The ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara
|Type||Centre of learning|
|Length||800 ft (240 m)|
|Width||1,600 ft (490 m)|
|Area||12 ha (30 acres)|
|Founded||5th century CE|
|Abandoned||13th century CE|
|Events||Ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1197 CE|
|Excavation dates||1915–1937, 1974–1982|
|Archaeologists||David B. Spooner, Hiranand Sastri, J.A. Page, M. Kuraishi, G.C. Chandra, N. Nazim, Amalananda Ghosh:59|
Nalanda (Nālandā; pronunciation: //; ) was an acclaimed Mahāvihāra, a large Buddhist monastery in ancient Magadha (modern-day Bihar), India. The site is located about 95 kilometres southeast of Patna, and was a centre of learning from the fifth century CE to c. 1197 CE.:149 Historians often characterize Nalanda as a university.:148:174:43:119
Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire as well as emperors like Harsha and later, the rulers of the Pala Empire.:329 At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia.:169 It was ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1197 CE.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Early History
- 3 Nalanda in the Gupta era
- 4 The Post-Gupta era
- 5 Nalanda in the Pala era
- 6 The Mahavihara
- 7 Influence on Buddhism
- 8 Historical figures associated with Nalanda
- 9 Decline and end
- 10 Ruins and rediscovery
- 11 Surviving Nalanda manuscripts
- 12 Revival efforts
- 13 Tourism
- 14 Nalanda in Popular Culture
- 15 Gallery
- 16 See also
- 17 References
- 18 External links
A number of theories exist about the etymology of the name, Nālandā. According to the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, it comes from Na alam dā meaning no end in gifts or charity without intermission. Yijing, another Chinese traveller, however, derives it from Nāga Nanda referring to the name (Nanda) of a snake (naga) in the local tank.:3 Hiranand Sastri, an archaeologist who headed the excavation of the ruins, attributes the name to the abundance of nālas (lotus-stalks) in the area and believes that Nalanda would then represent the giver of lotus-stalks.
Nalanda was initially a prosperous village by a major trade route that ran through the nearby city of Rajagriha (modern Rajgir) which was then the capital of Magadha. It is said that the Jain thirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika and one of his two chief disciples, Shariputra, was born in the area and later attained nirvana there.:148:328 This traditional association with Mahavira and Buddha tenuously dates the existence of the village to at least the 5th–6th century BCE.
Not much is known of Nalanda in the centuries hence. Taranatha, the 17th-century Tibetan Lama, states that the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan and Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, built a great temple at Nalanda at the site of Shariputra's chaitya. He also places 3rd-century CE luminaries such as the Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, and his disciple, Aryadeva, at Nalanda with the former also heading the institution. Taranatha also mentions a contemporary of Nagarjuna named Suvishnu building 108 temples at the location. While this could imply that there was a flourishing centre for Buddhism at Nalanda before the 3rd century, no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support the assertion. When Faxian, an early Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India, visited Nalo, the site of Shariputra's parinirvana, at the turn of the 5th century CE, all he found worth mentioning was a stupa.:37:4
Nalanda in the Gupta era
As historian Sukumar Dutt describes it, the history of the Nalanda Mahavihara "falls into two main divisions—the first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth—a period during which the Tāntric developments of Buddhism became most pronounced in eastern India under the Pālas …":344
Nalanda's datable history begins under the Gupta Empire and a seal identifies a monarch named Shakraditya (Śakrāditya) as its founder. Both Xuanzang and a Korean pilgrim named Prajnyavarman (Prajñāvarman) too attribute the foundation of a sangharama (monastery) at the site to him.:42 Shakraditya is identified with the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I (r. c. 415 – c. 455 CE), whose coin has been discovered at Nalanda.:166:329 His successors, Buddhagupta, Tathagatagupta, Baladitya, and Vajra, later extended and expanded the institution by building additional monasteries and temples.:5
The Guptas were traditionally a Brahmanical dynasty. Narasimhagupta (Baladitya) however, was brought up under the influence of the Mahayanist philosopher, Vasubandhu. He built a sangharama at Nalanda and also a 300 ft (91 m) high vihara with a Buddha statue within which, according to Xuanzang, resembled the "great Vihara built under the Bodhi tree". The monk also noted that Baladitya's son, Vajra, who built a sangharama too, "possessed a heart firm in faith".:45:330
The Post-Gupta era
