The Martin Pollins Blog

History, economics, business, politics…and Sussex

Nalanda – The World’s First  International  University

An Introduction to Nalanda[1]

Nalanda was an ancient centre of learning and the world’s first international university located in present-day Bihar, India. It was established in the 5th century AD and reached its peak during the Gupta Empire[2] (4th to 6th centuries AD) and the subsequent Pala Empire[3] (8th to 12th centuries AD). Nalanda University is considered one of the most renowned educational institutions in ancient India’s history and played a crucial role in developing Buddhist education and philosophy.

Nalanda University attracted scholars and students from various parts of the world, including India, China, Tibet, Korea, and Central Asia. It offered a wide range of subjects, including Buddhist philosophy, Vedas, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, logic, and linguistics. The curriculum was comprehensive and interdisciplinary, with a focus on intellectual and spiritual growth.

Picture Credit: Conjectural Reconstruction of Temple no. 3, Nalanda University.
Attribution: Percy Brown (1872-1955), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:;_Conjectural_Reconstruction_from_Excavated_Remains_of_the_5th_Stupa,_c._6th_century_CE.jpg

Nalanda University was a large complex with multiple monastic buildings, libraries, lecture halls, and meditation centres. It was known for its vast library called “Dharmaganja” or “Treasury of Truth,” which housed an extensive collection of manuscripts and texts. Scholars could access works from various disciplines and engage in intellectual debates and discussions.

The renowned Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang (also known as Hsuan Tsang) visited Nalanda in the 7th century AD and left detailed accounts of the university’s grandeur and the breadth of knowledge imparted there.

Unfortunately, Nalanda University suffered multiple invasions and was eventually destroyed by an army of Turkish invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji, in the 12th century AD. The destruction of Nalanda led to the decline of Buddhist education in the region.

Picture Credit: The Ruins of Nalanda.
Attribution: Shreya agrawal22, CC BY 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons


This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

In recent years, efforts have been made to revive Nalanda University as a modern international institution. The Nalanda University project was initiated in 2006, with the aim of re-establishing the university’s ancient legacy of global learning and promoting academic excellence, research, and intercultural dialogue. The new Nalanda University campus was inaugurated in 2014.

Today, Nalanda remains a significant archaeological site and a symbol of ancient India’s intellectual and educational legacy. It represents a time when knowledge and learning transcended borders and played a crucial role in fostering cultural exchange and understanding.

The information about to unfold is the story of Nalanda, the World’s first International University.

The History of Nalanda
A sign for visitors to the historic site of Nalanda has these words:

“The History of Nalanda goes back to the days of Mahayira and Buddha in the 6th Century B.C. It was the place of birth and Nirvana of Sariputra, one of the famous disciples of Buddha. The place rose into prominence in 5th Century A.D. As a great monastic-cum-educational institution for oriental art and learning in the whole Buddhist world, attracting students from distant countries, including China. The galaxy of Luminaries associated with it includes Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Dharmapala, Suvishnu, Asanga, Silabhadra, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita and celebrated Chinese travellers Hiuen Tsiang and I-Tsing who have extensively described the monasteries and shrines at Nalanda and life of monks there. Various subjects like Theology, Grammar, Logic, Astronomy, Metaphysics, Medicine and Philosophy were taught here. The institution was maintained by the revenue collected from the villages bestowed specifically for the purpose by the contemporary rulers, as evident from inscriptions.

Nalanda Mahavihar, regarded as one of the greatest universities of the ancient world, was founded by KumaraguptaI (413-455 A.D.) of the great Gupta dynasty, King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (606-647 A.D.) and the Pala Kings of East India (8th – 12th century A.D.) continued to extend patronage to this centre. The decline of this great institution started in the later Pala period, but the final blow came in around 1200 A.D. by the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji.

Excavations conducted by archaeological survey of India during 1915-37 and 1974-82 have exposed the extensive remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged on a systematic layout and spread over an area more than a square kilometre. Basically a thirty-metre-wide passage runs north–south with the row of temples on the west and that of the monasteries on the east of it. The dimension and disposition of rooms within monasteries is almost identical. The most imposing structure is temple no.3 at the southern extremity, which was constructed in seven phases. It is surrounded by a number of votive stupas and other minor shrines.”

