, the great monastic-cum-scholastic establishment are located around 88 km away from Patna, state capital of Bihar, India. It presents a key archaeological evidence of a truly international centre for organised learning. Nalanda Mahavihara was founded by Kumargupta I of the Gupta dynasty in 5th century CE. It was patronized by various rulers including King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (7th century CE) and the Pala rulers (8th – 12th century CE) as well as various scholars. Later, number of factors spread over centuries caused the decline of this famed institution. The same region, later, saw emergence of a number of reputed educational institutions like Vikramshila and Odantpuri but the eminence of Nalanda remains unrivalled. About six centuries after Nalanda’s decline, the site was first discovered and reported by Sir Francis Buchanan. The site was systematically excavated and consolidated by Archaeological Survey of India from 1915 to 1937 and again from 1974 to 1982.

Outstanding Universal Value

Nalanda is a rare combination of outstanding achievements in institution-building, site-planning, art and architecture. Nalanda symbolized the multiplicity of knowledge production, the innovative processes of the organized transmission of ideas through education, and a shared heritage of people living in multiple regions of Asia.

Built ensembles in Nalanda are physical manifestation of influence of ancient Indian pedagogy where planning, architecture and artistic traditions of Indian sub-continent and beyond developed into subsequent architectural and artistic prototypes. Nalanda distinguished itself as the earliest planned university of the Indian subcontinent.

Thematic and iconographic assimilation of features from major art-centres of the sub-continent with local practices is evident in art of Nalanda. While Nalanda stucco influenced practices in Thailand, its metal art influenced art of the Malayan archipelago, Nepal, Myanmar and Tibet travelling out through scholars.

Nalanda attracted scholars from the Indian subcontinent and beyond and received patronage of local rulers and foreign kings for unbroken period of 800 years. Students were admitted after rigorous evaluation only. Apart from teaching of topics related to Buddhism, contemporary texts and philosophies, logic, grammar, science, and medicine were also part of the knowledge imparted at Nalanda. Earning the title of ‘Medieval School of Discussion and Logic’, Nalanda`s scholars mastered the art and science of debate developing it into a critical tool for higher learning. Today, the continuity of its systems is also evident in contemporary monasteries in Sri Lanka, Tibet and Nepal. In fact, the term Nalanda has become synonymous with aspired standard of education as evidenced in several 21st century namesake institutions all over the world.

All surviving remains of Nalanda Mahavihara in the proposed property area demonstrate amply the attributes of the property such as its planning and layout, its architectural manifestation and extant building materials and applied ornamental embellishments. Preserved in-situ is structural remains of viharas (residential-cum-scholastic structure) and chaityas (temple-like structure) whose layers of construction show evolution of the respective forms. The positioning of these structures over the length of the site shows the planned layout unique to Nalanda. The viharas retain infrastructure for residential-cum-scholastic functions. The quincuxial or five-fold plan-form characteristic of a Nalanda chaitya is evident in the temple within the property. The site also retains a corpus of moveable and immoveable artefacts and artistic embellishment that shows iconographic development reflecting changes in Buddhist belief system. While stucco and engraved art are conserved in-situ, metal and stone objects are exhibited today at the adjoining Site Museum.

Criteria (iv):  Excavated Remains of Nalanda Mahavihara’ represents maturing of ancient Indian pedagogy and the related philosophical discourses that influenced early medieval Buddhist art, architecture and belief system. Its built ensemble show processes of assimilation and developments of prototypes of planning, architecture and art that influenced large parts of Asia.

Nalanda`s remains marks the advent of systematic planning for a pedagogic establishment. Application of the order enabled its seamless expansion and imparted Nalanda with a visual identity. Reminiscent of modern day universities, this order was followed by monastic-cities like Paharpur (Bangladesh, World Heritage Site) and influenced Tibetan monasteries.

Standardisation of architecture of viharas and evolution of temple-like chaitya (sacred structure) into prototypes here are evidences of sustained interchange. The quadrangular free-standing vihara of Gandhara evolved into a complete residentialcum-educational infrastructure borrowed by monastic-city.

Nalanda shows emergence and mainstreaming of a quincuxial (five-fold) temple-like sacred architecture. As a reflection and representation of changing religious practices, this new form replaced the traditionally dominant stupa and influenced Buddhist temples in East, South and Southeast Asia.

Stucco, stone and metal art shows thematic and iconographic assimilation of features from major art-centres of India and finalized iconography of Vajrayana pantheon. Nalanda stucco influenced those of Thailand and its metal art influenced art and social life of Malayan archipelago, Nepal, Burma and Tibet.

Defining standards for contemporary mahaviharas Nalanda distinguished itself as the first planned university of the Indian subcontinent. Nalanda`s built remains exemplify its extraordinary contribution to institution-building, pedagogy, architecture, art and panAsian culture. Its tradition continues to live Tibet.

Criteria (vi): Nalanda Mahavihara, as a centre for higher learning marks the zenith in the evolution of sangharama (monastic establishment) into the earliest university of early medieval India. Its merit-based approach embraced all contemporary sources of knowledge and systems of learning practiced in the Indian subcontinent. The sustained scholarship in Nalanda`s viharas crystallised the fundamentals of Indian systems of Logic and Philosophy, principles of Yogachara and Madhyamika Schools and debate as a tool for learning. While Logic and Philosophy are integral part of Indian culture, the principles of Yogachara and Madhyamika enabled transition from Mahayana to Vajrayana. Dispersed through its scholars, the principles influenced culture of Asia survives till date in the form of several sects and social customs.

Nalanda remains an extraordinary institution-builder. Its systems of pedagogy, administration, planning and architecture were the basis on which later Mahaviharas were established. The continuity of its systems are still evident in monasteries of Tibet and Nepal. While many like Nalanda, Matale in Sri Lanka share its name, Nalanda continues to inspire modern establishments like Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda University and many others across Asia.



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