Top Five Universities or Mahaviharas in Ancient Eastern India— Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramshila, Somapura and Jagaddala Mahavihara

Top Five Universities or Mahaviharas in Ancient Eastern India— Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramshila, Somapura, and Jagaddala Mahavihara


Aerial view of Paharpur Buddhist Monastery (Somapura Mahavihara), Bangladesh | © Peter Prix via UNESCO World Heritage Center
Aerial view of Paharpur Buddhist Monastery (Somapura Mahavihara), Bangladesh | © Peter Prix via UNESCO World Heritage Center
Table of Contents

Buddhist Mahaviras in Varendra and Magadha (Bengal and Bihar)

Buddhists have made significant contributions to religion, education, and culture in India. Many Buddhist monasteries and Mahaviharas were built in the Magadha or Varendra-Magadha region (Bengal and Bihar) during the Gupta and Palayu periods. These Viharas and Mahaviharas were religious centers of Buddhism. Initially, only religious education was provided from these educational centers but later life-oriented education was also introduced. Buddhist monks, scholars, and those associated with religious research and evangelization resided here.

Students and scholars stayed for a fixed period of time through residential arrangements in the viharas. Scholars and students came not only from Bengal, Bihar, or the other parts of the Indian subcontinent but also from Tibet, China, Brahmadesh (Myanmar), Indonesia, etc. to seek knowledge in vihara, mahavihara, or universities established in Bengal and Bihar.

Among the universities that were founded by the Buddhists and later destroyed by Muslim rulers in Bengal and Bihar, the five best universities were Nalanda Mahavihara, Vikramshila Mahavihara, and Somapura Mahavihara, Odantapuri Mahavihara, and Jagaddala Mahavihara. These five universities are considered to be the best universities of ancient India. Mahaviharas were built following the same model. It is from these universities that formal and life and work-oriented education is prevalent in Indian education. These five universities are very important in the history of education in the Indian subcontinent.

Nalanda Mahavihara or Nalanda University

Nalanda Mahavihara or Nalanda University, one of the oldest universities in the world, is believed to have been established sometime between the third century and the fifth century AD. Some say that this ancient monument was built sometime between the 7th and 12th centuries AD. However, in the book 'A History of India' jointly written by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermand, the founding period of Nalanda University is said to be in the fifth century.

Namit Arora claims in his book 'Indian: A Brief History of a Civilization that Nalanda Mahavihara was established during the reign of Kumaragupta I, shortly after the departure of the first Chinese traveler to the subcontinent, Faxian. The reign of Kumaragupta was from 414 to 455 in the fifth century, so from this, we can say that Nalanda University or Nalanda Mahavihara is a sign of the fifth century AD. Harshavardhana also sponsored the development of Nalanda Vihar.

Excavated Remains of Nalanda Mahavihara: View of Site no. 03 and structure to north of Site no. 1B from East © Rajneesh Raj/UNESCO
Excavated Remains of Nalanda Mahavihara: View of Site no. 03 and structure to north of Site no. 1B from East © Rajneesh Raj/UNESCO

Nalanda Mahavihara was established in Magadha, ancient India. Magadha is known as the state of Bihar in modern India. Nalanda University is identified as the first university of ancient India. Even the first university in the world is Nalanda University. It is now recognized that Nalanda University is the oldest university in India. Nalanda University is said to be the Mecca of Buddhist scholars in Southeast Asia. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang or Hsiuen-Tsang stayed in the Indian subcontinent for 13 years from 630 AD to 643 AD, during which he stayed at Nalanda University for two consecutive years. Nalanda was the center of the Buddhist Mahayana school of learning. Many acharyas and scholars of Nalanda were Bengalis. Many historians say that Nalanda Mahavihara was destroyed by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, in 1993.

Nalanda University was established on at least 12 hectares or 30 acres of land, which is known from the first phase of excavations from 1915 to 1937. In 2016, the ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site at its 40th session, with reference number 1502.

Odantapuri Mahavihara

Odantapuri Mahavihara or Odantapuri University was established in Pataliputra, the capital of Varendra-Magadha by the Pala King Gopala I in the 8th century AD. But Elizabeth English's book 'Vajrayogini: Her Visualization, Rituals, and Forms' says that it was developed in the 9th century during the time of Devapala. Some also take the name of Dharmapala as the founder of the Mahavihara in the Nalanda district of the modern Indian state of Bihar. Odantapuri is also called Udantapuri, Odantapur, Odantapura, Udantapur, and Udantapura.


Odantapuri Mahavihara was one of five Mahaviharas spread over eastern India
Odantapuri Mahavihara was one of five Mahaviharas spread over eastern India

Odantapuri Mahavihara or Odantapuri University is considered to be the second oldest university after Nalanda University. Through the Udantapuri Mahavihara, the fame of the Buddhists of Bengal spread in many directions.

Odantapuri Mahavihara was one of five Mahaviharas spread over eastern India— Nalanda, Vikramashila, Somapura, and Jagaddala were the others. The mahavihara had roughly twelve thousand pupils at its peak in the eighth century.