“Other than structures, the excavations have unearthed many sculptures and images in stone, bronze and stucco. Significant among the Buddhist sculptures are Buddha in different postures, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Tara, Prajnaparmita, Marichi, Jambhala etc. A few images are of Brahmanical Deities like Vishnu, Siva-Parvati, Mahishasur-Mardini, Ganesha, Surya etc. Other noteworthy discoveries of excavation include the murals, copper plates, stone and brick inscriptions, sealings, plaques, coins, terracottas, potteries etc. The antiquities have been exhibited for visitors in the nearby museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.”

The World’s First Residential University
Nalanda (Nālandā) was a renowned mahavihara (Buddhist monastic university) in ancient Magadha (modern-day Bihar), eastern India.[4] Considered by historians to be the world’s first residential university[5] and among the greatest centres of learning in the ancient world, it was located near the city of Rajagriha (now Rajgir) and about 90 kilometres (56 mi) southeast of Pataliputra (now Patna). Operating from 427 until 1197 AD,[6] Nalanda played a vital role in promoting the patronage of arts and academics during the 5th and 6th century AD, a period that has since been described as the “Golden Age of India” by scholars.[7]

The highly formalised methods of Vedic learning[8] & [9] helped inspire the establishment of large teaching institutions such as Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramashila, which are often characterised as India’s early universities. Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries and later under Harsha, the emperor of Kannauj.[10]

Nalanda was established during the Gupta Empire era[11] and was supported by numerous Indian and Javanese patrons – both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.[12] Over some 750 years, its faculty included some of the most revered scholars of Mahayana Buddhism. Nalanda Mahavihara taught six major Buddhist schools and philosophies, such as Yogachara and Sarvastivada and subjects such as Vedas, grammar, medicine, logic and mathematics.[13] The university was also a major source of the 657 Sanskrit texts[14] carried by pilgrim Xuanzang and the 400 Sanskrit texts carried by Yijing to China in the 7th century, which influenced East Asian Buddhism.[15] Many of the texts composed at Nalanda played an important role in the development of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism including the Mahavairocana Tantra and the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra of Shantideva.[16]

Nalanda was sacked and destroyed by the troops of Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji, partly restored, and continued to exist till about 1400 CE.[17] Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[18]

In 2010, the Government of India passed a resolution to revive the famous university, and a contemporary institute, Nalanda University, was established at Rajgir.[19] It has been listed as an “Institute of National Importance” by the Government of India.[20]

Going back in time, nearly 1600 years
One thousand, six hundred years ago, several significant events occurred around the world, examples of which representing the political, cultural, and historical dynamics of the time, being:

  • Roman Empire: The Western Roman Empire was in decline. Emperor Valentinian III ruled over the empire, which faced internal conflicts and external threats from barbarian invasions.
  • China: The Liu Song Dynasty ruled over southern China, while the Northern Wei Dynasty controlled the northern regions. Buddhism continued to gain prominence in China during this period.
  • Migration Period in Europe: Various Germanic tribes were on the move, leading to migrations and conflicts across the continent. The Huns, under Attila the Hun, were expanding their influence in Eastern Europe.
  • Sassanian Empire: Under the rule of King Bahram V, the Sassanian Empire faced conflicts with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) in the ongoing Roman-Persian Wars.
  • Ancient Americas: The Mayan civilisation flourished in Mesoamerica, with city-states like Tikal and Copan experiencing significant growth and cultural advancements.
  • African Kingdoms: The Aksumite Empire, centred in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, was a prominent trading power in the region. Other kingdoms, such as the Ghana Empire and the Kingdom of Kush, thrived in West Africa and Nubia, respectively.
  • Gupta Empire: In India, the Gupta Empire was at its height under the rule of Emperor Kumaragupta I. The empire was known for its prosperity and advancements in science, mathematics, and the arts.

Long Before Oxford University
Focus, if you will, on the last example above. Over half a millennium before Oxford University was established, Nalanda University in India stood as a beacon of knowledge, attracting students from all corners of the world. Nestled in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, the remnants of Nalanda’s red-brick structures offer a glimpse into its illustrious past as one of the greatest centres of learning in ancient times. Founded in 427 AD, Nalanda University held the distinction of being the world’s first residential university, drawing in 10,000 students from Eastern and Central Asia. Its reputation extended far and wide as scholars flocked to study medicine, logic, mathematics, and, most importantly, Buddhist principles taught by revered academics of that era. Nalanda’s enlightened approach to philosophy and religion permeated the cultural fabric of Asia long after the university’s physical presence ceased.

