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Nalanda Mahavihara- A Critical Analysis of The Archaeology of An Indian Buddhist Site

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Item Code: NAW751
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Mary L. Stewart
Language: English
Edition: 2018
ISBN: 9789350981146
Pages: 268
Other Details 10.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 630 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

From the 1860s, substantial ruins in the Indian state of Bihar identified as Nālandā Māhavihāra, were of scholarly interest because the monastery was mentioned in the travel accounts of seventh century Chinese monks. From 1916 until 1938, the Archaeological Survey of India systematically excavated, documented, illustrated, and gave continuity to the site. However, ASI ‘historic’ procedures were severely criticized in the 1940s. The ASI was reorganized and reoriented to ‘modern scientific’ methods.

No new excavation took place at the site until 1973. Between 1973 and 1983, the Sarai Mound was exposed, but whereas in the earlier ASI accounts, photographs, diagrams, and considerable supportive material were part of the report, the ‘modern scientific’ approach did not include this information. Nor was there any effort to correlate this find with earlier archaeology.

This critical analysis is concerned with the consequences of such a radical change in the way archaeology was conducted in India. It attempts to look at the history of archaeology in the relevant historical and intellectual context in order to show that valuable lessons were lost through failure to update and evaluate previous reports in the years following the shift in orientation. The work looks more closely at the Chinese texts with reference to what they say about other Buddhist sites. The book attempts to bridge the gap between the two archaeological approaches by placing the site (and by extension, other Indian sites) in a different perspective, thereby opening doors to a variety of related disciplines and studies.

About the Author

Mary Stewart did her Masters in South Asian Studies, and later Ph.D. in South Asian Art and Archaeology from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She taught British Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, London, and currently lectures independently on Buddhism and Art History.


It was almost thirty years ago that I first met Dr. Mary Stewart. In September 1989, I arrived to Cambridge University as a research fellow of the British Council. At Cambridge, every week, other than studying Pali and Gandhari with Professor K.R. Norman of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, I would spend most of my time at the University library or browse through the collection of books at the Faculty. It was not easy for Chinese scholars to visit foreign countries at that time. Though we were aware of what some of our foreign colleagues were working on it was not enough to be fully abreast of the latest academic developments taking place outside of China. Cambridge had an excellent collection of books and academic journals; and I was able to find several that pertained to my research. I felt as if I had climbed atop a mountain full of treasures.

One day on a shelf of the University library, I discovered a book entitled Nalanda Mahavihara: A Study of an Indian Pala Period Buddhist Site and British Historical Archaeology, 1861-1938 by Mary Stewart that had been published recently. This is the same book that is revised here.

I am very familiar with Nalanda. Before going to Cambridge, I had participated in the annotation of the Chinese monk Xuanzang's travelogue Records of the Western Regions during the Great Tang Dynasty, a collaborative work under the direction of the late Professor Ji Xianlin. My own MA and PhD focused on the writings of the pilgrim monk Yijing, especially his Biographies of Eminent Monks who Went to the Western Regions in Search of the Law and the Account of the Buddhist Teachings Sent from the Southern Seas. All these books were directly related to Nalanda, and thus the site had been a key topic of my research.

One of my colleagues at the Faculty of Oriental Studies introduced me to Dr. Stewart. She invited me to London. I remember that Dr. Stewart at that time lived in the western district of London. She was very warm and welcoming. Most of our discussions focused on Nalanda. Later, Dr. Stewart also came to Cambridge, and I invited her to lunch at my college, Clare Hall. The memory of meeting her almost thirty years ago, I cherish to this day.

We met several times subsequently, whether at London or Cambridge, and exchanged letters, but lost touch after I left Britain and went to Germany in 1990. I returned to China in 1992. I was delighted when, two decades later, Professor Tansen Sen, then the Head of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, suggested the publication of a revised edition Dr. Stewart's book on Nalanda. He asked me if I knew Dr. Stewart. I responded immediately that I of course did. It was Nalanda that had once again put me into contact with Dr. Stewart!

According to archaeological evidence, Nalanda Mahavihara was established some time in the fifth century CE. During the next several centuries it attracted Buddhist monks and other scholars from different regions of Asia. These people studied Buddhist philosophies as well as other subjects including medicine and astronomy. The Nalanda Mahavihara was also actively engaged in propagating Buddhist teachings outside southern Asia. Monks from the institution are reported to have travelled to East and Southeast Asia until about the thirteenth century. Indeed, the Mahavihara was an important site for intra-Asian interactions, a centre of learning, and a place where new ideas were created and disseminated.

During the past century, research on Nalanda and the number of academic works referring to Nalanda have increased significantly in India and Europe. Most of these use the record of Xuanzang mentioned above. Often, however, the writings of other Chinese monks do not figure in these studies. One of the reasons for this is perhaps the celebrated status of Xuanzang and the popularity of his works than those composed by other monks. Compared to other secondary studies on Nalanda, Dr. Stewart's book is somewhat different. This is evident from her extensive use of not only archaeological evidence, but also the writings of the monk Yijing as additional source material. Dr. Stewart clearly worked very hard in incorporating the latter material since she does not read Chinese. However, she made use of the authoritative translations done by Ed. Chavannes and the Japanese scholar Junjiro Takakusu. In some places, in order to double-check the translations, Dr. Stewart has consulted scholars familiar with the Chinese language. While there is more work that still needs to be undertaken in this regard, I believe Dr. Stewart has done commendable research.

