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8 Ancient Universities That Flourished Across Ancient India

In ancient times India was a center of higher learning as it is one of the oldest civilization in the world. Hence, historically, universities and libraries were a big part of Indus-Valley civilization. The two famous ancient universities from India and the oldest universities in the world are Takshashila (Taxila) and Nalanda. But these were not the only knowledge centers that existed in ancient India. Education has always been given great prominence in Indian society since the times of the Vedic civilization, with Gurukul and ashrams being the centers of learning. And with evolving times, a large number of centers of learning were established across ancient India of which Takshashila and Nalanda are the most famous ones known today. Here is the list of major ancient universities that flourished across ancient India.

1. Nalanda

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Nalanda is located in the Indian state of Bihar, about 55 miles south-east of Patna, and was a Buddhist center of learning from 427 to 1197 CE. It has also been called “one of the first great universities in recorded history. It a large Buddhist monastery in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as China, Greece, and Persia. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex. However, it was later sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193, a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India.

Nalanda University was established by Shakraditya of Gupta dynasty in modern Bihar during the early 5th century and flourished for 600 years till the 12th century. The library of this university was the largest library of the ancient world and had thousands of volumes of manuscripts on various subjects like grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The library complex was called Dharmaganja and had three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. Ratnadadhi was nine stories tall and stored the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.

In 2010, the parliament of India passed a bill approving the plans to restore the ancient Nalanda University as a modern Nalanda International University dedicated for post-graduate research. Many East Asian countries including China, Singapore, and Japan have come forward to fund the construction of this revived Nalanda University. According to the Kevatta Sutta, in the Buddha’s time, Nalanda was already an influential and prosperous town, thickly populated, though it was not until later that it became the center of learning for which it afterward became famous. Mahavira is several times mentioned as staying at Nalanda, which was evidently a center of activity of the Jains.

Nalanda was very likely ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Mamluk Dynasty of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate under Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1200 CE.[20] While some sources note that the Mahavihara continued to function in a makeshift fashion for a while longer, it was eventually abandoned and forgotten until the 19th century when the site was surveyed and preliminary excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. Systematic excavations commenced in 1915 which unearthed eleven monasteries and six brick temples neatly arranged on grounds 12 hectares (30 acres) in the area. A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions have also been discovered in the ruins many of which are on display in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum situated nearby. Nalanda is now a notable tourist destination and a part of the Buddhist tourism circuit.

2. Takshashila

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Ranked as the top tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian newspaper in 2006. Taxila or Takshashila was an ancient capital city of the Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara and a center of learning, what is now North-Western Pakistan. Taxila was an early center of learning dating back to at least the 5th century BCE. It is considered a place of religious and historical sanctity by Hindus and Buddhists and was the seat of Vedic learning where the emperor Chandragupta Maurya was taken there by Chanakya to learn in the institution. The institution is very significant in Buddhist tradition since it is believed that the Mahayana sect of Buddhism took shape there.

Taxila is known from references in Indian and Greco-Roman literary sources and from the accounts of two Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang. According to the Indian epic Ramayana, by Bharata, younger brother of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The city was named for Bharata’s son Taksha, its first ruler. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great center of learning. Greek historians accompanying the Macedonian conqueror described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed.” Taxila was situated at the pivotal junction of South Asia and Central Asia. Its origin as a city goes back to c. 1000 BCE. Some ruins at Taxila date to the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE followed successively by Mauryan, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Kushan periods. Owing to its strategic location, Taxila has changed hands many times over the centuries, with many empires vying for its control. When the great ancient trade routes connecting these regions ceased to be important, the city sank into insignificance and was finally destroyed by the nomadic Hunas in the 5th century. The archaeologist Alexander Cunningham rediscovered the ruins of Taxila in the mid-19th century.

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Some scholars date Takshashila’s existence back to the 6th century BCE or 7th century BCE.It became a noted center of learning at least several centuries before Christ and continued to attract students from around the old world until the destruction of the city in the 5th century CE. Takshashila is perhaps best known because of its association with Chanakya. The famous treatise Arthashastra (Sanskrit for The knowledge of Economics) by Chanakya, is said to have been composed in Takshashila itself. Chanakya (or) Kautilya the Maurya Emperor Chandragupta and the Ayurvedic healer Charaka studied at Taxila.

Generally, a student entered Takshashila at the age of sixteen. The Vedas and the Eighteen Arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to its law school, medical school, and school of military science.