A long succession of kings are said to have continued building at Nalanda "using all the skill of the sculptor". At some point, a "king of central India" built a high wall along with a gate around the now numerous edifices in the complex. Another monarch (possibly of the Maukhari dynasty) named Purnavarman who is described as "the last of the race of Ashoka-raja", built an 80 ft (24 m) high copper image of Buddha to cover which he also constructed a pavilion of six stages.:55
However, after the decline of the Guptas, the most notable patron of the Mahavihara was Harsha, the 7th-century emperor of Kannauj, who was a converted Buddhist and considered himself a servant of the monks of Nalanda. Harsha built a monastery of brass within the Mahavihara and remitted to it the revenues of 100 villages. He also directed 200 households in these villages to supply the institution's monks with requisite amounts of rice, butter, and milk on a daily basis. Around a thousand monks from Nalanda were present at Harsha's royal congregation at Kannuaj.:151:5
Much of what is known of Nalanda prior to the 8th century is based on the travelogues of the Chinese monks, Xuanzang (Si-Yu-Ki) and Yijing (A Record of the Buddhist Religion As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago).
Xuanzang in Nalanda
Xuanzang (also known as Hiuen Tsang) travelled around India between the years of 630 and 643 CE,:110 and visited Nalanda first in 637 and then again in 642, spending a total of around two years at the monastery.:237 He was warmly received in Nalanda where he received the Indian name of Mokshadeva:8 and studied under the guidance of Shilabhadra, the venerable head of the institution at the time.:111 He believed that 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, and the reason why Xuanzang had made the arduous overland journey to India in the first place. Besides Buddhist studies, the monk also attended courses in grammar, logic, and Sanskrit, and later, also lectured at the Mahavihara.:124
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.:55 He 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.:110:177 In the thirty years following his return, no fewer than eleven travellers from China and Korea are known to have visited famed Nalanda.:9
Yijing in Nalanda
Inspired by the journeys of Faxian and Xuanzang, the pilgrim, Yijing (also known as I-tsing), after studying Sanskrit in Srivijaya, arrived in India in 673 CE. He stayed there for fourteen years, ten of which he spent at the Nalanda Mahavihara.:144 Unlike his predecessor, Xuanzang, who also describes the geography and culture of 7th-century India, Yijing's account primarily concentrates on the practice of Buddhism in the land of its origin and detailed descriptions of the customs, rules, and regulations of the monks at the monastery. When he returned to China in 695, he had with him 400 Sanskrit texts which were subsequently translated.
In his chronicle, Yijing notes that revenues from 200 villages (as opposed to 100 in Xuanzang's time) had been assigned toward the maintenance of Nalanda.:151 He described there being eight halls with as many as 300 apartments.:167
Nalanda in the Pala era
The Palas established themselves in North-eastern India in the 8th century and reigned until the 12th century. Although they were a Buddhist dynasty, Buddhism in their time was a mixture of the Mahayana practised in Nalanda and Vajrayana, a Tantra-influenced version of Mahayanist philosophy. Nalanda was a cultural legacy from the great age of the Guptas and it was prized and cherished. The Palas were prolific builders and their rule oversaw the establishment of four other Mahaviharas modelled on the Nalanda Mahavihara at Jagaddala, Odantapura, Somapura, and Vikramashila respectively. Remarkably, Odantapura was founded by Gopala, the progenitor of the royal line, only 6 miles (9.7 km) away from Nalanda.:349–352
Inscriptions at Nalanda suggest that Gopala's son, Dharmapala, who founded the Mahavihara at Vikramshila, also appears to have been a benefactor of the ancient monastery in some form. It is however, Dharmapala's son, the 9th century emperor and founder of the Mahavihara at Somapura, Devapala, who appears to have been Nalanda's most distinguished patron in this age. A number of metallic figures containing references to Devapala have been found in its ruins as well as two notable inscriptions. The first, a copper plate inscription unearthed at Nalanda, details an endowment by the Shailendra King, Balaputradeva of Suvarnadvipa (Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia). This Srivijayan king, "attracted by the manifold excellences of Nalanda" had built a monastery there and had requested Devapala to grant the revenue of five villages for its upkeep, a request which was granted. The Ghosrawan inscription is the other inscription from Devapala's time and it mentions that he received and patronised a learned Vedic scholar named Viradeva who was later elected the head of Nalanda.:152:58:268
