VIII. Baragaon or Nâlanda, from Alexander Cunningham's Four reports made during the years, 1862-63-64-65, pages 28-36

The Rediscovery of Nālanda

from Alexander Cunningham's Four reports made during the years, 1862-63-64-65, pages 28-36

Editor's Note: I have retained Cunningham's original spelling, but added modern spellings where deemed necessary (see the text with a dotted underline and hover over the word to find the modern name)

VIII. Baragaon or Nâlanda

[28] Due north from Râjgir, and seven miles distant, lies the village of Baragaon, which is quite surrounded by ancient tanks and ruined mounds, and which possesses finer and more numerous specimens of sculpture than any other place that I have visited. The ruins at Baragaon are so immense, that Dr. Buchanan was convinced it must have been the usual residence of the King; and he was informed by a Jain priest at Bihar that it was the residence of Raja Srenika and his ancestors. By the Brahmans these ruins are said to be the ruins of Kundilpur, a city famed as the birth-place of Rukmini, one of the wives of Krishna. But as Rukmini was the daughter of Raja Bhishma, of Vidarbha, or Berâr, it seems probable that the Brahmans have mistaken Berâr for [the town of] Bihar, which is only seven miles distant from Baragaon. I therefore doubt the truth of this Brahmanical tradition, more especially as I can show beyond all doubt that the remains at Baragaon are the ruins of Nâlanda, the most famous seat of Buddhist learning in all India.

Fa-Hian places the hamlet of Nalo at one yojan, or 7 miles from the Hill of the Isolated Rock, that is, from Giryek, and also the same distance from new Râjagriha. This account agrees exactly with the position of Baragaon, with respect to Giryek and Râjgîr. In the Pali annals of Ceylon also, Nâlanda is stated to be one yojan distant from Râjagriha. Again, Hwen Thsang describes Nâlanda as being 7 yojans, or 49 miles, distant from the holy Pipal tree at Buddha-Gaya, which is correct if measured by the road, the direct distance measured on the map being 40 miles. He also describes it as being about 30 li, or 5 miles, to the north of new Râjagriha. This distance and direction also correspond with the position of Baragaon, if the distance be measured from the most northerly point of the old ramparts. Lastly, in two inscriptions, which I discovered on the spot, the place itself is called Nâlanda. This evidence seems conclusive; but I may add further that the existing ruins, which I am now about to describe, correspond most minutely with the descriptions of Hwen Thsang.

[29] Fa-Hian calls Nâlanda the birth-place of Sâriputra, who was the right hand disciple of Buddha; but this statement is not quite correct, as we learn, from the more detailed account of Hwen Thsang, that Sâriputra was born at Kalapimâka, about half-way between Nâlanda and Indra-Sila Guha, or about 41 miles to the south-east of the former place. Nâlanda has also been called the birth-place of Mahâ Mogalâna, who was the left hand disciple of Buddha; but this is not quite correct, as the great Mogalâna, according to Hwen Thsang, was born at Kulika, 8 or 9 li, less than 1½ mile, to the south-west of Nâlanda. This place I was able to identify with a ruined mound near Jagdispur, at 1¼ mile to the south-west of the ruins of Baragaon.

The mound of Jagdispur is 200 feet square, and of little height, except in the south-east corner, where there is a considerable eminence, 70 feet square. On the southern edge of this height, there is a magnificent Nîm tree, under which several statues have been collected. One of these is the finest and largest piece of sculpture that I have met with. It is a figure of the ascetic Buddha, seated under the Bodhi tree at Buddha-Gaya, and surrounded by horrible demons and alluring females, who are seeking by different means to distract him. On each side other scenes of his life are represented, and over all his Nirvân, or death. A large drawing of this elaborate piece of sculpture is given by Buchanan. The slab is 15 feet high and 9½ feet broad; and, considering the excellence of the sculpture, the multiplicity of the details, and the fine state of preservation, this work is in every way worthy of being preserved by photography. The figure is called Rukmini by the ignorant villagers, who daily smear its forehead and nose with red lead, and pour milk over the mouth. The offering of milk is considered very efficacious; but the most acceptable offering is a goat; and at the time of my visit, the ground was still wet with the blood of a recently killed goat.

