In the seventh century A.D., a Chinese traveler named Hsuan Tsang set out on a journey from China to India. Hsuan Tsang was no ordinary tourist. He was a monk and he came to India on a serious mission. He wanted to visit various places of Buddhist pilgrimage and he wanted to find and collect up spending 14 long years traveling all over India. He wrote a book about his travels in India. The book is called the Si-Yu-Ki.
In his book, Hsuan Tsang wrote about many Buddhist monasteries he visited in India. One of the most famous ones was at Nalanda, where he spent quite a bit of time. Nalanda was a monastery as well as a sort of Buddhist university where students came from far and wide. A monastery is a place where monks live. The subjects that were taught here included Buddhist thinkers and teachers taught and lived at Nalanda. There was no fixed timings for classes at Nalanda. Teachers and students could go on discussing things from morning to night. Hsuan Tsang tells us that discipline in this university was strict, and students had to be careful to observe the rules.
How did a person get admission to the university of Nalanda?
There were no forms to fill out, no school-leaving marks to be considered, as happens today. Students who wanted to join the university were interviewed by senior monks. They had to prove that they were serious and knowledgeable, that they were capable and keen to learn more. By the way, this was a university only for men.
Hsuan Tsang was not the only monk from another land to visit Nalanda. After him, eleven other Chinese and Korean travelers visited the university. One of these later travelers was a Chinese monk named I Tsing. Like Hsuan Tsang, he also wrote about his travels and experiences, and he also visited and stayed at Nalanda. I-Tsing tells us that more than 3,000 monks lived at Nalanda. He tells us that the monks who lived here had a very strict schedule, and that their daily activities were regulated by a water-clock.
The ruins of ancient Nalanda are close to a village called Bargaon in the state of Bihar. Nalanda is mentioned in ancient Buddhist and Jain literature as a place where the Buddha and Mahavira came and stayed very often. These texts suggest that Nalanda was already a prosperous and famous place in the sixth century B.C.. But the excavations at Nalanda did not reveal any remains earlier than the fifth century A.D.. How do we explain this? Probably there was a settlement of some kind at Nalanda from the sixth century B.C. onwards, but the famous monastery-cum-university was set up much later in about the fifth century A.D. An important clue is the fact Fa Hsien, the Chinese pilgrim who visited India in the early fifth century A.D. mention the place but does not mention the monastery. Later kings such as Harsha of Kanauj and the Palas kings of Bengal and Bihar built buildings here and granted villages to the Nalanda monastery.
What did archaeologists find at the site of Nalanda? There was a row of Buddhist temples on one side and a row of monasteries where the monks lived on the other side, with an open space in between. There were a few other structures here and there as well. The remains of stairs show that some of the buildings were multi-storeyed - at least two storays, maybe more. Many statues of the Buddha were found in the temples. The monasteries are all quite similar to each other in their design. All of them faced west, and the drains discharged the waste water and sewage in the east. The staircases were located in the south-west corner of the buildings. Many of the temples and monasteries were repaired, rebuilt and enlarged over the years.
The ruins at Nalanda tell us about the life of monks living in a large Buddhist monastery in ancient India. As you step into the entrance of the monasteries, on one side, just behind a small room there is a secret chamber. This was probably a store where a valuable items and presents made to the monastery were kept. The monks lived in small rooms built all around a courtyard. The courtyard was an important place. This was where students would sit and listen to the teacher's lectures. The monks lived in a small rooms with one or two beds. The beds were a simple brick platform next to the wall. Some of the monasteries had their own well for drinking water and ovens (chulas) where food was cooked. There was a larger room which was served as a temple.
Lots of beautiful Buddhist statues were found at Nalanda. Some were made of stucco (a kind of plaster), others of bronze, some of stone. Many inscriptions on stone, brick and copper plates were also found. These tells us about the people who made gifts to the monastery. Nalanda also seems to have had its own official seal. This had the name of the Nalanda monastery and over this was a wheel with a deer on both sides. This scene stands for the first sermon give by the Buddha in the deer park at Sarnath. The senior monks must have used this seal for official letters.
Since monks lived at Nalanda, various items that they used in their everyday life were found. There was pottery of different sizes, sometimes decorated with designs of animals and flowers. There were implements or various kinds, such as axes, sickles, tongs, chisels, knives and spades made of metals like iron and copper. There were lamps made of clay and metal. There were stone pestles and querns for grinding grain. Other items included big stone spoons for serving food, metal scissors, ink-pots made of clay and metal, and game pieces made of bone and ivory. Near one of the temples, archaeologists found the remains of a metal workshop. Looking at this and at the large number of bronze statues found at Nalanda, it seems that some of these statues were made at this place.
The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang had found memories of his stay at Nalanda and seems to have made some goods friends during his stay there. Many years after he got back to his home in China, he received a gift sent by a monk of Nalanda. It was a pair of clothes. Along with it came a message that the monks of Nalanda still remembered Hsuan Tsang often and sent him their good wishes.