Just like Paris to Eiffel tower or liberty statue to New York, Nalanda’s identity is synonymous with the Nalanda University. And that prompts us to ask the question why Nalanda was chosen as the location for such a monumental establishment. There must have been some deep roots and connections to the past to lay a strong foundation.
But like everything else from the area, the origin, the demographic, the importance of its place in history before the university is an unsolved mystery. Because of lack of documented evidence that would state the obvious, we have to dig into various sources to corroborate the facts.
The earliest record of the Nalanda Mahasanghrama comes from the accounts Xuanzang, Itsing and Hwui Lin where they mentioned about the temples and stupas raised at the places associated with Buddha; a temple at the place were Buddha preached law for 7 days, a Stupa where foreign Bhikkhus met Buddha, another stupa were Buddha preached and a tree developing from the tooth pick of Buddha.
These observations by the pilgrims inform us that Nalanda was an important destination even during Buddha times. Pali commentaries and Jain literature too mention about a prosperous Nalanda where Buddha and Mahavira had rich devotees.
So, on the basis of Xuanzang travelogue, we can say that the Nalanda of Buddha times is same as the Nalanda of Mahasanghrama. Also, these travelogues don’t mention any other place named “Nalanda” in the vicinity of Nalanda Mahasanghrama.
It is important to note that Fahien’s travelogue does not leave a detailed account of this place leading us to assume that Nalanda was not a prominent place at the time of his visit. Also his stay in this particular area was very brief; he didn’t visit Kulika, the birth place of Moggallana.
Another important logical connection is as per Pali literature; the Nalanda that was associated with Buddha was about 1 Yojan from Rajgir ( DA.i.35, More about Nalanda)and the Nalanda University ruins are about that distance from Rajgir. These facts help us establish the link between both.
Besides that the other evidence is provided by a recent discovery of year 2008 at the excavations of a mound ‘Daman Khanda’. This mound is part of the unexcavated stretch located one kilometer north of the excavated monastic units and has rich deposits of NBP (Northern Black Polished pottery dating upto 1200 BC) ware, which would lead us to believe that the place was populated during the times of Buddha and Mahavira. And the Monasteries were built over the remains of some habitation most probably the ancient Nalanda.
Archaeological evidence at the Nalanda University ruins suggests the earliest settlement at the place was during the 5th century AD. The evidences are not conclusive because of lack of reliable dating technology at the time of Excavation in early 20th century. The earliest brick found here are of dimensions “18In X 13In X 4.5In”, not properly burnt at the centre, at the innermost layer of temple no- 3. The brick size hints it to be pre Gupta bricks as the biggest Gupta brick are of dimensions 15” X 9” X 3”. This is strong evidence that the earliest structures at the Nalanda Mahasanghrama belong to an earlier era than that mentioned by the initial archaeologists.
Corroborating all the facts mentioned above, we can conclude that the excavated monastic site might have been a part of the mango grove where Buddha stayed during his varsavaas (rainy season stay) as told by Xuanzang and Hwui Lun. Further north could be the actual habitation of Nalanda at the time of Buddha. It’s also a possibility that Nalanda lost its prominence in the post Buddha centuries but still continue to be part of some Buddhist and Jain traditions. And the place revived during the Gupta period when the mahasanghrama was established and with the growing popularity of the university ‘Nalanda’ regained its prominent place in history.
If we continue on that chain of thought then, there was probably a monastery here at the time of Buddha before the foundation of the great University was laid; and it became insignificant during the later years.
In the interim when Nalanda monastery lost its significance some Jain traditions took roots here as we find mention of the place in Jain Accounts namely “Sammetasikharatirthamala” by Pandita Vijaya Sagara in 1623 AD.
We’ll continue to built around facts and question some of the deductions as we put the pieces together for the big picture to emerge…