Discover the World’s Oldest University, Which Opened in 427 CE, Housed 9 Million Manuscripts, and Then Educated Students for 800 Years

In the Bud­dhist Asia of a dozen cen­turies ago, the equiv­a­lent of going off to study at an Ivy League school was going off to study at Nalan­da. It was found­ed in the year 427 in what’s now the Indi­an state of Bihar, mak­ing it “the world’s first res­i­den­tial uni­ver­si­ty,” as Sug­a­to Mukher­jee writes at BBC trav­el. As it devel­oped, Nalan­da became a “home to nine mil­lion books that attract­ed 10,000 stu­dents from across East­ern and Cen­tral Asia. They gath­ered here to learn med­i­cine, log­ic, math­e­mat­ics and – above all – Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples from some of the era’s most revered schol­ars.”

Alas, despite being much old­er than the famous­ly ven­er­a­ble uni­ver­si­ties of Bologna, Oxford, or Cam­bridge, Nalan­da can’t claim to have been in con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion since the fifth cen­tu­ry. Destroyed by maraud­ers dur­ing Turko-Afghan gen­er­al Bakhti­yar Khilji’s con­quest of north­ern and east­ern India in the 1190s, its vast cam­pus lay in obscure ruins until Scot­tish sur­vey­or Fran­cis Buchanan-Hamil­ton and British Army engi­neer Sir Alexan­der Cun­ning­ham redis­cov­ered and iden­ti­fied it, respec­tive­ly, in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

In its near­ly eight cen­turies of ini­tial activ­i­ty, writes Mukher­jee, Nalan­da attract­ed pro­to-inter­na­tion­al stu­dents from all over Asia, and “reg­u­lar­ly sent some of its best schol­ars and pro­fes­sors to places like Chi­na, Korea, Japan, Indone­sia and Sri Lan­ka to prop­a­gate Bud­dhist teach­ings and phi­los­o­phy.” Its notable fac­ul­ty mem­bers includ­ed Aryab­ha­ta, “the father of Indi­an math­e­mat­ics,” who may have been its head in the sixth cen­tu­ry, and Chi­nese Bud­dhist monk Xuan­zang, who returned to his home­land in 645 with “a wag­onload of 657 Bud­dhist scrip­tures from Nalan­da.” Lat­er “he would trans­late a por­tion of these vol­umes into Chi­nese to cre­ate his life’s trea­tise.”

Image by Sum­it­surai, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Of the nine mil­lion hand­writ­ten Bud­dhist man­u­scripts in Nalan­da’s library at the time of its destruc­tion, “only a hand­ful” sur­vived. Some of them even­tu­al­ly made their way to the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art, a fit­ting enough trib­ute to the world-span­ning out­look of the insti­tu­tion. Not far from its orig­i­nal loca­tion, now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, Nalan­da is mak­ing a come­back as an inter­na­tion­al place of learn­ing for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. You can get a sense of how that project is shap­ing up from the BBC Reel video above. “I think we are already a uni­ver­si­ty of the future,” says its Vice Chan­cel­lor Sunaina Singh, and indeed, a promis­ing vision of the future needs noth­ing quite so much as a suf­fi­cient­ly deep past.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Intro­duc­tion to Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course

The Most Dis­tant Places Vis­it­ed by the Romans: Africa, Scan­di­navia, Chi­na, India, Ara­bia & Oth­er Far-Flung Lands

Learn the His­to­ry of Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy in a 62 Episode Series from The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps: The Bud­dha, Bha­gavad-Gita, Non Vio­lence & More

One of the Old­est Bud­dhist Man­u­scripts Has Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Explore the Gand­hara Scroll

How 99% of Ancient Lit­er­a­ture Was Lost

The Largest Free Kitchen in the World: Dis­cov­er India’s Gold­en Tem­ple Which Serves 100,000 Free Meals Per Day

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Shaukat Hameed Khan says:

    Pls do remem­ber the teach­ing monastery at Jau­lian (Jau­lian means ‘Seat of Saints’).

    This is a major site of Gand­hara civ­i­liza­tion, and is sit­u­at­ed about 35 km from Islam­abad along the old Silk Road. It dates from the 2nd cen­tu­ry CE and now a UNESCO World Her­itage Site too. Bud­dhism spread to Chi­na from here … Fa Hiean and Yuan Chuang were the ear­li­est con­verts to Bud­dhism and they trav­elled back to Chi­na.

    Nalan­da is no doubt well known, but it came a cou­ple of cen­turies lat­er.
    We are unfor­tu­nate­ly wit­ness­ing a re-writ­ing of South Asian his­to­ry.… every thing emanat­ed from India !

  • Faisal says:

    I guess the old­est uni­ver­si­ty was run by Brah­mins at Tax­i­la and vis­it­ed by Alexan­der.

  • Pratik says:

    Yes. Every­thing did emanate from India. But now we have to call it “South Asia” because the mas­ters at Har­vard say so.

  • Sam says:

    Haha­ha­ha. No it did­n’t.

  • Nabeena Srikanth says:

    Pkease research tge ori­gin more. It was not just a Bud­dhist uni­ver­si­ty. It exist­ed before Bud­dha lived. This was a Hin­du uni­ver­si­ty which wel­comed the inclu­sion of Bud­dhist works. The mus­lims came in and destroyed it. They lit the libraries on fire to destroy the knowl­edge hin­duism is based on in hope of thus destroy­ing the prac­tice. Thanks to the strength of Hin­duism it still sur­vives.

  • Gidwin says:

    That part of the World was dom­i­nat­ed by Hin­duism; the Bud­dhist we’re not the ones who insti­tut­ed the Library, nei­ther did they man­age it over that 800 years; Bud­dhism exist­ed in that region as minor­i­ty who lat­ter be forced out of India all togeth­er. I’m con­fused about the open­ing to the Arti­cle.

  • Gidwin says:

    Lot of typos, but it is accu­rate. Even at it’s high in India, it was only one reli­gious order, amongst oth­ers.

  • Kes Yaqob says:

    The above arti­cle is incor­rect and ranks full of bias­ness, Tim­buk­tu is the place with the old­est Uni­ver­si­ty and hous­es the most and old man­u­scripts it would do you good to car­ry truth­ful and hon­est research with­out bias­ness remem­ber the Holi­est Riv­er in India is named after an Ethiopi­an King and India itself was part of the Ancient Ethiopi­an Empire, Peace and Love.

  • Tarek Roy says:

    Mus­lims nev­er burn libraries or crops. Mon­gols and Hin­dus love to burn every­thing, even wid­ows.

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