The now five different seats of Buddhist learning in eastern India formed a state-supervised network and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them. Each establishment had its own official seal with a dharmachakra flanked by a deer on either side, a motif referring to Buddha's deer park sermon at Sarnath. Below this device was the name of the institution which in Nalanda's case read, "Śrī-Nālandā-Mahāvihārīya-Ārya-Bhikṣusaḿghasya" which translates to "of the Community of Venerable Monks of the Great Monastery at Nalanda".:352:55
While there is ample epigraphic and literary evidence to show that the Palas continued to patronise Nalanda liberally, the Mahavihara was less singularly outstanding during this period as the other Pala establishments must have drawn away a number of learned monks from Nalanda. The Vajrayana influence on Buddhism grew strong under the Palas and this appears to have also had an effect on Nalanda. What had once been a centre of liberal scholarship with a Mahayanist focus grew more fixated with Tantric doctrines and magic rites. Taranatha's 17th-century history claims that Nalanda might have even been under the control of the head of the Vikramshila Mahavihara at some point.:10:344-346
Nalanda was a residential school, i.e., it had dormitories for students. In its heyday, it is claimed to have accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Chinese pilgrims estimated the number of students to have been between 3,000 and 5,000. The school was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of around 1,600 feet (488 m) by 800 feet (244 m) which is roughly 12 hectares.:217
The library was located in a nine-storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced. The subjects taught at Nalanda covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.
Xuanzang left detailed accounts of the school in the 7th century. He described how the regularly laid-out towers, forest of pavilions, harmikas and temples seemed to "soar above the mists in the sky" so that from their cells the monks "might witness the birth of the winds and clouds.":158 The pilgrim states: "An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.":159
The library at Nalanda was an immense complex called the Dharmaganja, or Piety Mart, and it was separated into three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. The Ratnadadhi (Ocean of Gems) was nine stories high and housed the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.:27:22
The towers were supposedly immense, bejewelled and gilded to reflect the rays of the sun. According to the Bhaskara Samhita, an ancient text on organizational practices, the library was to be built in a “finely built stone building” and each manuscript would have been placed on iron shelves or stack and covered with cloth and tied up. Furthermore, the librarian in charge, according to the text, was not only responsible for maintaining the materials but also for guiding readers in their studies.:177
The exact number of volumes of the Nalanda library is not known. But it is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands. The library not only collected religious manuscripts but also had texts on such subjects as grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine.
It is clear that the Nalanda library had a classification scheme which was possibly based on a text classification scheme developed by the great Sanskrit linguist Panini.:4 Buddhists texts were most likely divided into three classes based on the Tripitaka’s three main divisions: the Vinaya, Sutra, and the Abhidhamma.:37 Like most other Indian ancient and medieval period libraries, Nalanda would have used a basic catalogue to help patrons find materials. This bibliography, or Anukamanikas, would have listed the books by hymns, authors, form of sutras, Rishi’s name, and the hymnal metre.
- Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika
- Sarvāstivāda Sautrāntika
- Mādhyamaka, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Nagarjuna
- Chittamatra, the Mahāyāna philosophy of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu
In the 7th century, Xuanzang records the number of teachers at Nalanda as being around 1510. Of these, approximately 1000 were able to explain 20 collections of sūtras and śāstras, 500 were able to explain 30 collections, and only 10 teachers were able to explain 50 collections. Xuanzang was among the few who were able to explain 50 collections or more. At this time, only the abbot Shilabhadra had studied all the major collections of sūtras and śāstras at Nalanda.
If the monks had some business, they would assemble to discuss the matter. Then they ordered the officer, Vihārpāl, to circulate and report the matter to the resident monks one by one with folded hands. With the objection of a single monk, it would not pass. There was no use of beating or thumping to announce his case. In case a monk did something without consent of all the residents, he would be forced to leave the monastery. If there was a difference of opinion on a certain issue, they would give reason to convince (the other group). No force or coercion was used to convince.
