UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE
MAHAVIHARA, Buddhist University, at
NALANDA
TAKEO KAMIYA
Nalanda
About 95km southeast of Patna, Bihar
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016

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MONASTIC UNIVERSITY of NALANDA

Bihar State is the birth place of Buddhism and Jainism. After Buddhafs death, the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order) developed greatly through good relations with political ruling classes, erecting many temples and monasteries everywhere in India, particularly in the westernmost region, Gandhara (now in Pakistan) and easternmost Bihar and Bengal (now West Bengal and Bangladesh). Most remarkably, at Nalanda, 15 kilometers from Râjagriha (now Rajgir), the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha, was established the most important Buddhist center, which consisted of five large temples (or colossal Stupas) and ten monasteries (surrounding spacious courtyards) arranged in an orderly manner. The monasteries (Viharas) drew a large number of students or on-studying priests from not only India but also foreign countries, forming a eBuddhist Universityf in ancient times.

Hiuen Tsang (or Xuan Zang, 602-664), the model of the priest Master Tripitaka in the Chinese 16th century famous novel "Journey to the West", went to India defying danger and stayed in Nalanda for five years receiving instruction from the high priest-scholar Shîlabhadra and others, and collecting sacred books in Sanskrit. He brought back those 657 scriptures to China and devoted the rest of his life to the translation of them into Chinese, in addition to which he wrote the travel report gGreat Tang Records on the Western Regionsh at the command of Emperor Tai-zong of the Tang dynasty. As he wrote in this book that there were thousands of learning priests in the eNalanda Universityf, it is almost equal to the scale of a current standard college.


Temple-3 (Great Stupa) and small stupas

The Mahavihara (Great Monastery) of Nalanda is supposed to be constructed in the 5th to 7th centuries: the father of Indian archeology, Alexander Cunningham (1814-93) presumed that, based on various documents, it was between 425 and 625. The monastery thrived much in the 5th and 6th centuries under the protection of the Gupta Empire. It was the important center of Mahayana Buddhism in India along with those of Taxila and Vikramashila, and later also patronaged by the great king Harsha (r. 606-647) of the Vardhana dynasty. Thereafter, though gradually declining, it continued to be operated as long as until the 12th century.

During the 9th to 12th centuries under the reign of the Pala dynasty, Nalanda Mahavihara survived as one of the centers of Tantric period Buddhism, but in 1197 the Mahavihara was destroyed, as well as that of Vikramashila at Antichak, by the army of Muhammad bin Bakhtiar Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate, which is imprinted on history as the end of Indian Buddhism.

The Great Stupa at Antichak

Like Paharpur and Vikramshila, as the central grand stupa was half demolished, the Nalanda Mahavihara does not impress people with a distinct figure of architectural work like Bodhgaya. Its monasteries also look like mountains of bricks, which might not attract tourists despite their archeological high value, often leading to touristic pilgrims for Buddhist holy sites passing through without stopping at Nalanda, despite being famous in Buddhist literature.

However, as there was not yet any monastery at Nalanda in the age of Buddha, he stayed in a forest of mango on the way to and from the city of Rajgir, preaching about eDharmaf (law, truth or virtue) to local priests and lay believers, as written in the scripture of gMahâparinirvâna Sûtrah. Therefore, since the Mahavihara of Nalanda itself was not directly related to Buddha, it is not included in the eFour Great Buddhist Holy Sitesf or eEight Great Buddhist Holy Sitesf, and so travel agents tend to omit Nalanda from tourist programs, or only add it when having enough time in Rajgir. Has the inscription of Nalanda on the UNESCO World Heritage List changed the situation?

It is said that before Buddha passed into Nirvana, he preached to people for the last time at Nalanda, on the way to Rajgir, saying:

(After my death,) live without depending on others, making yourself light and prop,
(and also) live without relying on others, making the truth lamp and support.