The remains at Baragaon consist of numerous masses of brick ruins, amongst which the most conspicuous is a row of lofty conical mounds running north and south. These high mounds are the remains of gigantic temples attached to the famous monastery of Nâlanda. The great monastery itself can be readily traced by the square patches of cultivation [30] amongst a long mass of brick ruins 1,600 feet by 400 feet. These open spaces show the positions of the courtyards of the six smaller monasteries which are described by Hwen Thsang as being situated within one enclosure forming altogether eight courts. Five of the six monasteries were built by five consecutive princes of the same family, and the sixth by their successor, who is called King of Central India. No dates are given; but from the total silence of Fa-Hian regarding any of the magnifcent buildings at Nâlanda, which are so minutely described by Hwen Thsang, I infer that they must have been built after A.D. 410. Fa-Hian simply states that he came to the hamlet of Nalo, "where Sâriputra was born," and this is all that he says of Nâlanda. But surely if the lofty temple of King Bâlâditya, which was 300 feet in height, had then existed, it seems scarcely possible that he should not have noticed it. I would, therefore, assign the probable date of the temples and monasteries of Nâlanda to the two centuries between the visits of Fa-Hian and Hwen Thsang, or from A.D. 425 to 625. This date is further borne out by the fact recorded by Hwen Thsang, that the great temple of Bâlâditya was similar to that near the sacred Pipal tree at Buddha-Gaya. Now, as similarity of style may generally be taken as denoting proximity of date, the erection of Bâlâditya's temple at Nâlanda may, with great probability, be assigned to the same century in which the Buddha-Gaya temple was built. As I have already shown this to be about A. D. 500, the date of the Nâlanda temple will lie between A. D. 450 and 550.

Several inscribed stones lie scattered over the ruins of Bâlâditya's monastery. The letters are only mason's marks, but their forms are those of the 6th and 7th centuries.

To the south of the monastery there was a tank in which the dragon, or Nâga Nâlanda, was said to dwell, and the place was named after him Nâlanda. There is still existing immediately to the south of the ruined monastery a small tank called Kargidya Pokhar, which answers exactly to the position of the Nâlanda tank, and is, I have no doubt, the identical pool of the Nâga.

As the people have no particular names for the different masses of ruin, but simply call them collectively "the mounds," I will, for convenience of description, name each of [31] the principal masses after the ancient tank on its western side. Other mounds will be described with reference to their relative positions with respect to the principal ruins. In my survey of the ruins, I have also attached a letter of the alphabet to each separate mound.

Hwen Thsang begins his account with a vihâr, or temple, just outside the western wall of the monastery, which had been erected on a spot where Buddha had dwelt for three months, explaining the sublime law for the benefit of the gods. This temple I would identify with the ruined mound marked A, still 53 feet in height and from 65 to 70 feet in thickness near the top, and which is situated immediately to the westward of the ruined monastery. It stands to the east of the Punwa tank, and may, therefore, be called the Punwa mound. My excavations, which were carried down to a depth of 17 feet, exposed the straight walls of a temple.

To the south, at 100 paces, there was a small stupa, erected over a spot where a pious mendicant, from a far country, had performed the pancânga, or reverence of the fve members (namely head, hands, and knees) in honour of Buddha. This stupa is well represented by a small mound marked B, which is due south of the Punwa mound.

Still further to the south, there was a statue of Avalokiteswara. As this statue must have had some kind of covering as a shelter from the weather, I believe that it is represented by another small ruined mound, marked C, immediately to the south of the last.

To the south of the statue there was a stupa, containing the hair and nails of Buddha. Sick people recovered their health by making the circuit of this monument. Another mound, marked D, to the east of the Rahela tank, corresponds with the position of this stupa exactly, as it is due south of the last mound C. It is still 20 feet high. I made an excavation in the top, which showed that the mound had been opened previously, as I found nothing but loose rubbish. The solid brickwork on all sides, however, satisfed me that it was the ruin of an ancient stupa.

[32] Outside the western wall of the monastery, and close to a tank, there was another stupa erected on the spot where Buddha had been questioned by a heretic on the subject of life and death. A small mound, marked E, on the east bank of the Balen Tank, corresponds exactly with the position of this stupa.

At a short distance to the east there was a lofty vihâr, 200 feet in height, where Buddha had explained the law for four months. In the position here indicated, there stands the highest and largest of all the mounds, marked F. It is still 60 feet in height, with a diameter of 70 feet at 50 feet above the ground, and of 80 feet at 35 feet above the ground. As the outer edges of the walls are much broken, the original size of this massive building at the ground level cannot have been much less than 90 feet square. To ascertain its probable height, we may compare it with the Great Temple at Buddha-Gaya, which has a base of 50 feet square, and a height of 160 feet. But as the copper-gilt amalaka fruit which once surmounted it no longer exists, the original height cannot have been less than 170 feet. Now, taking the same proportions for the Nâlanda temple, we may deduce the height by simple rule-of-three, thus as 50:170 :: 90:306 feet. It is true that Hwen Thsang states the height at only 200 feet, but there is a discrepancy in his statements of the height of another Nâlanda temple, which leads me to propose correcting the height of that now under discussion to 300 feet. In speaking of the Great Temple erected by Bâlâditya, Hwen Thsang in one place makes it 200 feet high, and in another place 300 feet high. In both accounts the enshrined statue is said to be of Buddha himself, as he appeared under the Bodhi tree, and, as the other large temple also contained a statue of Buddha, it seems highly probable that there has been some confusion between the accounts of the two temples.

