Ancient libraries and lost knowledge are, not surprisingly, a great fascination for many people, including yours truly. An obvious example is the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps the largest and most important library of the ancient world, which was constructed in the third century BCE and flourished as a center of knowledge until it was destroyed, possibly by a fire set by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, or by several separate acts of destruction in that and succeeding centuries.
For me, of equal or even greater fascination is another center of ancient knowledge, Nalanda. Located in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, modern-day Bihar state, Nalanda included both a university-like school and a Mahavihara, or large Buddhist monastery. Nalanda was originally just a village, on a significant trade route, where some sort of school developed, perhaps as early as the sixth or seventh century BCE. The Buddha himself is said to have lectured there, and his contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of and most important figure in Jainism, also taught there for several years. In the third century BCE, the famous Buddhist emperor Ashoka supposedly built a temple at Nalanda. A few centuries later, the important Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna also studied there, later becoming a teacher and leader of the institution.
Nalanda flourished during the Gupta Empire of the fifth and sixth centuries CE and for many centuries thereafter. Royal patronage led to the building of monasteries and other structures. Students and scholars from as far away as China, Korea, Tibet, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Greece made their way to Nalanda. Mahayana Buddhism was a main focus of study, but the curriculum also included the various Theravada forms of Buddhism as well as Sanskrit, logic, medicine, and the ancient Vedas. While a center of Mahayana Buddhist learning, much of what came to be Tibetan Buddhism was developed at Nalanda. Padmasambhava himself, one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have worked at Nalanda in the eighth century CE.
Some of the information we have about the early history and activities of Nalanda comes from the writings of Xuanzang, the much-traveled Chinese monk, who traveled through India between 630 and 643 CE. He visited Nalanda twice, once in 637, followed by a two-year stay starting in 642. He described his surroundings: “… the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle. The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.” He also wrote, “The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the seven hundred years of the monastery’s existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.”
Tibetan sources mention the existence of a huge library at Nalanda comprised of three multistory buildings, the Ratnasagara (Ocean of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels), and Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-adorned). Ratnodadhi was the largest, standing nine stories high. While the exact number is not known, the library may well have held hundreds of thousands of volumes, many of them Buddhist texts but also including subjects like literature, logic, grammar, astronomy, and medicine.
Historian Sukumar Dutt writes that the history of Nalanda “falls into two main divisions – first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth.” Nalanda declined as Buddhism began to disappear in India. Even Xuanzang, in the seventh century, noted during his travels in India that Buddhism was of less and less interest to people. A combination of a rise in Hindu philosophy and the Muslim invasion of northern India in the early thirteenth century was probably responsible for Nalanda’s demise. It was probably destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 CE. Although it’s just a legend, it is said that the library was so huge that it continued to burn for three months after it was set ablaze.
Some teaching continued for a while longer, but on a vastly smaller scale. Gradually Nalanda was forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century through the work of the Archaeological Survey of India. A thorough study of the site began in 1915. Archaeologists eventually found eleven monasteries and six temples, along with meditation halls and classrooms. Many of the buildings are, or were, decorated with sculptured panels and murals. Only a small percentage of the site, however, has been examined.
According to Xuanzang, over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers lived at Nalanda at its peak. What is now officially known as the Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda University) at Nalanda, Bihar was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. It’s now a popular tourist destination. Wandering through the ruins, one can only imagine what daily life might have been like during its heyday, the intellectual and religious activity … and the library, and how much we have lost.