The 1989 edition of Dr. Mary Stewart's study was not widely distributed and not many people know of its existence. I am delighted to see that a new and revised edition of the work is now being published. I am especially happy to see that updated Chinese language sources, better quality illustrations, and recent archaeological findings are added to the volume. As yet very few studies of the Nalanda Mahavihara are available to students and scholars of Buddhism and intra-Asian connections. I am sure that those interested in the archaeology of Bihar will also welcome this volume. I am certain that it will inspire new research on the Mahavihdra. Although scholars in China are now able to read English, I hope the book will be translated into Chinese.

I congratulate Dr. Stewart for this excellent achievement. I also acknowledge Manohar Publishers for producing an elegant volume as well as to the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center for initiating this project. The book will have a significant impact on the future studies of the Nalanda Mahavinara.


The remains of the Buddhist monastery known as Nalanda Mahavihara are to be found near the village of Baragaon, Bihar District, in the north-eastern state of Bihar. The city of Patna (ancient Pataliputra) is 90 km north-west, Bihar-Sarif (Uddandapura) is 11 km to the north-east, Rajgir (Rajagrha) is 11 km to the south. Bodh-Gaya is some 115 km to the south-east. [Figs. 1, 2, 3] According to Pali Buddhist texts, the Buddha Sakyamuni stopped at a mango grove in this vicinity on a number of occasions to rest and teach. Chinese monks who resided at Nalanda Mahavihara in the seventh century recorded that there were many Viharas or temple-like structures, enshrining images commemorating the Buddha's sojourns. In the area there were also temples sacred to the Hindu sun god, Surya, and to Gotama Indrabhuti, the chief disciple to the Jain tirthankara, Mahavira.

It is difficult to determine how extensive Nalanda Mahavihara was at its apogee. Judging by the uneven topography and the number of tanks (reservoirs) in the surrounding countryside, the present excavated site may have been but one of many monastic complexes built over the centuries and at various times destroyed by warfare or natural causes as well as by the age-old habit of the local villagers' removing bricks and stone work from ruins for their own constructions. Parts of Baragaon and other nearby villages contain Nalanda material, all of which could not be accounted for just by the one excavated site.

The British rulers in India were very curious about the numerous ruins throughout the country. They sent out parties of surveyors to learn more about them. Dr. Francis Buchanan had first seen and written about the ruins at `Kundulpur (Baragaon, Nalanda) in 1812 while carrying out a survey of Bengal. That it might have been an important site was mooted in the 1840s. But it was not specifically named or identified as Buddhist until Major-General Alexander Cunningham, the first director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), visited it in 1861 to take measurements of some of the mounds.

Literary references, specifically, the European translations of Chinese travel accounts, were used to identify Nalanda from Cunningham's time and well into the ASI seasons. Cunningham used Laidlay's English translation of Remusat's French translation of Faxian's fourth-fifth century travels in India. He also made use of Julien's French translations of the travels of the seventh century monk, Xuanzang, and of his biography, written by Huili. From his study of these sources, Cunningham concluded that as Faxian did not mention a monastery in connection with 'Nalo' (the translation for the reputed place of Sariputra's birth, and a place name which came to be equated with Nalanda), no monastery existed at this spot at the time. Gradually Cunningham's opinion that a monastery at Nalanda dated from no earlier than the Gupta era was reiterated as fact.

Although the early ASI surveys were very simple, Cunningham did attempt to establish some basic standards and methods in accordance with the 'scientific' techniques of his time. He documented everything and duly noted the textual and historical background, and the local traditions of each site. 'Excavations' consisted of a trench dug into the middle of a mound to facilitate a search for relics. The survey draughtsmen produced plans and elevations for each ruin - often also drawings of inscriptions, architectural details and surface artefacts. Surveyors copied, or had copied, inscriptions for translation, and collected coins and artefacts for later scholarly study.

From 1871 the results of the surveys were published in a series which gave rise to scholarly literature. Articles of Indian archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic interest appeared in publications such as the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB) or the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (IRAS). In 1872 James Burgess founded the Indian Antiquary (LA) and the Epigraphia Indica (El). Cunningham himself brought out the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum (CII) in 1877.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, just as the ASI ran out of funds and was about to disappear altogether, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, came to its rescue. In 1902 he appointed John Marshall Director-General. Marshall drew up a plan based on European models he had used in the Near East whereby Indian archaeology was organized into the activities of Exploration (excavation) and Conservation of the sites the ASI had already surveyed. The starting point for each process was to be the 'history' (i.e., the literary reference) of each site. Archaeologists would clear the sites of rubble, remove and clean the artefacts, stabilize, repair the structural remains and render them waterproof. Gangs of native labourers (`coolies') would be employed to take away the debris.

As to what the fruits of these labours might be, from the outset, Marshall acknowledged that although an archaeologist might be an academic, there would not be sufficient time for him to do fieldwork and research or analysis. And while he wished that university-based scholars would subject archaeological finds and remains to more detailed studies, this phase of his plan was never systematically taken up.

The ASI began excavations at Nalanda in 1915-16. The first superintendent, the American archaeologist, David Spooner, used Cunningham's reports as well as later English translations of the seventh century Chinese monks' accounts to locate specific structures at the site. While he hinted that he did not think the site he was excavating was the same as that visited by the Chinese monks, he did no more than hint.' His successors continued to accept the conventional wisdom. In the years of exploration and conservation between 1916 and 1938 archaeologists uncovered the remains of more than 15 monastic buildings. The full extent of the work was published and illustrated in the ASI Annual Reports for 1915-16 to 1937-38.

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