Vikramshila University Heritage
A number of monasteries grew up during the Pāla period in ancient Bengal and Magadha. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramashila, the premier university of the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapura, and Jagaddala. The five monasteries formed a network; “all of them were under state supervision” and there existed “a system of coordination 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.
Vikramashila was founded by Pāla king Dharmapala in the late 8th or early 9th century. It prospered for about four centuries before it was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji along with the other major centres of Buddhism in India around 1193.
Vikramashila is known to us mainly through Tibetan sources, especially the writings of Tāranātha, the Tibetan monk historian of the 16th–17th centuries.
Vikramashila was one of the largest Buddhist universities, with more than one hundred teachers and about one thousand students. It produced eminent scholars who were often invited by foreign countries to spread Buddhist learning, culture and religion. The most distinguished and eminent among all was Atisha Dipankara, a founder of the Sarma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Subjects like philosophy, grammar, metaphysics, Indian logic etc. were taught here, but the most important branch of learning was Buddhist tantra.
According to scholar Sukumar Dutt, Vikramashila appears to have had a more clearly delineated hierarchy than other mahaviharas, as follows:
- Abbot (Adhyakṣa)
- Six gate protectors or gate scholars (Dvārapāla or Dvārapaṇḍita), one each for the Eastern, Western, First Central, Second Central, Northern, and Southern Gates
- Great Scholars (Mahapaṇḍita)
- Scholars (Paṇḍita), roughly 108 in number
- Professors or Teachers (Upādhyāya or Āchārya), roughly 160 in number including paṇḍits
- Resident monks (bhikṣu), roughly 1,000 in number
According to Tāranātha, at Vikramashila’s peak during the reign of King Chanaka (955–83), the dvārapāla were as follows: Ratnākaraśānti (Eastern Gate), Vāgīsvarakīrti (Western Gate), Ratnavajra (First Central Gate), Jñanasrimitra (Second Central Gate), Naropa (Northern Gate), and Prajñākaramati (Southern Gate). If this is correct, it must have been toward the end of Chanaka’s reign given the generally accepted dates for Naropa (956–1041).
Vikramaśīla was a centre for Vajrayana and employed Tantric preceptors. The first was Buddhajñānapāda, followed by Dīpaṁkarabhadra and Jayabhadra. The first two were active during Dharmapāla’s reign, the third in the early to mid portion of the 9th century. Jayabhadra, a monk from Sri Lanka, was the first prominent commentator on the Śrīdhara was the next preceptor, followed by Bhavabhaṭṭa. The latter, also a prominent commentator on Cakrasamvara, may have been the mahāsiddha Bhadrapāda. He in turn was succeeded by three more prominent Cakrasamvara commentators, Bhavyakīrti, Durjayachandra, and Tathāgatarakṣita. Durjayachandra collaborated with the renowned Tibetan translator Rinchen Zangpo and his commentary became particularly important for the Sakya school, and Tathāgatarakṣita collaborated with Rin-chen grags.
In chronological order:
Layout and excavation
The remains of the ancient university have been partially excavated in Bhagalpur district, Bihar state, India, and the process is 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 centre, 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.
The monastery, or residence for the Buddhist monks, is a huge square structure, each side measuring 330 metres having a series of 208 cells, 52 on each of the four sides opening into a common verandah. A few brick arched underground chambers beneath some of the cells have also been noticed which were probably meant for confined meditation by the monks.
The main stupa built for the purpose of worship is a brick structure laid in mud mortar which stands in the centre of the square monastery. This two-terraced stupa is cruciform on plan and about 15 metres high from the ground level accessible through a flight of steps on the north side. On each of the four cardinal directions there is a protruding chamber with a pillared antechamber and a separate pillared mandapa in front. In the four chambers of the stupa were placed colossal stucco images of seated Buddha of which three were found in situ but the remaining one on north side was possibly replaced by a stone image after the clay image was somehow damaged.
About 32 metres south of the monastery on its south west corner and attached with the main monastery through a narrow corridor is a rectangular structure identified as a library building. It was air-conditioned by cooled water of the adjoining reservoir through a range of vents in the back wall. The system was perhaps meant for preserving delicate manuscripts.
A large number of antiquities of different materials, unearthed from this place in the course of excavation, are displayed in the site museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.