Monasteries and a wall sculpture at Temple-3

The founder of Jainism Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha, living almost the same period and in the same region, Bihar. He stayed at Nalanda three times; once might have been during the dry seasonfs travelling before his enlightenment, and twice after that. At the time of his first stay in Nalanda, he is said to have made Makkhali Gosala, future founder of Ajivikism, a disciple of his ascetic practices.
A Chinese priest, Fa-Hien (337-442) wrote by mistake in his gA Record of Buddhistic Kingdomsh that Nalanda was the birth place of Shariputra, one of the Buddhafs best pupils, as;

At a distance of a one-day trip to southwest from here (Taishaku cave), one gets to a village by the name of Nala, where Shariputra was born and much later came back there to enter Nirvana. Accordingly, villagers erected a memorial tower, which still exists.

According to gThe History of Buddhism in Indiah written by Taranatha in 1608, King Ashoka put an offering to the tower of Shariputra in Nalanda and dedicated a small temple there in the 3rd century B.C.E.
Art historian Susan Hantington identified the tower as an early stupa at Nalanda, presuming that since Fa-Hien had not written anything especially great or important about the tower, the Nalanda monastery would have developed after the age of Fa-Hien (the first half of the 5th century), that is to say, after the era of the late Gupta dynasty.


ESTABLISHMENT of NALANDA MONASTERY

There are a variety of views about the origin of the place-name of Nalanda, one of which is Hiuen Tsangfs report of a legend in his gGreat Tang Records on the Western Regionsh:

According to an old person, in the grove of Amra to the south of this monastery, there was a pond where lived a dragon named Nalanda. The monastery was built by the pond, taking the dragonfs name for the monastery itself.

Monasteries and Temple-12, Nalanda

In the Pali scriptures, this place is variously written down as eNalaf, eNalakaf, eNalakagramaf, or eNalandaf, among which this article adopts the most common eNalandaf, following the Archeological Survey of India Reports.
Hiuen Tsang also wrote about the construction process of this Mahavihara in the same book:

Not long after the Nirvana of Buddha, the former king of this state, Shakraditya cordially believed in Buddhism and esteemed the Tri-ratna (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). He selected a good piece of land and erected this monastery, but at the start the construction harmed the dragonfs body. Just then a Jain priest, who was talented in divination, prognosticated the fortune, saying that this place was an excellent land, the monastery would surely thrive for a long time as a shining example in the Five-India (world), and the scholars studying here would accomplish their works, even if they sometimes suffer from bouts of vomiting blood by having harmed the dragon.

Shakraditya is also known as Kumaragupta, the fourth emperor (r. c.415-455) of the Gupta Empire, and his successors enlarged the monastery into a Mahavihara (great monastery):

His son, King Buddhagupta succeeded the throne, and built a new monastery on the south of the former. King Tatagata took over the veneration of Buddhism, adding a monastery next on the east. King Baraditya constructed a new one on the northeast, holding a celebratory party, inviting people of fame or without, with his whole heart.
His son, Vajra added a new one on the east after succeeding the throne. Later, the king of middle India also constructed a large monastery on the west, encircling the whole site with high fences to fanel in and out through one gateway.

As successive kings continued the construction of Sanghas (concretely speaking, buildings for a temple or a monastery), the Mahavihara presented a grand sight with elaborately carved edifices. Particularly, King Kumaraguptafs Sangha dedicated large Buddha statues inside and selected 40 priests every day to be served meals at that place, requiting the kingfs favor.

The eking of middle Indiaf, without mentioning the name above, is the renowned 7th century King Harshavardhana (590-647), who began the Vardhana dynasty, the last great dynasty in ancient India, after the downfall of the Gupta dynasty. It was in his age that Hiuen Tsang studied in Nalanda, who wrote about the state of the then Nalanda eBuddhist Universityf:

There are thousands of priests there, who all are capable and intelligent for learning. Scholastic priests with virtue, renowned even abroad, number in the hundreds. They behave in austerity and keep religious precepts purely, their attitudes in which are respected by all Indian monks as venerable examples. In order to study doctrinal content, they spend whole days learning without feeling it to be enough, helping and encouraging each other, young and old, morning and evening.