The contributions of Nalanda to mathematics and astronomy are considered profound and enduring. Scholars speculate that Aryabhata, a renowned mathematician and astronomer, may have headed the university during the 6th century AD.

Aryabhata introduced the revolutionary concept of zero as a digit, which had a transformative impact on mathematical computations. This breakthrough paved the way for advancements in algebra, calculus, and other elements of mathematics. Aryabhata’s work extended to extracting square and cubic roots and applying trigonometric functions to spherical geometry, further pushing the boundaries of mathematical understanding. His insights left a lasting impact on the development of mathematics and astronomy, not only in southern India but also across the Arabian Peninsula.

The founders of Nalanda University, the monarchs of the Gupta Empire, held devout Hindu beliefs, yet paradoxically despite their deeply ingrained religious convictions, they created an environment of acceptance and respect for Buddhism, allowing it to thrive alongside other intellectual pursuits.

Buddhism, also known as Buddha Dharma and Dharmavinaya, is an Indian religion or philosophical tradition based on teachings attributed to the Buddha. It originated in present-day North India as a śramaṇa–movement in the 5th century BC and gradually spread throughout most of Asia via the Silk Road.

Buddhism is one of the world’s largest religions and originated 2,500 years ago in India. Buddhists believe that human life is one of suffering and that meditation, spiritual and physical labour, and good behaviour are the ways to achieve enlightenment or nirvana.[21]

Nalanda’s curriculum encompassed a diverse range of disciplines, blending Buddhist teachings and scholarship with a broader spectrum of knowledge. This approach contributed to the development of a rich cultural and religious tapestry within the university, fostering a spirit of intellectual exploration and exchange.

Nalanda fostered not only intellectual growth but also cultural exchange. The university dispatched its finest scholars and professors to propagate Buddhist teachings and philosophy in distant lands like China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. This ancient cultural exchange program was pivotal in spreading and shaping Buddhism across Asia.

Part of a Buddha-statue, showing the first five disciples of the Buddha at Sarnath and dharmachakra.
Picture Credit: Part of a Buddha statue, showing the first five disciples of the Buddha at Sarnath and Dharmachakra.
Attribution: DhJ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Page URL:

The Demise of Nalanda
The demise of Nalanda University is a significant event in its history. In the late 12th century, the university fell victim to a devastating invasion led by Bakhtiyar Khilji[22], a Turko-Afghan military general. The attack aimed to extinguish the Buddhist centre of knowledge during the conquest of northern and eastern India.

While the exact year of the invasion and destruction of Nalanda is not definitively recorded, historical accounts suggest that it occurred around 1193 AD. The vast campus of Nalanda, which covered a large area, suffered extensive destruction during the invasion. The scale of the destruction was immense, reducing much of the institution to ruins. The university’s campus, sprawling and formidable, together with the University library’s 10,000 books, burned for three months. The magnificent library held a treasure trove of Buddhist wisdom within its walls, boasting an astounding collection of nine million handwritten manuscripts.

Various theories surround the motivations behind the attack on Nalanda. While uprooting Buddhism may have played a significant role, some scholars suggest that the fortress-like appearance of the campus and rumours of its wealth attracted the invaders, who saw the university as a lucrative target. The exact reasons for the invasion, however, remain a subject of debate.

Following the attack, Nalanda gradually sank into oblivion. The ruins of the once-thriving institution remained buried and forgotten for several centuries. It was only in the early 19th century that the site was “rediscovered” by the Scottish surveyor Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1812. Later, Sir Alexander Cunningham identified the site as the ancient Nalanda University in 1861.

Today, the archaeological remains of Nalanda have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The excavated area, covering approximately 23 hectares, offers a glimpse into the grandeur that once characterised this centre of learning. Visitors can explore the ruins of monasteries, temples, and other structures, which provide a tangible connection to Nalanda’s past.

A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions have also been discovered in the ruins, many of which are displayed in the nearby Nalanda Archaeological Museum[23]. Nalanda is now a notable tourist destination and a part of the Buddhist tourism circuit.

The demise of Nalanda University marked the end of an era, but its legacy continues to live on. The destruction of the physical institution did not diminish its impact on knowledge and intellectual pursuits. The teachings and ideas nurtured at Nalanda have had a lasting influence on various fields, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy.

Today, the excavated site, covering 23 hectares, is but a fragment of its former grandeur. Nonetheless, the remnants of monasteries and temples from the era evoke the vibrant intellectual life that once thrived within these fabled walls. The memory of Nalanda serves as a reminder of the importance of education, cultural exchange, and the pursuit of wisdom throughout history.