3. Vikramashila

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Vikramashila was one of the two most important centers of Buddhist learning in India during the Pala Empire. Vikramashila was established by King Dharmapala (783 to 820) in response to a supposed decline in the quality of scholarship at Nalanda and flourished for 400 years till 12th century until it was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200. Atisha, the renowned Pandita, is sometimes listed as a notable abbot. Vikramashila (village Antichak, district Bhagalpur, Bihar) is located at about 50 km east of Bhagalpur and about 13 km north-east of Kahalgaon, a railway station on Bhagalpur-Sahebganj section of Eastern Railway. It is approachable through 11 km long motorable road diverting from NH-80 at Anadipur about 2 km from Kahalgaon. Interestingly, it gave direct competition to Nalanda University with over 100 teachers and over 1000 students listed in this University.

This university was well known for its specialized training on the subject of Tantra (Tantrism). One of the most popular graduates from this University was Atiśa Dipankara, a founder of the Sharma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who also revived the Buddhism in Tibet.

The remains of the ancient university have been partially excavated in Bhagalpur district, Bihar state, India, and the process are still underway. Meticulous excavation at the site was conducted initially by B. P. Sinha of Patna University (1960–69) and subsequently by Archaeological Survey of India (1972–82). It has revealed a huge square monastery with a cruciform stupa in its center, a library building and cluster of votive stupas. To the north of monastery, a number of scattered structures including a Tibetan and a Hindu temple have been found. The entire spread is over an area of more than one hundred acres.

4. Valabhi

Valabhi University was established in Saurashtra of modern Gujarat at around 6th century and it flourished for 600 years till the 12th century. The University of Valabhi was an important center of Buddhist learning and championed the cause of Hinayana Buddhism between 600 CE and 1200 CE. Chinese traveler Itsing who visited this university during the 7th century describes it as a great center of learning. For some time, the university was so good that it was even considered to be a rival to Nalanda, in Bihar, in the field of education.

Gunamati and Sthiramati, the two famous Buddhist scholars are said to have graduated from this University. This University was popular for its training in secular subjects and students from all over the country came to study in this University. Because of its high quality of education, graduates of this University were given higher executive posts. Though Valabhi is known to have championed the cause of Hinayana Buddhism, it was neither exclusive nor insular. Brahmanical sciences were also taught here along with the doctrines of Buddhism. References have been found to Brahmanic students who came to learn at this university from the Gangetic plains. Apart from religious sciences, courses offered included Nīti (Political Science, Statesmanship), Vārtā (Business, Agriculture), Administration, Theology, Law, Economics, and Accountancy. Students graduating from Valabhi were usually employed by kings to assist in the government of their kingdoms.

The prominence of Valabhi was known over the whole of Northern India. Kathasaritsagara narrates the story of a Brahmana, who was determined that he would rather send his son to Valabhi, than to Nalanda or Banaras. Gunamati and Sthiramati were two of its Panditas; very little is known about the other famous teachers and scholars who lived here. It is quite certain that a stamp of approval of doctrines preached by various scholars by the Panditas of Valabhi, who were of authority, was valued highly in learned assemblies of many kingdoms. Valabhi was visited by Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim, in the 7th century and by Yijing towards the end of the century. Yijing described the university as at par with the Buddhist monastic center Nalanda.

When Hiuen Tsiang (also known as Xuanzang) visited the university in the middle of the 7th century, there were more than 6000 monks studying in the place. Some 100 monasteries were provided for their accommodation, as, the citizens of Valabhi, many of whom were rich and generous, made available the funds necessary for running the institution. The Maitraka kings, who ruled over the country, acted as patrons to the university. They provided enormous grants for the working of the institution and equipping its libraries.

In 775 CE, the patron kings succumbed to an attack by the Arabs. This gave the university a temporary setback. Even afterward, the work of the university continued incessantly, as the successors of the Maitraka dynasty continued to patronize it with bountiful donations. Not much information has been retrieved regarding the university during and after this period. The defeat of its patron kings had definitely led way to the slow death of all its educational activities in the 12th century. In September 2017, the Indian central government started to consider a proposal to revive the ancient university.