When a Turko-Muslim conqueror named Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khalji led repeated invasions of Bihar and neighboring lands in the late 1100s, the vihara was destroyed. Odantapuri Mahavihara was completely destroyed in the attack of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193. According to Tibetan accounts, the Sam-Ye (Bsam-Yas) monastery was patterned after it in 749, and numerous illustrious Tibetan academics studied there.

Vikramshila Mahavihara

Dharmapala founded the Vikramshila Mahavihara. A very interesting monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks was the Vikramshila Mahavihara. Staying here, they used to translate various books/texts written in Indian language into Tibetan language.

The landscape of the Vikramshila remains | Photo: Saurav Sen Tonandada
The landscape of the Vikramshila remains | Photo: Saurav Sen Tonandada

It is thought that the quality of education at Nalanda University, established during the Gupta Empire, declined, and the nearby King Dharmapala of the Pala Dynasty (circa 770 to 821 AD) founded Vikramshila University with influential scholars including Srigyan Atish Dipankar. But even when Vikramsila was passing the best time, the glory of Nalanda did not decrease a bit as it is found in Kulake and Rothermand's book. Dharmapala's reign was from about 790 AD to 821 AD.

Since Dharmapala, the last king of the Pala Dynasty, established the Vikramshila Mahavihara, it can be said with certainty that this Vikramshila Mahavihara was established at the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century. This university is located in Astichak village of Bhagalpur district of present Bihar state. Like the Nalanda and Udantapuri Mahaviharas, the Vikramsila Mahavihara was destroyed by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193.

Somapura Mahavihara or Paharpur Buddhist Vihara

According to UNESCO, the second and greatest king of the Pala dynasty, Dharmapala, founded the Somapura Mahavihara. Elizabeth English claims in her book 'Vajrayogini: Her Visualization, Rituals, and Forms' that Somapura Mahavihara was founded by Devapala in the ninth century (810-859 AD). Somapura Mahavihara is collectively known as Somapurai Mahavihar, Paharpur Mahavihara, Paharpur Vihar, Paharpur Buddha Vihar, Somapura Vihar. This Somapura Mahavihara is the second largest Mahavihara in South-Himalayas region.

Somapura Mahavihara is among the best-known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent and is one of the most important archaeological sites in Bangladesh. | Photo: Abdul Momin
Somapura Mahavihara is among the best-known Buddhist viharas in the Indian Subcontinent and is one of the most important archaeological sites in Bangladesh. | Photo: Abdul Momin

Somapura Mahavihara or Somapura University was almost equal to Nalanda Mahavihara in terms of size. Somapura Mahavihara was built between Pundranagar, the capital of Pundravardhan, and the Kotibarsha area. On either side of it there were two other educational centers called Yellow Mahavihara and Sitakot Vihar. The Somapura Mahavihara is located in Paharpur, Naogaon District, Bangladesh.

For 300 years, Somapura Mahavihara stood tall as a famous religious teaching center for Buddhists. It was the main center of the Mahayana school of learning. Buddhists from countries like China, Tibet, Brahmadesh (Myanmar), Indonesia, etc. used to come here to acquire religious knowledge. Shrigyan Atish Dipankar, one of the founders of Vikramsheela Mahavihara, also served as the Acharya of Somapura Vihara. Somapura University was the first university in ancient Bengal and Bangladesh.

This university was destroyed by Ikhtiyar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji. It is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. In 1985 UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site with reference number 322.

Jagaddala Mahavihara

Jagaddala Mahavihara was established by Rampal in the Varendra region i.e. North Bengal. Jagaddal Mahavihara was built sometime between 1077 and 1120 AD. Founded in the 11th or 12th century, the Jagadala Mahavihara or Jagadala Mahavihara was one of the top five universities in the Indian subcontinent. Jagaddala Mahavihara is located in Dhamoirhat Upazila of Naogaon District, present-day Bangladesh.

Aerial view of the North Wing of the Jagaddala Vihara, 12th century CE, Dhamuirhat, Naogaon – © Khairul Islam/visitworldheritage.com
Aerial view of the North Wing of the Jagaddala Vihara, 12th century CE, Dhamuirhat, Naogaon – © Khairul Islam/visitworldheritage.com

Among the best teachers and acharyas of Jagaddala University were Vibhutichandra, Mokshakargupta, and Shuvakargupta. After the collapse of the Pala period, Buddhist scholars and monks migrated to Tibet or other places that were safe for them. Jagaddala Mahavihara is slowly getting destroyed. It is believed to have been completely destroyed on the orders of one of the Muslim rulers. The ruins of Jagaddala Mahavihara are waiting to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Conclusion

The Nalanda Mahavihara, Vikramshila Mahavihara, Odantapuri Mahavihara, Somapura Mahavihara and Jagaddala Mahavihara were built following the same model. As these five universities were built on the same model, there was good inter-communication between them. It is believed that universities like Vikramshila or Odantapuri were built due to the decline in the quality of education at Nalanda University, but the charm of Nalanda never decreased. Many acharyas and scholars in every university of ancient Bengal and Bihar were Bengalis.

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