Volume 66 Number 3, March 2015

Nalanda: Situating the Great Monastery

By: Frederick M. Asher
Binding: Hardcover
Specifications: 140 pages, 130 illustrations
ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5
Dimensions: 305 x 241 mm

From its inception, circa the 5th century CE, the mahavihara or great monastery of Nalanda attracted monks from China, Korea and Tibet perhaps other distant places. Their written accounts, along with the records from the site provide considerable data, critically studied and contextualized in this volume.

This book sees the ancient mahavihara as a dynamic and ever-evolving complex rather than an institution that was static during the millennium it was active as a Buddhist monastery. The site was much larger than the present excavated area, a notion also suggested recently by remote sensing. The volume raises questions that help visualize a living, vital Nalanda that was part of a dynamic group of monasteries in close proximity in the Magadha region.

Frederick M. Asher, a specialist in the art of South Asia, is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. His current interests include the visual culture of the Indian Ocean as well as that of Buddhist pilgrimage sites. He has served as President of the American Institute of Indian Studies, New Delhi, and then as Chair of the Institute’s Board of Trustees.




  1. 1. Nalanda's Patrons
  2. 2. Nalanda According to Xuanzang, Cunningham and Other Writers
  3. 3. Nalanda as Excavated Ruins
  4. 4. Nalanda’s Sculptures and Paintings
  5. 5. Nalanda Today
  6. 6. Looking Back, Looking Ahead




Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 10-19
This chapter situates Nalanda by asking a series of questions that are addressed briefly. The questions are: Where is Nalanda? What was Nalanda? How can we understand Nalanda’s architecture and sculpture? Can we imagine Nalanda as a university, and what is Nalanda today?
Nalanda's Patrons
Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 20-29

The first chapter examines Nalanda’s sources of funding, with some brief excursions into related topics. Following a brief introduction, the chapter starts with the Buddha and Nalanda, focusing on the wish to connect the site to the Buddha himself. The following sections look at patronage from Ashoka, the Gupta kings, Harsha and his contemporaries, and the Palas. It ends by examining Nalanda’s alleged demise at the hands of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a discussion of what role the monks might have had in the creation of Nalanda’s physical appearance, and finally the role of modern patronage for the site.

Nalanda According to Xuanzang, Cunningham and Other Writers
Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 30-41

Although the chapter starts by critically examining Xuanzang’s account of Nalanda and then moving on to Alexander Cunningham’s use of Xuanzang’s report, it continues by examining the work of other archaeologists who explored the site either by looking at its surface or by actually removing earth to reveal monuments and, in some cases, to remove sculptures. Among the figures briefly presented are Francis Buchanan Hamilton, who was there in the opening years of the 19th century, Markham Kittoe, and A.M. Broadley. It concludes with a section on Nalanda after Cunningham and his contemporaries.

Nalanda as Excavated Ruins
Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 42-69

This chapter discusses Nalanda’s material remains, more particularly the architectural features of the excavated monuments. It starts with the Great Monument of Site 3 – certainly the most visible and famous structure at Nalanda – and then moves to the temples and the monastic dwellings and mentions some recent observations that offer important grounds for further excavation.

Nalanda's Sculptures and Paintings
Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 70-101

This chapter deals with what lies beyond the excavated remains (a huge amount of ancient Nalanda). The sculptures from the site are then treated, including the magnificent stucco sculptures of the Great Monument, those adorning the plinth of the temple at Site 2, the famous Jagdishpur Buddha, sculptures in museums, votive stupas, bronze sculptures, and then a section on Nalanda in museums. Finally, the chapter examines paintings executed at Nalanda, most briefly the fragmentary paintings on stucco that remain at the site and, more carefully, at manuscripts produced there.

Nalanda Today
Asher, Frederick
Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-07-5, pp. 102-127

The chapter starts with the Mahaparinivan Express, a train run by Indian Railways, which sort of goes to Nalanda, and then the chapter moves to the discovery of Nalanda as a result of Stanislas Julien’s translation of Xuanzang’s life. It considers the role of Nalanda in the region, first looking at Rajgir and then at other monasteries that seem to have formed a network with Nalanda as first among the others. The next section of this chapter examines the remains housed in adjacent villages, Baragaon, Surajpur and Begumpur, asking, among other things, about the role of Hindu images that may have been collected from Nalanda itself. The final section looks at institutions that today draw on Nalanda’s name, for example, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara and Nalanda University as well as institutions outside India.