Xuanzang also writes::159
The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the seven hundred years of the monastery's existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.
Influence on Buddhism
|The Four Main Sites|
|Four Additional Sites|
A vast amount of what came to comprise Tibetan Buddhism, both its Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, stems from the late 9th–12th century teachers and traditions at Nalanda. The scholar Dharmakirti (ca. 7th century), one of the Buddhist founders of Indian philosophical logic, as well as one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism, taught at Nalanda.
Other forms of Buddhism, such as the Mahāyāna Buddhism followed in Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, flourished within the walls of the ancient school. A number of scholars have associated some Mahāyāna texts such as the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, an important sūtra in East Asian Buddhism, with the Buddhist tradition at Nalanda.:264 Ron Epstein also notes that the general doctrinal position of the sūtra does indeed correspond to what is known about the Buddhist teachings at Nalanda toward the end of the Gupta period when it was translated.
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" philosophy taught there and suggesting that he might as well patronise a Kapalika temple.:334 When this occurred, Harsha notified the chancellor of Nalanda, who sent the monks Sāgaramati, Prajñāraśmi, Siṃharaśmi, and Xuanzang to refute the views of the monks from Odisha.:171
Historical figures associated with Nalanda
Nalanda was visited by both Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries BCE. It is also the place of birth and nirvana of Shariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha.:148 Many scholars and historical figures of note are associated with Nalanda including,
- Aryadeva, student of Nagarjuna:43
- Dharmakirti, logician
- Dinnaga, founder of Buddhist Logic
- Nagarjuna, formaliser of the concept of Shunyata:43
- Padmasambhava, master of Tantric Buddhism
- Shantarakshita, founder of the first monastic order in Tibet
- Shilabhadra, the teacher of Xuanzang
- Xuanzang, Chinese Buddhist traveller:191
- Yijing, Chinese Buddhist traveller:197
Decline and end
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The decline of Nalanda is concomitant with the disappearance of Buddhism in India. Even when Xuanzang travelled the length and breadth of India in the 7th century, he observed that his religion was in slow decay and even had ominous premonitions of Nalanda's demise.:145 Buddhism had steadily lost popularity with the laity and flourished, thanks to royal patronage, only in the monasteries of Bihar and Bengal. By the time of the Palas, the traditional Mahayana and Hinayana forms of Buddhism were imbued with Tantric practices involving secret rituals and magic. Coupled with the rise of Hindu philosophies in the subcontinent, Buddhism and its monasteries were unable to withstand the Muslim invasion that swept Northern India during the turn of the 13th century.:13:333
Evidence in literature suggests that in c. 1197 CE Nalanda was ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turk. The Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his chronicle the Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism. The burning of the library continued for several months and "smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills."
The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet in 1204 at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal). In Tibet, he started an ordination lineage of the Mulasarvastivada lineage to complement the two existing ones.
When the Tibetan translator Chag Lotsawa Dharmasvamin (Chag Lo-tsa-ba, 1197–1264) visited the site in 1235, he found it damaged and looted, with a 90-year-old teacher, Rahula Shribhadra, instructing a class of about 70 students. During Chag Lotsawa's time there, an incursion by Turkic soldiers caused the remaining students to flee. Despite all this, "remnants of the debilitated Buddhist community continued to struggle on under scarce resources until c. 1400 when Chagalaraja was reportedly the last king to have patronized Nalanda.":60
According to Tibetan legend, the school and library were reportedly repaired shortly after by Mudita Bhadra, a Buddhist sage. Unfortunately, the library was again burned by Tirthaka mendicants.:28
Ruins and rediscovery
After its decline, Nalanda was largely forgotten until Francis Buchanan-Hamilton surveyed the site in 1811–1812 after locals in the vicinity drew his attention to a vast complex of ruins in the area. He, however, did not associate the mounds of earth and debris with famed Nalanda. That link was established by Major Markham Kittoe in 1847. Alexander Cunningham and the newly formed Archaeological Survey of India conducted an official survey in 1861–1862.:59 Systematic excavation of the ruins by the ASI did not begin until 1915 and ended in 1937. A second round of excavation and restoration took place between 1974 and 1982.
