Formal education in ancient India was confined to two types of institutions namely Brahmanical and Buddhist. Study in a Brahmanical institution lasted nearly three decades whilst Buddhist institutions demanded a minimum of ten years of intense study. Nalanda was the foremost Buddhist monastery and educational centre in North India. The Etymology of the word NALANDA is interesting. NALA means ‘lotus', which symbolizes knowledge and DA means ‘to give'. In other words NALANDA existed to impart knowledge which it did for nearly a thousand years.
Nalanda is one of the oldest Universities of Ancient India. The other being Takshashila (also known as Taxila). It was located in the Indian state of Bihar, near Modern Patna, which was earlier known as PATALIPUTRA. The university dates back to the time of Gautama Buddha who was supposed to have visited the place around 500 BC. Even Mahavira the founder of Jainism is said to have lived in Nalanda for a while. It was also the first residential university, and had in its heyday nearly 10000 students and about 2000 faculty members. It was truly an international university as it had students and scholars, from China, Japan, Korea, Persia, and Indonesia. According the writings of Xuanzang who had stayed at Nalanda for over 17 years, the campus was a huge complex spread over 14 hectares consisting of lecture halls, dormitories and temples.
It was supported by the income from a number of villages which the monastery acquired over time through donations. The subjects taught here were Grammar, Rhetoric, Prose, logic, metaphysics, astrology, astronomy, ayurveda, mathematics and of course Philosophy. In fact Nalanda was renowned as a centre of Buddhist learning. Nalanda's contribution to the evolution of Buddhism is immense. Three forms of Buddhism namely, MAHAYANA, (followed in China, Japan, Korea and Viet Nam) VAJRAYANA (followed in Tibet, Mongolia, Russia , North eastern China) AND THERAVADA had its protagonists in the portals of Nalanda University.
It was however the scholars connected with Nalanda who were responsible for its reputation and they were many. There was for example Silabhadra a preceptor ofXuanzang and a master of the Sutras. Dharmakirti the father of Buddhist logic and Padmasambhava who on the invitation of the Tibetan King Thri Song went to Tibet and introduced the Tantric form of Buddhism there. Other renowned scholars included Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Asanga.
The decline of Buddhism in India is closely connected with the burning of Nalanda. The renowned centre of learning was razed to the ground by Turkish Muslim Invaders the Khiljis. For centuries it remained unknown having been reduced to mounds of earth, but in 1861 Sir Alexander Cunningham rediscovered this ancient seat of learning. The inscriptions, Icons and sculptures found during the excavation were then preserved in a museum.