Who destroyed Nalanda University and why

Nalanda: The oldest university in the world

For centuries nobody suspected that a field of ruins in the Indian state of Bihar hid what is probably the oldest training center for Buddhist teaching: Nalanda. In the first half of the 19th century, the British lay archaeologists Francis Buchanan-Hamilton and Markham Kittoe examined the remains that were still visible and referred to them succinctly as mounds. In fact, Nalanda, founded in the 4th or 5th century AD, was a monumental and extremely successful school of Buddhism. Experts recognize it as a university - because of the sheer size and sophisticated architecture of the facility, but also because of the comprehensive curriculum and the external impact: Nalanda attracted students from all over Asia, who spread what they had learned in their home countries.

Enlightenment as a subject
  1. In the 4th or 5th century AD, the Nalanda monastery center was founded as a Buddhist training center. Its influence extended to China and Indonesia.

  2. Several thousand monks and lay people studied the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist philosophy on the premises, but also non-theological subjects such as logic, grammar and medicine.

  3. Archaeologists correct and supplement the picture that contemporary texts paint of Nalanda. So the facility was probably not destroyed by conquerors, but fell into disrepair from the 13th century.

Today the small town of Rajgir is only about twelve kilometers away from the ruins. In the 5th century BC It was founded as Rajagriha, at that time the capital of the Magadha Empire, whose sphere of influence roughly corresponded to the present-day Indian state of Bihar. Important places in the biography of Buddha (died 483 BC) were in Magadha: the vulture summit, where the founder of the religion is said to have preached; the monastery known as the bamboo grove, which is considered to be one of the oldest of this religion; but above all Bodhgaya, the legendary place of Buddha's enlightenment. Anyone traveling between the religious and economic centers in the north and south of the empire inevitably passed Nalanda. One has to credit Hamilton and Kittoe that European researchers at that time did not yet have any written sources that mentioned the place and its importance. That only changed after the French sinologist Stanislas Julien translated the biography of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (600 / 603-664) in 1853 and his travelogue four years later. Xuanzang stayed in India between 629 and 645. He visited holy places and studied the doctrine and philosophy of Buddhism in Nalanda for several years. Upon his return, Xuanzang wrote the "Report on the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty". In it he described, among other things, the Nalantuo Monastery - the Chinese phonetic rendering of Nalanda. The monk Huili later described his experiences there in a biography of Xuanzang.

"... magnificent buildings like high mountain peaks, temples stand in the haze demanding respect ..."

This article is featured in Spectrum of Science May 2017

Julien's translations made it possible to locate and identify a number of Buddhist sites in northeast India. The British regional administrator A. M. Broadley (1847-1916) put the said ruins in connection with Nalanda in 1872; It was probably also he who first referred to the monastery as a university. However, it should be reserved for the pioneer of Indian archeology Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893) to examine the area more closely for the first time. Cunningham had toured India as a British engineer officer, studying the testimonies of the past; he became the first director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Not least through inscriptions bearing the name of the monastery, he was able to prove the identity of the ruins. Inscriptions discovered later confirmed the status of "mahavihara", as "great monastery".

More than 3500 monks and over 200 villages

Huili described the place in an almost transfigured light (quote shortened): "The monastery courtyards are arranged separately and divided into eight complexes. Preciously decorated platforms are lined up like stars, magnificent buildings tower up like high mountain peaks, temples stand in the haze demanding respect Monk cells in the monastery courtyards are built as four-story pavilions, with ridge beams shaped like horned dragons, and the roof beams are painted in the colors of the rainbow. "

Like Xuanzang, other Chinese monks were drawn to India in the late 7th and 8th centuries. Their reports also reveal valuable details about the monastery; the most detailed description is from Yijing (635-713). It differs in the details from the descriptions of Xuanzang and Huilis (abbreviated): "The basic shape of the monastery is almost square with straight eaves on all four sides that form covered corridors all around. All cells are made of bricks, three stories high each floor is over a zhang (about 3.5 meters; note from editor) high; the transoms are covered with boards, with no beams or roof tiles, but everything is covered with bricks. There are nine monk cells on each side . The gates of the monastery courtyards face west; open pavilions rise above them, beautifully designed and with very fine decorations. " According to Yijing, 3,500 monks lived in the complex and more than 200 villages were owned by the monastery. He also mentioned ten bathing ponds within an outer ring wall. Even today there are actually several larger water reservoirs, which he could have meant, but outside of the ruins area investigated so far. Structures and artefacts beyond the ruins also confirm that the monastery was much larger than expected in the 7th and 8th centuries.