Xuanzang Memorial, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Bargaon, India

Xuanzang (Chinese: 玄奘 602–664 ), was a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller, and translator who described the interaction between Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism in the early Tang dynasty. He became famous for his seventeen-year overland journey to India, which is recorded in detail in the classic Chinese text Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

Nalanda had been an ancient seat of learning and a religious centre that imparted manifold knowledge. It existed in ancient Magadha (presently, Bihar and parts of Bengal, Orisha in India) between the fifth century AD to twelve century AD. It was believed that the term ‘Nalanda’ might have been originated from the word nalam (lotus), or da nalanda, signifying “giver of knowledge”. The ancient Mahavihara at Nalanda was established during the reign of a king called Śakrāditya, of the Gupta Dynasty.

The establishment of Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University, Under Ministry of Culture, Government of India) was to develop a centre of Higher Studies in Pali and Buddhism along the lines of ancient Nalanda Mahavihara. From the beginning, the institute functioned as a residential institution, with a limited number of Indian and foreign students. Nālandā and the ruins of the ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra are almost synonymous. The name Nālandā conjures up a picture of ancient Mahāvihāra, which was a great seat of Buddhist education for nearly 700 years between the 5th to 12th centuries CE. His Excellency, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic of India had initiated the idea and declared that the ancient seat of Buddhist learning at Nālandā would be revived and thus had emanated the vision of establishing the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. On November 20, 1951, the foundation stone of the first building was laid with the following engraving : “Let the rays of the sun of Nalanda rise from the summit of this rock in order to brighten the vernacular (lokabhāsā in Pali) after the passing away of its nights of darkness (period of its obscurity).”

Nalanda was visited by both Buddha and Mahavira around the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It was also the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputta, one of the famous disciples of Buddha. Many of the famous Buddhist scholars had studied and taught at Nalanda including Nagarjuna, who formalised the concept of Sunyata; Dharmapala, the teacher of Xuan Zang; Dharmakirti, the logician; Dinnaga, the founder of Buddhist Logic; Jinamitra Santaraksita, who founded the first monastic order in Tibet; Padmasambhava, the master of Tantric Buddhism; Candrakīrti, Śīlabhadra and Atisa.

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Xuanzang travelled around India between the years of 630 and 643 CE, and visited Nalanda first in 637 and then again in 642, spending a total of around two years at the monastery. He was warmly welcomed in Nalanda where he received the Indian name of Mokshadeva and studied under the guidance of Shilabhadra, the venerable head of the institution at the time. He believed that the aim of his arduous overland journey to India had been achieved as in Shilabhadra he had at last found an incomparable teacher to instruct him in Yogachara, a school of thought that had then only partially been transmitted to China. Besides Buddhist studies, the monk also attended courses in grammar, logic, and Sanskrit, and later also lectured at the Mahavihara.

In the detailed account of his stay at Nalanda, the pilgrim describes the view out of the window of his quarters thus,

Moreover, 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 (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.

Xuanzang was a contemporary and an esteemed guest of Harsha and catalogued the emperor’s munificence in some detail. According to Xuanzang’s biographer, Hwui-Li, Nalanda was held in contempt by some Sthaviras for its emphasis on Mahayana philosophy. They reportedly chided King Harsha for patronising Nalanda during one of his visits to Odisha, mocking the “sky-flower”[clarification needed] philosophy taught there and suggesting that he might as well patronise a Kapalika temple. When this occurred, Harsha notified the chancellor of Nalanda, who sent the monks Sagaramati, Prajnyarashmi, Simharashmi, and Xuanzang to refute the views of the monks from Odisha.

Xuanzang returned to China with 657 Buddhist texts (many of them Mahayanist) and 150 relics carried by 20 horses in 520 cases, and translated 74 of the texts himself. In the thirty years following his return, no fewer than eleven travellers from China and Korea are known to have visited famed Nalanda.

Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities. More than 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers resided in this monastic campus. The Mahavihara, built in red bricks, was considered to be an architectural masterpiece. It had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. The library was located in a nine storied building where valued copies of texts were produced. The subjects taught by the renowned teachers amassed every field of learning, and attracted pupils and scholars from all parts of the world-Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Ikhtiyar ad-Din Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193 AD.

Presently, the ruins of the ancient Nalanda Mahavihara occupy an area of 14 hectares and most of it remains unexplored. The historical significance of Nalanda, Rajgir and Bodhgaya attract thousands of tourists every year from both India and abroad.