Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Growth of Monastic and academic Seat of Nalanda” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 1 - Growth of Monastic and academic Seat of Nalanda

In our general chrono-cultural frame of early historic middle Gaṅgā plain of roughly 6th century BCE to the Gupta times of 3rd century CE, Nālandā’s position from cultural satellite to a multi functional nodal centre was amazing. We may begin our discussion from the natural setting of the site.

Geographic locale:

Located in the suburb of Rajagriha-the ancient capital of Magadha, the prosperous village of Nalanda figures frequently in the earliest Buddhist and other contemporary religious texts. Hiuen Tsang describes it to be 30 li far from Rahula tope-Rajagriha.[1] This ancient site Nalanda identified with the village of Baragaon, actually had its ruins stretched to nearby villages of Begumpur, Mustaphapur, kapatia and Sarichak. The ruins of Baragaon are located only two miles off Bihar-Bakhtiyarpur light railway route station Nalanda. Road transport to the site from Patna is available.

Etymology and topography:

The meaning of the name Nalanda is not clear and was interpreted differently in a variety of texts. Hiuen Tsang’s version is-to the south of Nalanda monastery there was a mango-grove. In this grove there was a tank, where a dragon named Nalanda stayed and after his name the site was named. Once the Buddha stayed there and earned the name Nalanda (insatiable in giving). The name was derived from na-alam da meaning charity without intermission or the Buddha’s ceaseless charity. When applied to the place it means rich and prosperous. Later five hundred merchants bought this park for ten koti of gold and donated it to the Buddha. So the general prosperity of the site explains the name of the place.[2] From Ceylonese accounts another explanation is available. The Ceylonese word “landa” means a high land with a forest below. In case of Nalanda the word ‘na’ meant iron wood trees. So the suggests a high ground with a low jungle of iron wood trees. Hiranand shastri suggests that a village of the same name might have been existed there and fortress and shrine were erected.[3]


The site of Baragaon where majority of remains were found had many tanks and ponds around-rendering the place quite a marshy texture. Alexander Cunningham identified the tank located to the south of the monastic complex, named Kargidya Pokhar. He thinks this is the same tank where the legendary naga Nalanda used to stay because it is exactly in the same location described by the Chinese pilgrim.[4] The whole exposed ruins of Nalanda was surrounded by a number of tanks of different sizes. Actually the whole area had a as many as 52 tanks. Suraj Pokhar, one such important tank was located to the north of Baragaon. Around this tank ancient sculptures belonging to the 7th century CE are seen. To the north east of the ruins there are three lakes-Gidi, Pansokhar and Lokanath. Located about half a mile of ruins Gidi is the longest and about a mile long in east-west and quarter a mile in the north south. To its west lies pansokhar, broader and shorter than the last. Lokanath, Chanan, Sangarkha, Tarsing, Dhankhari, Godahan all belong to the groups located to the east of the ruins. To the south east lie a number of tanks like Behala, pathalanti etc. Some of them are anonymous too. To the south of the ruins there are Dukatwa, Indra pokhar and Nag pokhar. A bit far to the west of the ruins there are Chanayan pokhar and some other insignificant tanks. Close to the ruins lie a cluster of tanks-Salauti, Suraha, Dudhaila, Kunwa,Balen, Dehar, Lohang, Baijnath and Chandhasna tanks.[5]

Ancient approaches to Nalanda:

Nalanda was located in the suburbs of Rajagriha and in the Pali Buddhist texts the Buddha and his community was reported to travel from Rajagriha to Nalanda. It was also connected to the later Magadhan capital Pataliputra. Actually Nalanda was located at a juncture of a long route starting from Uruvela. From there the Buddha and his crew reached Rajagriha via Gayashisha. From Rajagriha he moved to Nalanda and took a usual halt at the rest stop of Ambalithika. Nalanda was also an important stop of the long trade route connecting Sravasti to Rajagriha. This route continued upto Gaya. There it met with another route connecting Tamralipta and Varanasi.[6] Hiuen Tsang took the route from Mahabodhi to Kukkutapada mountain, 100 li to the north east. Then marching through Buddhavana mountain for about 30 li he reached Yashtivana or Latthivana to finally reach Rahula tope (Rajagriha). Journeying 30 li above from there he reached Nalanda.[7] This convenient position of Nalanda undoubtedly helped its growth.

Climatically Nalanda was located in a very hot zone, because the whole of Magadha belonged to the hot regions of India. It was a convenience for the monks for they did not need much clothings as we learn from I-Tsing.[8]

Footnotes and references:


Thomas Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, Vol. II, edited after his death by T.W. Rhys Davids and S. W. Bushell, London, Royal Asiatic Society, 1905, p.164.


Ibid. p.164.


Hirananda Shastri, Nalanda and its Epigraphic Material, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, Calcutta, 1942, p.3.


Alexander Cunningham, The Ancient Geography of India, The Buddhist period, Delhi, Low price Publications, 1996, pp.396-7.


B. N. Misra, Nalanda, vol.I, New Delhi, B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1998, pp. 168-70.


Ibid, p.167.


T. Watters, op. cit. pp.146, 164


H. D. Sankalia, The University of Nalanda, Delhi, The Oriental Publishers, 1972, pp.44-45

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