A logo with a red circle and white text Description automatically generated with low confidence
Picture Credit: Nalanda University Logo.
Page URL:

The idea to re-establish Nalanda University was initially proposed by the Government of India in 2006. The objective was to recreate an international learning centre and promote the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and cultural diversity.

In 2010, the Nalanda University Act was passed by the Indian Parliament, laying the foundation for the establishment of a new Nalanda University. The revived university aims to promote interdisciplinary studies, focusing on areas such as humanities, social sciences, and ecology. It seeks to draw inspiration from the historical legacy of the ancient Nalanda University while embracing a modern and inclusive approach to education.

The re-established Nalanda University is envisioned as an international institution, attracting students and scholars from around the world. It aspires to become a hub of intellectual engagement, fostering research, academic collaboration, and the exploration of global challenges.

In 2014, the university commenced its operations with two schools, the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environmental Studies. Since then, it has been gradually expanding its academic programs and infrastructure.

While the new Nalanda University aims to capture the spirit of the ancient institution, it is important to note that it is not a direct continuation or replication of the original Nalanda University. The focus is on creating a modern educational institution that upholds the principles of knowledge, inclusivity, and academic excellence.

The revival of Nalanda University is seen as a significant step towards rekindling the intellectual and cultural legacy of the past, fostering cross-cultural dialogue, and promoting educational opportunities in the region.