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5. Somapura

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Somapura Mahavihara was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during the late 8th century in Bengal and flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. The University spread over 27 acres of land of which the main complex was 21 acres was one of the largest of its kind. It was a major center of learning for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism) and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even today one can find ornamental terracotta on its outer walls depicting the influence of these three traditions. It is one of the largest and best known Buddhist monasteries in the Indian subcontinent with the complex itself covering more than 20 acres, almost a million square feet (85,000 sq. meters). With its simple, harmonious lines and its profusion of carved decoration, it influenced Buddhist architecture as far away as Cambodia. Epigraphic records testify that the cultural and religious life of this great Vihara, was closely linked with the contemporary Buddhist centers of fame and history at Bodhgaya and Nalanda, many Buddhist treatises were completed at Paharpur, a center where the Vajrayana trend of Mahayana Buddhism was practiced. The Mahavihara is important for the three major historical religions in the region, serving as a center for Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Excavations show that it was built by the second Pala king, Dharmapala, around 781-821 AD. This comes from clay seals with inscriptions that were discovered. It is one of the five great mahaviharas, or monasteries, which were established in ancient Bengal during the Pala period. As mentioned above, these five monasteries existed together, forming a system of coordination among themselves. The Somapura Mahavihara was inhabited steadily for a few centuries, before being abandoned in the 12th century following repeated attacks and being burnt nearly to the ground in the 11th century by the Vanga army. About a century later Vipulashrimitra renovated the Vihara and added a temple of Tara.

Over the next centuries, the Somapura Mahavihara steadily declined and disintegrated, left abandoned by the new Muslim rulers of the area, until reaching its current state of decay. The Mahavihara was entirely covered by grass over the centuries after its abandonment, and it was more or less forgotten at that point. In the 1920s the site began to be excavated, and more and more was uncovered over the next decades. Work increased drastically after independence, and by the early-1990s the site was at roughly its current level of excavation. A small site-museum built in 1956-57 houses the representative collection of objects recovered from the area. The excavated finds have also been preserved at the Varendra Research Museum at Rajshahi. The antiquities of the Museum include terracotta plaques, images of different gods and goddesses, pottery, coins, inscriptions, ornamental bricks, and other minor clay objects. The importance of Somapura Mahavihara has resulted in its being included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today it is one of the prime tourist destinations in Bangladesh.

6. Jagaddala

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Jagaddala Mahavihara was a Buddhist monastery and seat of learning in Varendra, a geographical unit in present north Bengal in Bangladesh. It was founded by the later kings of the Pāla dynasty, famously believed to be King Ramapala (c. 1077-1120), which was the largest construction works undertaken by the Pala Kings.

Little is known about Jagaddala compared with the other mahaviharas of the era. For many years, its site was could not be ascertained. A.K.M. Zakaria inspected five likely locations, all called Jagdal or Jagadal, in the Rajshahi-Malda region: in Panchagarh; in Haripur Upazila of Thakurgaon; in Bochaganj Upazila in Dinajpur; in Dhamoirhat Upazila of Naogaon; Bamangola block of Malda, India.[3] Of these, significant ancient ruins were present only near the Jagdal in Naogaon district. Excavations under the aegis of UNESCO over the past decade have established the site as a Buddhist monastery.

A large number of monasteries or viharas were established in ancient Bengal and Magadha during the four centuries of Pala rule in North-eastern India. Dharmapala is said to have founded 50 viharas himself, including Vikramashila, the premier university of the era. Jaggadala was founded toward the end of the Pāla dynasty, most likely by Rāmapāla. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramashila, Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapurā, and Jagaddala. The five monasteries formed a network; “all of them were under state supervision” and their existed “a system of co-ordination among them … it seems from the evidence that the different seats of Buddhist learning that functioned in eastern India under the Pāla were regarded together as forming a network, an interlinked group of institutions,” and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.

Jagaddala specialized in Vajrayana Buddhism. A large number of texts that would later appear in the Kanjur and Tengjur were known to have been composed or copied at Jagadala. It is likely that the earliest dated anthology of Sanskrit verse, the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, was compiled by Vidyākara at Jaggadala toward the end of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th.

Śakyaśrībhadra, a Kashmiri scholar who was the last abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara and instrumental in transmitting Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have fled to Tibet in 1204 from Jagaddala when Muslim incursions seemed imminent. Historian Sukumar Dutt tentatively placed the final destruction of Jagadala to 1207; in any case, it seems to have been the last mahavihara to be overrun.