@@
Monastery-8 in the Mahavihara

Almost all buildings (temples and monasteries) in the vast euniversity campusf were built of brick, the surfaces of which were covered with chiseled plaster. They were arranged quite orderly, and such a regular layout of so many buildings was very rare in ancient India. Each monastery (vihara), almost equivalent to a residential college in Oxford or Cambridge Universities, is of a large scale of 50 to 60 meters square, taking the standard form with a square courtyard surrounded by monksf cells, probably having two or three stories judged from the thickness of their walls.

VIHARA and CHAITYA-GRIHA

The place and buildings where tonsured monks live in a group to practice meditation, study, and faith in Buddha was called eSanghârâmaf in Sanskrit. In Japanese, it is abbreviated into eGaranf. The Garan of a usual temple is composed of a worship room and an abode of monks. Since the worship room was dedicated to a Chaitya (sacred object), it was called eChaitya-grihaf.

Buddhism along with Jainism were liberal religions born by contradicting Brahmanism, or earlier Hinduism, which embraced the caste system, letting only people born in the Brahman caste to be priests who were able to have access to the gods. In Buddhism, which denied the cast system and the gods of Brahmanism, it was needed to train those who came to realize, not by his natural birth but by his own will after becoming adults, the teachings of Buddha, to become priests leading laymen. Upon this, Buddhism made them ehomelessf to gather and settle them together in one place, training them scholarly and spiritually.

Such places and buildings were called eVihâraf in Sanskrit, literally meaning eplace of spending timef or eplace of comfortf. It also came to mean an abode of monks or place of study, which is translated into English as a monastery. Since this region in eastern India had many Buddhist and Jain viharas, it came to be called Bihâr region, and after independence it formed the state of Bihar.


Temple-13 and a column at Temple-12

Although the worshiping subject for priests and followers was Buddha, in ancient India the portrayal of Buddha in paintings or sculptures was forbidden as it is in Islam, being considered as idolatry, so they came to substitute something related to Buddha as a symbol to worship instead: a Bodhi tree, under which Buddha achieved spiritual enlightenment, a stone engraved with the Buddhafs footprints, a stone podium, on which Buddha stood, a wheel, revolving which was likened to Buddhafs preaching (i.e. Dharmachakra), and a mound, in which Buddhafs bones were buried (i.e. Stupa). Those objects were referred to as eChaityaf as a whole, and a building for the veneration of a piece of Chaitya was a Chaitya-griha.

Various Chaitya were worshiped in the age of Hînayâna Buddhism before the Common Era, and yet Stupas gradually outdid others, becoming representative of Chaitya. It became standard for Chaitya-grihas (temples) to hold a Stupa as the principal object of worship.

Plan of the Jaulian Monastery in Taxila
A temple used to consist of monastery and stupa areas
eVf indicates Vihara, eCf Chaitya (Stupa)
(From "A Guide to Taxila" by John Marshall, 4th ed. 1960)

Originally, the Stupa was a hemispherical mound in shape, the best preserved and largest of which is seen at Sanchi, central India. While Stupas were worshiped not only in Buddhism but also in Jainism and Ajivikism, Buddhist King Ashoka is said to have divided Buddhafs bones into many portions and buried them at various places in India, raising mounds (Stupas) on them.
Stûpa was transliterated and abbreviated into Japanese as eTouf, along with the transition of its form from an Indian hemispherical mound, through Chinese brick towers, to a Japanese wooden multi-storied tower like eGojûno-touf. But the original word eStupaf had never meant a high-rise tower.

In the stage of cave temples being excavated in the Deccan Plateau between the 2nd century B.C.E. and 9th century C.E., there were two kinds of caves: Vihara caves for monksf dwellings and Chaitya caves enshrining Stupas. The Ajanta group consists of 30 caves, in which two are Chaitya caves in the early period and three in the latter period, while all the others are Vihara caves. In the age of Mahâ-yâna Buddhism, which was gradually syncretized with Hinduism accompanied by idolatry, a statue of Buddha came to be sculptured at the face of a Stupa in Chaitya caves.