Excavations have revealed eleven monasteries and six major brick temples arranged in an ordered layout. A 100 ft (30 m) wide passage runs from north to south with the temples to its west and monasteries to its east. Besides these structures, sculptures, murals, copper plates, inscriptions, seals, coins, plaques, potteries and works in stone, bronze, stucco and terracotta have been unearthed. The Buddhist sculptures notably include those of the Buddha in different postures, Avalokiteshvara, Jambhala, Manjushri, Marichi, and Tara. Images of Brahmanical deities such as Vishnu, Shiva-Parvathi, Ganesha, Mahishasura Mardini, and Surya have also been discovered in the ruins.
A number of ruined structures survive. Nearby is the Surya Mandir, a Hindu temple. The known and excavated ruins extend over an area of about 150,000 square metres, although if Xuanzang's account of Nalanda's extent is correlated with present excavations, almost 90% of it remains unexcavated. Nalanda is no longer inhabited. Today the nearest habitation is a village called Bargaon.
Surviving Nalanda manuscripts
Fleeing monks took some of the Nalanda manuscripts. A few of them have survived and are preserved in collections such as those at:
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- Asia Society
- Yarlung Museum, Tsetang (From the On ke ru Lha khang monastery)
In 1951, the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (New Nalanda Mahavihara), a modern centre for Pali and Buddhism in the spirit of the ancient institution, was founded by the Government of Bihar near Nalanda's ruins. It was deemed to be a university in 2006.
September 1, 2014, saw the commencement of the first academic year of a modern Nalanda University, with 15 students, in nearby Rajgir. It has been established in a bid to revive the ancient seat of learning. The university has acquired 455 acres of land for its campus and has been allotted ₹2727 crores (around $454M) by the Indian government. It is also being funded by the governments of China, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, and others.
Nalanda Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Survey of India maintains a museum near the ruins for the benefit of visitors. The museum exhibits the antiquities that have been unearthed at Nalanda as well as from nearby Rajgir. Out of 13,463 items, only 349 are on display in four galleries.
Xuanzang Memorial Hall
The Xuanzang Memorial Hall is an Indo-Chinese undertaking to honour the famed Buddhist monk and traveller. A relic, comprising a skull bone of the Chinese monk, is on display in the memorial hall.
Nalanda Multimedia Museum
Nalanda in Popular Culture
Song 'O Mere Raja' of 1970 blockbuster film Johny Mera Naam featuring Dev Anand and Hema Malini was shot at Nalanda ruins. An eponymous poem 'Nalanda' by poet Abhay K recounts the fall and rise of Nalanda.
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- Kim, Jinah (2013). Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia. University of California Press. p. 52. ISBN 0520273869.
- "Five of the Leaves from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Manuscript". Asia Society. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- "Astasahahasrika Prajnaparamita Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscript". Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- "Getting to Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM), Nalanda". Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- "Welcome to Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM)". Nava Nalanda Mahavihara. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- Singh, Santosh (September 1, 2014). "Nalanda University starts today with 15 students, 11 faculty members". The Indian Express. Retrieved 3 September 2014.
- "Sushma Swaraj inaugurates Nalanda University". Economic Times. 19 September 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
- "Nalanda University reopens". Times of India. 1 September 2014. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- Chatterjee, Chandan (1 September 2014). "Nalanda route to prosperity — Varsity will boost trade, feel residents". The Telegraph. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- "The Archaeological Museum, Nalanda". Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- Chaudhary, Pranava K (Dec 27, 2006). "Nalanda gets set for relic". Times of India. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
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- Nalanda Poems by Abhay K Poetry at Sangam, November 2014
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- Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Centre list: Excavated Remains at Nalanda (Submission by the Archaeological Survey of India)
- Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World (1906) by Xuanzang
- The life of Hiuen-Tsiang (1914) by Xuanzang's biographer, Hwui Li
- A record of the Buddhist religion as practised in India and the Malay archipelago (1896) by Yijing
- Entry on Nalanda in the Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper Names