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In 1999 Jaggadala was submitted as a tentative site for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. UNESCO reports that excavation has revealed “an extensive mound, 105 meters long by 85 meters, which represents the archaeological remains of a Buddhist monastery . . . finds have included terracotta plaques, ornamental bricks, nails, a gold ingot and three stone images of deities.

7. Odantapuri

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Ancient Odantapuri University Ruins located on Hiranya Prabat in Bihar sarif is also known as odantpura vihar or odantapuri Buddhist mahavira. Founded in the 8th century by emperor Gopala of Pala Dynasty, it flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. It was basically one of the sixth universities in ancient India established primarily for the purpose of propagating Buddhist learning and teachings. Apart from this, It is also regarded as the second oldest university after Nalanda established in ancient times. It is comparatively a lesser known important tourist destination in Bihar as we still know little about this place.

What we know today about Odantapuri history is primarily from the sources of books written by Tibetan and Chinese travelers during that period. According to Tibetan books, there were 12000 students at odantpuri. Acharya Sri Ganga who used to be a student of Vikramshila university was a professor at the Vikramashila University was a graduate of this Odantapuri University as later on he joined Odantapuri and regarded as one of the famous alumni of this university.

It remained in existence as a great learning center for Buddhist teachings for almost four centuries. In 1193 AD when Notorious Muslim Turkish invader Bhakhtiyar Khilji found this university, he mistakenly believed it as a fortress due to its long walls and ordered his army to destroy it. This was the same time when Nalanda university too was set on fire by his army. His misdeeds proved to be the last nail in the coffin for both the glorious university of ancient India. This led them to undergo almost oblivion for more than six centuries until excavation started in the 19th century. Ancient Tibetan texts mention this as one among the five great Universities of its time, the other four being Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura and Jagaddala Universities – all located in ancient India.

8. Pushpagiri

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Puspagiri University was a prominent seat of learning that flourished until the 11th century in India. Today, its ruins lie atop the Langudi hills, low hills about 90 km from the Mahanadi delta, in the districts of Jajpur and Cuttack in Orissa. The actual university campus, spread across three hilltops, contained several stupas, monasteries, temples, and sculptures in the architectural style of the Gupta period. The Kelua river, a tributary of the Brahmani river of Orissa flows to the northeast of Langudi hills and must have provided a picturesque background for the university. The entire university is distributed across three campuses on top of the three adjoining hills, Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udayagiri. Recently a few images of Emperor Ashoka have been discovered here, and it has been suggested that the Pushpagiri University was established by Emperor Ashoka himself.

Excavation work carried out at Lalitgiri-Ratnagiri-Udayagiri hills has brought to surface the ruins of a wonderful brick monastery with beautiful carvings, a temple with bow shaped arches, 4 monasteries and a huge stupa. The Buddhist treasures unearthed from here also include a large number of gold & silver articles, a stone container, earthen pot and traces of Kushana dynasty and Brahmi script. A massive image of the Buddha is a unique find, the image has pursed lips, long ears, and wide forehead.

Iconographic analysis indicates that Lalitgiri had already been established during the Sunga period of the 2nd century BC and making it one of the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. The architectural remnants found in Lalitgiri remind one of the Gandhar & Mathura craftsmanship. Set in the valley of two rivers, Birupa and Chitrotpala, the monastery was “discovered” by a local British official in 1905. A seven-year excavation of the site by the Archeological Survey of India beginning in 1985 yielded number if stone inscriptions, seals, sealings, and pot-shreds, which established the site as having flourished between 2nd-3rd to 14-15th century AD. Lalitgiri is especially interesting because here, one could observe the evolution of Buddhism from the Theravada sect with its austere and plain worship of a stupa to the growth of Mahayana and Vajrayana (tantric) sects with their elaborate pantheon of Bodhisattvas and other deities. Many fine examples of these deities can be found in a small sculpture shed built near the main stupa at Lalitgiri. These include images of Tara, Aparajita, Prajnaparamita, and Maitreya, as well as are images of Buddha Muchalinda, Buddha in Bhumisparsa (touching the earth) and Dhyani (meditation) poses, and a bas-relief depicting Buddha’s descent from heaven. Scattered near the ruins of the monastery are several stray images, including a magnificent reclining Buddha in his final resting place lying underneath a huge Banyan tree. The main stupa at Lalitgiri is 15 meter in diameter and is constructed in Sanchi style. It is visible from afar. The ruins of four monasteries have been discovered in the nearby area.