As seen on the plan of the Bedsa caves below, both Chaitya and Vihara caves take a similar keyhole-shape as a transitional phase. Later, Vihara caves came to take a square shape with monksf cells and a corridor surrounding a central square space, which corresponds to the courtyard of a freestanding monastery, like almost all Vihara caves at Ajanta.

Plan of the Cave temple of Bedsa, chaitya and vihara caves
(From "The Cave Temples of India" by J. Fergusson & J. Burgess, 1880)

The temple-3 at Nalanda consists of a central great stupa of 31 meters in height and surrounding small shrines and votive stupas. Excavation brought to light that this temple was enlarged twice or thrice. Every other temple embraces a small chamber at the center to enshrine a chaitya like a Buddha statue, but as their upper structures have been lost, their original heights and shapes are not clear. Were they really high towers like that of Bodhgaya as written by Hiuen Tsang?

In the last phase of Indian Buddhism under the Pala dynasty in western India, two Mahaviharas were established at Paharpur and Antichak as learning centers like at Nalanda, and are also called eBuddhist Universitiesf on occasion. Paharpur Mahaviharafs architectural composition is quite unique, as seen in the plan below: a colossal chaitya (great stupa) is located at the center of an enormous vihara with as many as 177 monksf cells along the circumference, uniting a temple and a monastery into one. The plan of the Vikramashila Mahavihara is similar, though 20 percent larger and more ruined.

Plan of the Pahapur Mahavihara
Monksf cells encircle the Great Stupa, forming a huge integrated model
(From "Discover the Monuments of Bangladesh" by N. Ahmed, 1984)

On the other hand, Nalanda Mahavihara took completely different approach from them, putting ordinary but large scaled viharas with multiple stories on the east side of the site on a north-south line and the temples (grand stupas) on the west in a row, leaving an ample square (broad main street) in between. As at Ajanta, where chaitya caves are fewer than vihara caves, temples (places of worship) are also much fewer than monasteries here, in Nalanda.

Plan of the Mahavihara at Nalanda

This arrangement looks very diagrammatic for the growth of the Mahavihara, which was not constructed at once but successively at intervals in accordance with the increase of students and learning priests drawn from India and abroad. This linear plan must have been greatly effective for that. If Buddhism had not perished in India in the 12th century, the number of monasteries and temples would have still been augmented without difficulty as opposed to the Paharpur and Vikramashila models.

BRICK EDIFICES and SCULPTURES

There are no stone buildings at Nalanda. Despite the fact that all facilities were made with masonry of burnt bricks, an arch structure was never used, partly because the influence of Islamic architecture had not yet affected here. Instead, an original concrete structure was developed in this region like that of ancient Roman architecture. The tops of openings are not arched but fixed by concrete lintels, and furthermore, from the peripheral walls of monasteries often protrude upper floor concrete slabs with small joists, on the edge of which stand the upper storyfs outer walls. I was very surprised to see this and wondered what the intention of the architects was in such slightly cantilevered slabs.


Passages of the Nalanda Mahavihara

The Great Stupafs stucco (plaster), which had once decorated its surfaces, has perished and as it did not have terracotta panels as in Paharpur monastery, it looks like a simple piling up of bricks to a great height. However, Temple-2fs lower outer walls are embellished with stone caved panels, Temple-12fs basal parts of bricks are sculpted, and there remains many stucco sculptures in the small shrine of Temple-3, which forms a "Pancha-yatana" or five-shrined-type temple. These sculptures display the fragrance of Gupta Art.


Excavated and wall sculptures, Temple-2

The Nalanda Mahavihara under the Pala dynasty, as well as Somapura Mahavihara at Paharpur and Vikramashila Mahavihara at Antichak, entered the epoch of Tantrism as the last phase of Indian Buddhism, conspicuously mixed with Hindu art. The excavation of their precincts found many statues of Hindu gods. Nalanda Archeological Museum operated by the A.S. I. displays such sculptures and abundant articles excavated from the site, along with those from Rajgir. @@

(September 01, 2018)


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© Takeo Kamiya
E-mail to: kamiya@t.email.ne.jp