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The Ancient Nalanda University Library

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The Ancient Nalanda University Library

its destruction and tragic loss of millions of manuscripts burned to ashes by Turkic invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji


Ancient Nalanda University


Nalanda Mahavihara was established in the 5th century BC in the ancient Magadha Kingdom (modern Bihar, north-eastern India).


The Nalanda site has connection dated back to the time of our Lord Buddha (5th – 6th century BCE) and his two chief disciples Venerable Sariputra and Venerable Moggallana. The location is also where the former disciple was born and entered Nirvana.


Nalanda flourished as the most prestigious monastic university of Mahayana Buddhist studies between 5th to 7th century, subjects taught in Nalanda included scriptures and practice of Buddhism, science, astronomy grammar, Sanskrit, medicine, logic, metaphysics, philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Veda, the art of war, mathematics, politics, fine arts, and foreign philosophy.


At its zenith, the university housed 10,000 students and 1,200 professors and attracted students from Tibet, China, Japan, Greece and Persia mostly travelled via the trade routes.


Earlier structures, for example, a temple on site has been identified to be built by the great Mauryan King Ashoka the Great (approx. 250 BCE). The monastery further expanded and developed under the patronage of successive emperors of Gupta (320 – 647 CE), Kannauj (approx. 606 – 647 CE), and Pala (approx. 8th – 12th century) dynasties. A structure within the Nalanda compound has also been identified as constructed by a foreign king, the emperor of the Shailendra dynasty (modern Indonesia). The king of Bengal, Chagalaraja, was reportedly to be the last king to have sponsored ancient Nalanda during the 14th century.


The Seventeen Panditas: Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Gunaprabha, Shakyaprabha, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti, Kamalashila, Haribhadra, Vimuktisena, Shantideva, and Atisha and great masters: Naropa, Shantirakshita and Padmasambhava were all luminaries of Nalanda. 


According to the detailed descriptions recorded by a Chinese master and pilgrim Xuanzang who lived and studied at Nalanda during the 7th century, we can picture the magnificent buildings, splendid features, and beautiful surroundings “…the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent …. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle (of the Sangharama). The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapours (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.”


“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 Nalanda university remained as the centre of learning until its devastating destruction led by Turkic general Bakhtiyar Khilji and his army in 1193. Around 70 students and 5 teachers reportedly to have been seen within the ruins and attempted to function the once great monastic university during the 12th century. Eventually the remaining teachers and students were either slaughtered during further incursions or had to escape the calamity.



Nalanda Library



A part of the Nalanda’s reputation was contributed by its massive library. The library was named as Dharmaganja which means “treasury of truth” or “at the market of devotion” which virtually contains the entire range of World Knowledge.


The Dharmaganja was a complex with three massive buildings: Ratnasgara (Sea of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Ocean of Jewels), and Ratnaranjaka (Delighter of Jewels). The most precious Prajnaparamita Sutra and the unexcelled mahayoga tantra Samajguhya were kept in the nine-storey, bejeweled and gilded building of Ratnodadhi where monks could be seen studying or meticulously making copies of manuscripts by hand.






When Bakhtiyar Khilji ravaged Nalanda, a fanatic Turk who wished to uproot Buddhism, the fire blazed for three months to burn the extensive library contents to ashes. Despite the university and its library were temporarily repaired, it was burned down again by Tirthala medicants.


Bakhtiyar Khilji was a military general from a tribe located in southern Afghanistan who began a series of incursions which caused great damages to Buddhism in India.


According to historical records, Bakhtiyar Khilji recovered from an incurable illness after he was treated by Rahul Sri Bhadra, the abbot of Nalanda. Rather than be grateful, he was disturbed that a Buddhist scholar could possess such unsurpassable healing knowledge far greater than his own court and was determined to uproot all knowledge of Buddhism and Ayurveda medicine. Thousands of thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands were beheaded due to Bakhtiyar Khilji’s military and religious propaganda.


The Turkic invasion had resulted in the decline of Buddhism and general downfall of progress and scientific achievement in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy and anatomy for the subsequent ancient era on the South Asian subcontinent.



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