I am quite satisfed that the lofty mound marked F. is the ruin of a temple, for I discovered three horizontal air holes, each in the form of a cross, at a height of 35 feet above the ground. They measured respectively 6, 8½, and 11½ feet in length. The last measurement, coupled with the broken state of the brick-work, shows that the walls must have been upwards of 12 feet in thickness. In fact, on the east side, [33] at 50 feet above the ground, the broken wall is still 15 feet thick. Most probably the walls were not less than 20 feet thick at this height, which would leave an interior chamber 30 feet square. There is now a great hollow in the centre of this mound, which I would recommend to be further excavated down to the ground level, as I think it highly probable that both statues and inscriptions of much interest would be discovered. Perhaps the colossal statue of Buddha, the teacher now standing at the foot of mound H., may have been originally enshrined in this temple.

This mound was subsequently excavated by order of Government under the superintendencc of Captain Marshall. The temple stood on a plinth I2 feet high above the ground level, forming a terrace I5 feet wide all round. The inner room is 20 feet square, with an entrance hall on the east side. The walls, which are of extreme thickness, are built of large bricks laid in mud. There are few remains of plaster, but the lower walls appear to be sound, but externally they are much cracked. The remains of the pedestal occupy nearly the whole west half of the inner room, but there were no traces of any statues. Pieces of broken statues were, however, found in the entrance hall. A portion of the entrance is of more modern date, the same as at Bodh-Gaya. Captain Marshall closes his account of the explorations with the following opinion, which seems to be well founded: "The general appearance of the building, viz., the false doorway, the abstraction of the idols, and the absence of inside plaster, all give me the notion of the building having been made use of after the glories of the temple had passed away, and then to have fallen to pieces by neglect and consequent decay."

In the north-east corner of the square terrace that surrounds this massive ruin, I found the remains of several small stupas, in dark blue stone of various sizes, from 10 to 30 feet in height. The ornamental carvings are still in good order, many of them being very elaborate. Rows after rows of Buddhas of all sizes are the most favourite decoration. The solid hemispherical domes are from 1 foot to 4 feet in diameter. The basement and body of each stupa were built of separate stones, which were numbered for the guidance of the builders, and cramped together with iron to secure greater durability. No amount of time, and not even an earthquake, could have destroyed these small buildings. Their solid walls of iron-bound stones could only have yielded to the destructive fury of malignant Brahmans. I tried to complete a single stupa, but I soon found that several pieces were missing. I believe, however, that a complete one might be obtained by a careful search about the village temples, around the Jain temple, and in the small court-yard opposite Mitrajit's house. If one could he obtained complete, or nearly so, it would form a most striking and ornamental addition to the Calcutta Museum.

[34] A short distance to the north of the Great Vihâr, there was another temple containing a statue of the Bodhisatwa Avalokiteswara. This Saint is the same as the Padma-pâni of the Tibetans, and is always represented with a lotus in his hand. An extensive low mound, marked G., immediately to the north of the great mound, corresponds exactly with the situation of this temple.

To the north of the last temple there was a grand vihâr, built by Bâlâditya, containing a statue of the ascetic Buddha. The height, as I have already noticed, is differently stated by Hwen Thsang at 200 and 300 feet. The lesser height I believe to be the correct one, more especially as Hwen Thsang mentions that in its magnifcence, its size, and its statue of Buddha, it resembled the Great Temple at Buddha-Gaya. As this last was 170 feet in height, Bâlâditya's Vihâr might very fairly be said to resemble it in size, if it was 200 feet high; but if it was 300 feet in height, there could have been no resemblance whatever in the dimensions of a temple that was nearly twice as lofty. A mound, marked H., to the east of the Dehar Tank, corresponds exactly with the situation of this temple. It is still 45 feet in height, with a breadth of 50 feet at top from edge to edge of brick-work. As the facing has disappeared on all sides, the original breadth, at the ground level, could not have been less than 60 feet; and if the relative proportions were the same as those of the Buddha-Gaya Temple, the height of this temple must have been 204 feet, or say, in round numbers, 200 feet, exactly as stated by Hwen Thsang. There is a colossal statue of the ascetic Buddha in a small court-yard called Baithak Bhairav at the foot of this mound, which, in all probability, was the original statue enshrined in Bâlâditya's Vihâr.

