A short ride from Rajgir, one arrives at Nalanda, where is found the vast red brick ruins of a great Buddhist university, and one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world, dating back to 400 AD. Flourishing under Emperor Harsha in the 600’s, Nalanda received a visit from the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang who reported that several thousand students of many nationalities were in attendance. Nalanda, taken from one of the Buddha’s names meaning ‘insatiable in giving,’ enjoyed a reputation around the world. Well known was the strict gatekeeper who administered a test right at the entrance denying admission to 80% of applicants.
By this time, Buddhism was already in decline in India, and was found concentrated in only a few places where there were powerful patrons. Many differing philosophical schools of Buddhism were at variance, the lively yet peaceful debates were like “contending utterances rising like the angry waves of the sea,” noted the pilgrim. Even within the Mahayana, there were multiple factions, and some that took on the character of Tantricism. Mathematics, astrology, and medicine were among the many secular subjects studied as well.
The main stupa at Nalanda, its shape more square than round, rises high above the ruins of the residential cells and famous for a wide processional stairway instead of a circumambulatory path. In fact, the original stupa was of the normal circular variety, and the massive structure seen today fit neatly inside of it. Four smaller stupas surrounded the large one, and the fine carvings and Buddha images on several of these can still be enjoyed in-situ. Nargarjuna studied here, and the enlightenment of Sariputra, the most learned of Buddha’s disciples, took place nearby.
Beyond the main stupa and set in a lovely green park, are manifold numbers of cells, meeting halls, and smaller temples the true extent of which spreads far beyond the existing borders of the archeological park, to a full ten times the present site. Once throned in one of the University temples, a large black Buddha, colored by the application of ghee (butter) by worshipers for over a thousand years, can be seen sitting in the neighboring village, and is regarded by the locals as one of the Hindu gods.