The ancient Nalanda University holds a prestigious position in the rich historical tradition of India. The seat of knowledge in the ancient kingdom of Magadha attracted hundreds of Buddhist monks, scholars, students and travellers from everywhere, especially China and Tibet through the historical Silk Route. Even today visitors from all over the world are drawn to take a stroll through the remnants of this ancient temple of wisdom and knowledge.
Etymologically the term Nalanda derives from the Sanskrit words 'Na, Allam, Da' which means 'where the gift of knowledge never ceases.' The monastery or university established by the Buddhist monks to provide free education for those who seek knowledge is the most prominent attraction in the Nalanda district of Bihar. This ancient centre of knowledge began to gather international significance since lots of foreign scholars and travellers reached here to gain knowledge, and also to meditate. The kings of the different dynasties who ruled over Nalanda were gracious enough to promote the university. However, the university was ransacked and destroyed around the 13th century AD by some evil forces, which were jealous about the splendours of the knowledge centre. The Buddhist monks were ruthlessly murdered and the huge library which housed important and rare manuscripts was burnt down. The legends say that it took almost 3 months for the priceless books in this magnificent library to completely burn into ashes.
One has to catch a train from the Sealdah station in Kolkata, which is one of the busiest railway stations in the country, to Gaya. The platforms in the station are crowded with commuters, make-shift shops and fruit sellers. The old buildings in the city reflect the unique architectural styles of the colonial era.
Rickshaws are a prominent and cheap mode of transport at Gaya, and there would be rickshaws lined in front of the railway station as well to take the visitors to various places. These rickshaws, which are festooned with colourful paper garlands, can carry up to 7 passengers at a time.
Tanga or horse-pulled carts is very popular in Bihar and they can be seen at all the major tourist destinations, including Nalanda, in the state.
Mustard fields and small houses line the roads here, and Nalanda is guarded by the seven majestic hills known as the Rajgir hills. The lush greenery, mesmerising valley and the beautiful nature around must be the reason why Lord Buddha exclaimed about Nalanda that, 'Pleasant are these places.' Brahmakund at Rajgir, close to Nalanda, is famous for the hot spring, which is also a major pilgrim centre of the people who follow the Hindu faith. It is believed that King of Magadha Bimbisara used to visit here to take a dip in the hot spring. The hot spring receives its water from the various springs and glaciers that originate in the hills. Scientific research proves that this water, which has sulphur content in it, has medicinal properties which can cure skin ailments.
Hundreds of devotees throng the Brahmakund to bathe in the hot springs and to offer their prayers to the Maninaga deity. The view of the valley from top of the mountain is breathtakingly beautiful.
The remnants of the ancient Nalanda University have now turned into the Nalanda Archaeological Museum. The entrance fee to the ruins of Nalanda University is Rs 20 per head. The service of a guide can be availed by the tourists to know more about the historical significance of the place. Other than a few remnants, nothing of the ancient centre of knowledge survives. Though a well from the ancient times can be seen here, it is now filled with plastic bottles and other garbage.
The university which housed around 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers between 5th and 12th centuries AD, is built primarily in red mud bricks. Burnt marks could still be seen on these remnants of the university.
The buildings which were built during the Gupta age have many significant features. Though the rulers changed, they were all dedicated to the proliferation of knowledge through the Nalanda. The pavements in the centre divide the buildings. On the east wing are the monastics or the study rooms, and the temples which also acted as accommodations for the students took up the west side. The new students who sought admission at the university were accommodated in the basement. These basement is what is still remaining of the ancient learning centre as most parts of the buildings were burnt down. The rooms were in square shape and it was mandatory that all the students should stay at the boarding. Each student occupied a room which did not have any doors or windows. There were tunnel like passages which connected the rooms and enabled the students to communicate with each other.
The study halls have a special seating arrangement, at a height, for the teacher. The students would sit on the floor in front of the teacher. These halls are paved with a special kind of marble which reflect sun rays during the day, and the pleasant moon light in the night. There were meditation halls for the students, and memorials for many eminent personalities who lived in Nalanda were also erected here. The remains of the huge stove where the food for all the inhabitants of the university were cooked too could be seen in the premises.
There is a memorial hall built in Nalanda in remembrance of Xuanzang, the the 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller and translator, who travelled to India in search of wisdom.
The Xuanzang memorial is a pagoda-style building which stands elegantly inside the Nalanda. The beautifully landscaped courtyard and the huge bronze bell hung on the left side of the garden are the prominent features here. Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk reached India to learn about the tenets propagated by Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC). He spent five years as a student at Nalanda and taught here for a year. A noted translator, he carried rare books and manuscripts to China, and translated it into his mother tongue. The cultural department has built this memorial building in 1950 to keep alive the memory of this great soul who longed for knowledge.
The life of Buddha and his verses are engraved on the walls of the memorial building. A rock tablet which has the foot imprints of Buddha is displayed here. It is believed that Xuanzang had copied it from Buddha’s footprints from Magadh. There is also a meditation centre that functions adjacent to this hall.