Four other buildings and statues, which I have been unable to identify, are next mentioned by Hwen Thsang, who then goes on to describe a brick vihâr containing a very lofty copper statue of Tara Bodhisatwa. This was situated at 2 or 3 li to the north of the monastery, that is, between one-third and one-half of a mile. Now, at a distance of 2,000 feet to the north of the monastery, and to the east of the Suraj Pokhar, there is a brick ruin of a very large temple, marked N. From its close proximity to the village, this ruin has supplied materials for all the existing houses, and is [35] consequently of much smaller dimensions than those which have been already described. But the removal of the bricks has exposed the actual walls of the temple in several places; and, by making a few excavations, I was able to determine the exact dimensions of the base of this temple. It was 70½ feet by 67 feet, and it stood on a raised terrace 6 feet in height and 125 feet square. If the relative proportion of base to height was the same as that of the Buddha-Gaya Temple, the height of this temple could not have been less than 228 or 240 feet, according to which side of the base is taken for the calculation.

Hwen Thsang also mentions a large well which was just within the gateway on the south side of the surrounding walls of this vihâr. Now, there is a large well, marked P., imme- diately on the south side of the ruined mound above described, which must be the very one noticed by Hwen Thsang as having owed its origin to Buddha himself.

There are many other objects worthy of notice at Baragaon, which I can only briefy enumerate: 1st, The sculptures collected in the enclosure at Baithak Bhairav, marked M. 2nd, The colossal figure of the ascetic Buddha at S. This statue is remarkable for having the names of the attendant figures inscribed over their heads. Thus we have Arya Sâriputra and Arya Maudgalâyana inscribed over two flying figures carrying garlands; and Arya Mitreyanâtha and Arya Vasumitra over two attendant standing fgures. An inscription in two lines on the back rail of the seat gives the usual Buddhist formula [Ye dharmâ hetuprabhavâ, hetu? te?â? tathâgata? hyavadat, te?â? ca yo nirodha, eva? vâdî mahâsrama?a?], and adds that the statue was "the pious gift of Ganggakâ (a lady who had attained the religious rank of paramopâsikâ.) This statue is well worthy of being photographed. 3rd, A small temple, marked T., with a fgure of the three-headed goddess Vajrâ-Varâhi. The Buddhist formula is inscribed on this fgure, which is evidently one of those mistaken by Major Kittoe for Durgâ slaying the buffalo demon Maheshasur. The goddess has one porcine head, and there are seven hogs represented on the pedestal. 4th, A life-size ascetic Buddha in the village of Baragaon, and a number of smaller figures at an adjacent Hindu temple, and also at the house of Mitrajit Zamindar. 5th, Two low mounds to the north of the village marked V., one having a four-armed image of Vishnu on Garud, and the [36] other having two figures of Buddha seated on chairs. The former must clearly have belonged to a Brahmanical temple. 6th, Three statues at W., near the Târ Sing Tank, of which two are females and one a male fgure seated with hands on knees. 7th, The small temple in the hamlet of Kapatiya, marked X., where there are several interesting figures collected. Amongst them there is a fne Vajrâ Varâhi, and a very good Vâgiswari, with an important inscription in two lines, which gives the name of the place Nâlanda, and is dated in the year 1 of the reign of the paramount sovereign Sri Gopala Deva. 8th, A large mound at Y., which looked like a ruined stupa. I sank a shaft 20 feet deep in the centre of the mound, and found that it was filled with rubbish. If, therefore, it was a stupa, it had been opened long before; but I am inclined to believe that it was a temple, as a large stone was found in the excavation at a depth of 13 feet. 9th, A Jain temple at Z., which is only remarkable as being of the same style of architecture as the Great Temple at Buddha-Gaya. It is probably of about the same age, or A.D. 500. Its present height is only 36 feet without the pinnacle, which is modern. The whole is white-washed. Inside the temple there are several Jain fgures, of which that of Mahâvîr bears the date of Samvat 1504, or A. D. 1447. 10th, On the banks of the Suraj-kund many interesting fIgures are collected. They are chiefly Buddhist, but there are also some fgures of Vishnu four-armed, of the Varâha Avatâr, of Siva and Pârvati, and also of Surya himself.

I cannot close this account of the ancient Nâlanda without mentioning the noble tanks which surround the ruins on all sides. To the north-east are the Gidi Pokhar and the Pansokar Pokhar, each nearly a mile in length; while to the south there is the Indra Pokhar, which is nearly half a mile in length. The remaining tanks are much smaller in size, and do not require any special notice.