Sources and Further Reading



CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations
  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Explanation: The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire which existed from the early 4th century CE to the late 6th century CE. At its zenith, from approximately 319 to 467 CE, it covered much of the Indian subcontinent. This period is considered as the Golden Age of India by historians. Source:
  3. Explanation: The Pāla Empire was an imperial power during the post-classical period in the Indian subcontinent, which originated in the region of Bengal. It is named after its ruling dynasty, whose rulers bore names ending with the suffix Pāla. Source:
  4. Sources: [1]  Asher, Frederick M. (2015). Nalanda: Situating the Great Monastery. Marga. ISBN 978-93-83243-07-5. pp. 1–5, and [2] “History | District Nalanda, Government of Bihar | India”. Cited at:
  5. Source: “UNESCO Nominations” (PDF). UNESCO. Cited at:
  6. Sources: [1] Pinkney, Andrea M (2014). “Looking West to India: Asian education, intra-Asian renaissance, and the Nalanda revival”. Modern Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press. 49 (1): 111–149, pp. 116–117 with footnotes, and [2] Kumar, Manoj. “Ancient Nalanda University” (PDF) Cited at:
  7. Source: Ingalls, Daniel H. H. (1976)“Kālidāsa and the Attitudes of the Golden Age”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 96 (1): 15–26. Cited at:
  8. Explanation: Vedic learning refers to the ancient system of knowledge and education that was prevalent during the Vedic period in ancient India. The Vedic period is believed to have spanned from approximately 1500 BCE to 500 BCE and is characterized by the composition of the sacred texts known as the Vedas. Vedic learning primarily revolved around the study and recitation of the Vedas, which are considered the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas are composed in Sanskrit and consist of hymns, rituals, prayers, and philosophical teachings. They are regarded as divine revelations and were transmitted orally from generation to generation by dedicated groups of scholars known as Brahmins. The educational system during the Vedic period was primarily centred around the transmission and understanding of Vedic knowledge. Young boys from the priestly class were initiated into the study of the Vedas at a young age and would undergo a rigorous process of memorization and recitation under the guidance of a guru (teacher). Education was imparted in gurukulas (residential schools), where students lived with their guru and imbibed knowledge through personal instruction, discussions, and practical application. Vedic learning encompassed various aspects, including the correct pronunciation and recitation of Vedic verses, the understanding of ritualistic practices and their underlying philosophical significance, the study of grammar and linguistics, and the exploration of metaphysical concepts. The emphasis was not only on acquiring knowledge but also on preserving the sacredness and authenticity of the Vedic texts through accurate recitation and transmission. Apart from the study of the Vedas, Vedic learning also included other disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and ethics. These subjects were integrated with Vedic teachings and were considered important for a comprehensive understanding of the universe, society, and individual well-being. Vedic learning played a crucial role in shaping the intellectual and cultural landscape of ancient India. It laid the foundation for subsequent philosophical and religious developments and formed the basis of later Hindu philosophical systems. While Vedic learning has evolved and transformed over time, its influence continues to be felt in various aspects of Indian thought and spirituality.
  9. Explanation: The Vedic period in ancient India is generally considered to have lasted from around 1500 BC (or even earlier) to around 500 BC. It is named after the Vedas, a collection of sacred texts that were composed and transmitted orally during this time. The Vedic period is characterised by the dominance of Vedic culture and the emergence of early Hinduism. It saw the development of religious rituals, philosophical speculations, and the social and political organization of ancient Indian society. It is important to note that the exact dates and duration of the Vedic period can vary among historians and scholars due to the scarcity of precise historical records from that time.
  10. Source:
  11. Source: Smith, F Harold (2013), pp. 111-112. The Buddhist Way of Life. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-02930-2. Cited at:
  12. Sources: [1] Krishnan, G.P. (2016). p. 17. Nalanda, Srivijaya and Beyond: Re-exploring Buddhist Art in Asia. Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. ISBN 978-981-09-9912-4, and [2) Scharfe, Hartmut (2002).  pp. 148–150 with footnotes. Education in Ancient India. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Vol. 16. Brill. ISBN 9789004125568. Cited at:
  13. Source: Buswell, Robert E. Jr.; Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (2013). Entry for Nālandā. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400848058. Cited at:
  14. Explanation: Sanskrit literature or texts broadly comprises all literature in the Sanskrit language. This includes texts composed in the earliest attested descendant of the Proto-Indo-Aryan language known as Vedic Sanskrit, texts in Classical Sanskrit as well as some mixed and non-standard forms of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-Aryan language that holds significant historical and cultural importance in the Indian subcontinent. It is one of the oldest documented languages in the world and has a rich literary tradition spanning thousands of years. It is considered a classical language and is known for its sophisticated grammar, precise syntax, and extensive vocabulary. It is highly structured and has a well-defined system of phonetics and phonology. Sanskrit texts cover a wide range of subjects, including literature, poetry, philosophy, religion, science, and law. The earliest form of Sanskrit, known as Vedic Sanskrit, was used in the composition of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Over time, the language evolved, giving rise to Classical Sanskrit, which reached its peak during the Gupta Empire (4th to 6th centuries AD). Classical Sanskrit became the language of scholars, intellectuals, and the elite, and it continued to be used for literary and religious purposes. Sanskrit has had a profound influence on various languages in the Indian subcontinent, as many regional languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Nepali, have borrowed heavily from its vocabulary and grammar. It has also influenced the development of other Indo-European languages. In addition to its linguistic significance, Sanskrit holds cultural and religious importance. It is considered a sacred language in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and many religious texts and rituals are performed in Sanskrit.Despite the decline in everyday usage, Sanskrit continues to be studied and researched by scholars and enthusiasts around the world. Its precise grammar, rich literature, and profound philosophical insights make it a valuable source of knowledge and a window into ancient Indian civilisation. See also:
  15. Source: Buswell, Robert E. Jr.; Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (2013).  Entry for Nālandā, Xuanzang and Yijing. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400848058. Cited at:
  16. Sources: [1] Śāntideva (1998). Translator’s Note: The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford University Press. p. xxviii. ISBN 978-0-19-283720-2, and [2] Hodge, Stephen (9 December 2005). The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra: With Buddhaguhya’s Commentary. Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-135-79654-9.Cited at:
  17. Source: Buswell, Robert E. Jr.; Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (2013), as above. Cited at:
  18. Source: “Four sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List”. UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 15 July 2016 Cited at:
  19. Source: “History and Revival”. Cited at:
  20. Source: “Vision”. at:
  21. Definition from:
  22. Explanation: Ikhtiyār al-Dīn Muḥammad Bakhtiyār Khaljī, also known as Bakhtiyar Khalji, was a TurkoAfghan military general of the Ghurid ruler Muhammad of Ghor, who led the Muslim conquests of the eastern Indian regions of Bengal and Bihar and established himself as their ruler. He was the founder of the Khalji dynasty of Bengal, which ruled Bengal for a short period, from 1203 to 1227 AD. Source:
  23. Explanation: Nalanda Museum established in the year 1917 is one of the most prestigious site-museums of Archaeological Survey of India. It houses antiquities found from the excavated site of Nalanda Mahavihara supposedly the earliest university cum monastery complex which flourished during 5th – 12th centuries of Christian era under the patronage of Gupta, Maukhari and Pala rulers. Source and Acknowledgement:

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: