Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Archaeological Layout of the Monastic Site (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 6 - Archaeological Layout of the Monastic Site (of Nalanda)

The archaeological site of Nalanda, located near the village of Baragaon was originally identified by Alexander Cunningham,[1] this village is located 55 miles south-east of Patna and 7 miles north of Rajgir. The village of Baragaon is just two miles from modern Nalanda railway station of Bakhtiyarpur-Bihar light railway route.[2] In his pioneering work he found a large number of archaeological evidence and mainly took the lead from Hiuen Tsang’s description of the place. The area of the whole monastic complex is 1600 feet in the north-south and 800 feet in the east-west. It contains a large number of stupas and viharas under debris. Notably, all these structures were made of bricks and not stone. It is interesting to note that a long central avenue running straight in north-south direction, divides structures, lying in the west from those in the east. The stupas were built in successive levels, one built over the ruin of the other. Though the dating of these levels is not definite they were not built before 6th century CE. But the close association of the site with the Buddha and his associates claims an older antiquity.[3] We find a greater concentration of monastic buildings in the southern portion of the complex. They themselves formed the southern boundary of the whole complex, but no such massive wall as to enclose such an establishment as expected and as described by Hiuen Tsang could be seen.[4]

In the initial effort Cunningham found that the remains at Baragaon covers an area of two miles in length and one mile in breadth and is mainly consisted of large brick ruins, of which a row of conical mounds arranged in north-south draws quick attention. He thinks these mounds are the remains of colossal temples attached to the monastery of Nalanda. This great monastery can easily be identified by a long brick ruin sizing 1600 feet by 400 feet and the square patches of cultivation inside this brick mass. The open spaces form the court yards of the six small monasteries built by the kings of the same lineage as described by Hiuen Tsang. However no date of their construction was given by Hiuen Tsang. Cunningham, from the total silence of Fa-Hien about them and Hiuen Tsang’s eloquent mention concludes that they were built up within the visits of these two Chinese pilgrims i.e. between 450- 550 CE. This great monastery described by Cunningham is probably monastery site 3, the largest of all the existing monasteries. To the south of this site there is a tank, known as the Kargidya pokhar. Cunningham thinks that this is the same tank mentioned by Hiuen Tsang where the legendary dragon Nalanda resided. Cunningham saw different ruins which were never attended before by any specialist and hence collectively known as “the mounds” by local people. He named important masses alphabetically on the west of the tank.[5] Cunningham’s plan, for the first time provides a sketch of the remains at Nalanda. He had identified as many as eight mounds and marked them up to the letter H. He admits there are at least four more buildings mentioned by Hiuen Tsang that he could not identify. The Chinese pilgrim speaks of a brick vihar having the copper statue of Tara Bodhisatva, which is located at more than half a mile of Baladitya’s vihar. Cunningham saw a brick vihar at a distance of 2000 feet to the north of the monastery and to the east of the Suraj Pokhar which he marked N. But he was not sure if this was the same mentioned by the pilgrim. For the continuous brick removal by the nearby villagers the temple is in a quite depleted state. Again Hiuen Tsang mentions a large well within the gateway of the southern wall. Now to the south of the just mentioned mound there is a large well and Cunningham thinks this is the one noticed by Hiuen Tsang. He marked it P. Apart from these structural remains Cunningham found many other artefacts and statues on the site.[6]

Monastery 3:

Many surveys followed after this and attained considerable progress in finding out the antiquities of the site. Altogether fourteen temple sites were discovered on the spot. Among them site 3 is the largest and most important. In 1916-17, for the first time the work of excavation of the site was undertaken.[7] Approaching through the central avenue, already mentioned one may see the temple at the extreme south in a row of temples.[8] This is the one marked by Cunningham as mound F. It is a free standing solid structure, in an open court and surrounded by many votive stupas built. Cunningham also speaks of similar smaller stupas made of blue stone.

The stupas concentrated more on the west than on the east of the main stupa. When examined, these stupas revealed at least three different strata. The third and the outermost layer was the latest as represented by a pavement joining some of the stupas. In the interior the older strata are found.[9] The main stupa itself was built over and again and revealed as many as seven strata. The first three layers are buried deep under the mound. Four upper strata can be seen and they are extensively built over the ruin of the earlier mounds. Nevertheless they were not erected arbitrarily. Every layer was built in a fashion to cover or envelope the last layer over which it was built. The same style was followed in every successive layer built.

Three different staircases to the north belonging to the fifth, sixth and seventh levels were built. The last two stairs covered the staircase built in the fifth stage. The lowermost and the oldest stratum appears to be an important building from the elaborate and ornamental decoration of the verandah of the courtyard. A fine range of stucco facing with heavy ornamentation was discovered in this layer. But it is difficult to determine the precise nature of the building.

Some of the votive stupas around the main site were opened from top and they displayed some relief works on bricks and some Buddhist inscriptions[10] of 6th century CE. So the fifth temple belongs to the Gupta period. But the original foundation over which it was built surely have been laid down at least two centuries earlier. It is very important to note that all the excavations done in this particular site under the supervision of A.S.I. indicate that originally there were four strata instead of three as commonly believed.

Three outer layers -fifth, sixth and seventh levels were constructed at a much later date, at least 6th century CE. this notion was developed because of a tiny piece of a ‘black glazed pot’ retrieved from the earth filling of a later chamber belonging to the 3rd layer seems to fall in the NBPW or BSW phases, hence giving a faint implication of a much more earlier antiquity for monastery 3. However more findings in this line can support and corroborate this view.[11] With every new layer built the earth and debris accumulations increased and the level of the courtyard rose to bury some of the votive stupas in different layers.[12] Since the stupa was located to the extreme south therefore the search for the original boundary wall of the whole complex was done by Mr. page on the west of the stupa site, just off the pond. But he was not satisfied with the wall because it is unimpressive, low and broken in several places. Thus it does not match with the idea of such wall that is expected to enclose a town.[13]

Monastery 1 The monastery site no 1 was the most important among the monastery group and most vividly excavated and preserved. It revealed as many as nine levels of occupation including two subsidiary levels located in the central chaitya. These layers were marked alphabetically from below.[14] The ninth level of occupation belonged to the 7th century. Other occupational levels also were not made before this time. Like site 3, here also the successive buildings were made in a fashion to cover up the earlier structure. Remains like fragmentary walls, paving and others it appears that several structures built on the same spot belonged mostly to 7th to 12th centuries.[15] The Archaeological Survey of India undertook the work of repair and renovation of different superimposed levels. Located on the east of site 3 this monastery can be entered through a large portico later turned into a porch with an antechamber. This door is flanked by numerous stucco figures though badly damaged by fire.[16]

On the uppermost level of this monastery at an irregular line, roughly 3 to 4 feet above pavement level, monks’ cells were discovered. Recessed concrete couches for the monks were also seen into the angles. These were probably done to accommodate the personal belongings of the monks.[17] A staircase made of bricks joining the internal court at the lowest level to the verandah of the 4th level this is also proved could be seen.[18] to investigate that any other lower stratum is being missed out in course of excavation below the 9th level (starting from below) some pits were sunk in several places and it was found that the 9th was the oldest among all the strata and its foundations are submerged under water.

One thing that does not miss notice is that the whole structure was entirely brick made, though in original construction much timber might have been used for columns and roofs. The site yields a large amount of ashes, potsherds, heavy brick debris, and natural earth accumulation implying use of wood in the construction and outbreak of fire responsible for the destruction of some layers of the monastery leading to abandonment and reoccupation of the site.[19]

Monastery site 1A and 1B:

The twin monasteries marked 1A and 1B are located to the east of monastery 3 and to the north east of monastery 1. The southern or the rear wall of this monastery disappeared totally. However the destroyed walls in the north and the west were repaired to a certain extent and this latter wall separated monastery A and B. The outer wall of the south side had a range of cells for the residence of bhikshus. In site A, a low concrete parapet of the terrace was found. It enclosed the quadrangular court inside. In this court some pillars were also seen they gave an idea that of other missing pillars. Perhaps many such pillars and their stone bases are lost forever.[20] A possibility of an earlier occupational level comes from a brick pavement and a concrete remain corresponding to an earlier stratum found in the brick paved courtyard. The two levels share the same plan. Only the second one was built on a higher level. In the base level some pits were discovered, though they did not belong to any earlier time.

Outer walls of monastery site 1 and 1A are so intricately intersected and overlie each other in the north-eastern corner that it is difficult to distinguish them. Monastery 1 was a square. On its ruin monastery 1A was built and hence had a square shape. On its ruin monastery 1 was rebuilt on the same site. The same process was repeated not less than five times, though the original square shape was retained. Three of these levels may be found in monastery1 and two in 1A. So many overlapped buildings on the same site really make it complex to look at. The height of the site was 20 feet altogether.[21]

Another small monastery, oblong in shape is found pressed between stupa3 and monastery1A. This one attached to 1A to its east and was enclosed by extension of the western wall of 1A. This monastery was marked 1B. Plan wise it follows the general layout of other monasteries, though in a smaller size. It had an open space enclosed by a colonnaded terrace. Behind this terrace there are small, square chambers for the accommodation of monks. On the south side there is a sanctum. The entrance is from the north. This entrance was cleared, an earlier occupational level was revealed, some seven feet below the level of the verandah paving and equal to the external brick paved area, just in front of the monastery. A later built stair case connects this paved area to the higher level of the structure.[22] Walls of this monastery, in most cases are broken and ruined. They were repaired to a height of eight feet in the southern side to five feet in the west. This monastery too, on excavation showed one more earlier occupational level in the lower concrete pavement in the monks’ cells enclosing the colonnaded inner court.

Though pits were discovered in the lower level, six feet below than the upper, did not belong to any earlier period. So, only two occupational levels were found in this site.

Some other pits lying close to 1 A, had to undergo successive destruction and construction. On close examination these pits implied chronologically 1B was a predecessor of 1A. Later form the relative levels of outer walls it became apparent that among these twin monasteries 1B predated 1A. Later both had their phases of destruction and construction.[23]

Monastery 4:

Near site 1 another monastery was excavated in 1922-23. It was numbered 4. The site had interesting features. It is fallen from the upper verandah roof. From the debris of the upper layer a concrete parapet was discovered, probably fell into the courtyard during the burning of the building. Lot of timbers were used in the construction of this monastery testified by a large amount of ash and charcoal found on the site. That year a drain running along the eastern wall and carrying surface waterwasfound.[24]

Next year i.e. in 1923-24 at least three drains on the same spot each of a depth of 16 feet were found directed to the north. These were arranged vertically beneath the other and thus acted as an outlet for the drainage of the courtyard of the monastery. Slightly northward another drain was discovered.

The site had a colonnaded terrace, though later filled up. Here excavation proves that four sequential occupational levels were present. The north-west corner of the verandah belonging to the second level shows here also the same pattern of destruction and construction was followed. In the north-east corner of the courtyard, a deep pit was found, confirming the existence of four brick pavements at ten, sixteen and eighteen feet below the topmost concrete paving of the courtyard. Barring the second pavement, the rest are clearly visible. When the east side was cleared down to 34 feet below the topmost paving, four separate pavements were seen.

The entrance of the monastery was in the west. The entrance vestibule contemporaneous with adjacent verandah of the second level is just the same in appearance, like the monastery 1. Here also the entrance was provided with an external staircase joining the lowest level to the highest level and subsequent levels. At the centre of the courtyard a deep and narrow well was discovered. The well was 33 feet deeper than the water level. In the entrance of this well many chatis (rest houses) were discovered. They are quite well preserved though at least thousand year old.[25]

Monastery 5:

In 1923-24, after removal of huge earth and debris down to eight feet, the tip of monastery 5 was exposed. The monastery had a courtyard. On the three sides of this courtyard structures were erected. The fourth and the eastern wall was common to monastery 4 and 5. In fact, through the south east corner of the upper monastery in site 4 the site 5 may be approached by a large staircase built on the south verandah of this monastery.[26] Entering through the doorways, a number of square shaped cells or chambers with their openings on the side of inner court may be found. Probably they were annexes to other residential buildings and served as rest houses for visiting monks. Similar cells were built on this east wall. Probably they were used as store rooms and accessed through an opening in the roof. No chaitya or any other sort of sanctuary was discovered in this site. Though this site had three distinct levels (the lowermost is represented by a brick pavement in the inner court), yet it is difficult to ascertain the real purpose of this site.[27]

Monastery 6:

From the open space in front of the rows of monasteries moving northward the monastery site 6 is reached. The site had two occupational levels signified by two brick paved courts. Of them the lower one was the former and over its ruins, the upper monastery was built. One thing that draws attention was two sets of double ovens without drains, probably used for some practical demonstrations for students. The monastery had a well common to both occupational levels and a staircase in the south-west corner.

Monastery 7:

Having three occupational levels on the same site, this monastery was separated from the earlier one by a passage. Three successive monasteries were built on the same site, following the same plan. Here three layers are clearly distinguishable by the square bases of each level. On the verandah, parapets for supporting pillars were seen. The upper court was a concrete paved, while the lower one was brick paved. The site had a west facing staircase and an oven. The fully excavated southern portion did not show any traces of a well.

Monastery 8:

The layout and appearance of this monastery conforms the general pattern of monasteries of the place. The monastery is spacious and had two occupational levels. On e of the doorways of a cell in the south-east corner managed to retain its original height and appearance.

Monastery 9:

The monastery had usual courtyard and cells. The open space at the north end of the western verandah was blocked up for a cell which had a six feet high corbelled door. The site had a number of drains. The original one, covered with stone slabs, starting from the north east corner ran along the eastern verandah up to an open space to the east of the building. Another drain, starting from the north east corner, later joins this one-probably the first one was no longer usable. Six ovens were found in the courtyard. In the south west corner there was a staircase. Burnt woods were found on the steps on the stair showing that they were originally made with wood and destroyed by fire.

Monastery 10:

Only two features of this monastery that draw attention were the arched doors made of mud mortar rather than wood, found in the south west and north east corners and eastern external wall of this monastery had a door that can be opened both from north and south. From the back of the building communications might be done. Later these doors were blocked.

Monastery 11:

Located near the cultivated space this monastery was badly damaged with the northern portion of it completely ruined. Whatever could be retrieved on the site shows presence of at least twenty five pillars, found in the verandah in regular intervals of 4 to 5 feet. Their average height might be 7 feet. A staircase was discovered in the south west with an aperture for light to come in.[28]

The excavated monasteries follow a general pattern of layout and appearance. Most monasteries had more than one occupational levels built on the same spot. Sometimes seven or even nine layers were also visible (monastery 1 and 3). Such levels were built in a manner to envelope or cover the earlier stratum. Often these structures are intertwined and the later one superimposed over the first one, as in the case of intertwined wall of monastery1 and 1A. It is indicative of the fact that when some layers were destroyed partially or fully for some reason, new structures were built by making use of undestroyed portion or new structures were built over the ruin of the previous. In both cases traces of old structure were found in the form of pits, parapets, beams, pillars, ruined staircases or defunct drains. The last one may be found in monastery 9. Most monasteries had one or the other of following components. They had a central courtyard, usually with a large shrine. This courtyard was surrounded by residential cells for the monks. They had a decorated verandah, a brick paved or concrete paved entrance usually in the west (with the exception of 1a and 1B) and a large staircase in the south west connecting many layers of the buildings. Generally monasteries had their sewage system in the east. In some cases these monasteries had a well, store rooms or even ovens in the courtyard to cater to their different needs. Lots of charred woods discovered in many of the sites indicate to a sudden outbreak of fire and consequent desertion of the site. Later however inhabitants returned to their sites. That process of leaving and reoccupation partially explains why successive layers were built on the same site.

Footnotes and references:


Alexander Cunningham, Archaeological Report,1861-62, Archaeological Survey of India in Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Delhi, Rahul Publishing House, 1994,p.28.


A.Ghosh, Nalanda, New Delhi, Archaeological Survey of India,1959, p.1


Annual Report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24, ed. Sir John Marshall, Central Circle -Nalanda, Mr. J. R. Page, Delhi, 1990, p.70.


Annual Report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1922-23, ed. D. B. Spooner, Central Circle -Bihar, Delhi, 1990, p.106.


Alexander Cunningham, op. cit. pp.29-30


Ibid, pp.34- 35


Annual Report, Archaeological Survey of India, ed. Sir John Marshall, Delhi, 1990, Eastern Circle, Nalanda, p.15


A. Ghosh, op.cit. p.15


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1917- 18, ed. D.B. Spooner, Delhi, 1990, p.26


Annual Report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1922- 23, op.cit. p.106


B.R. mani, Excavations of Stupa site no 3 at Nalanda and early chronological evidence, C. Mani ed., The Heritage of Nalanda, New delhi, 2008, pp.18-19.


A. Ghosh, op.cit. p.16


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24, op cit. p.74.


Ibid, p.24.


Ibid, pp. 24, 71.


A. Ghosh, op.cit. p.17.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24, op. cit. p. 24.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1922-23 op.cit. pp. 28-29.


Ibid, pp.28-29.


Ibid, p.29.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24 op.cit. c.71.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1922-23 op.cit. pp. 105-06.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24 op.cit. pp. 71-72.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1922-23 op.cit. p.107.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24 op.cit. pp. 72- 73.


A. Ghosh op. cit. p.21.


Annual report, Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-24 op.cit. pp.73- 74


A. Ghosh op.cit. pp. 22-25.

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