Nalanda Mahavihar , regarded as one of the greatest universities of ancient world, was founded by Kumara Gupta I ( 413- 455 AD.) of the Great Gupta Dynasty, King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (606-647AD) and the Pala kings of east India (8th – 12th century A.D.) continued to extend patronage to this centre. The decline of this great institution started in later Pala period but the final blow came in around 1200 A.D. by the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji.
History of Nalanda goes back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in 6th century B.C. It was the place of birth and Nirvana of Sariputra, one of the famous desciples of Buddha. The place rose to prominence in 5th century A.D. as a great monastic-cum-educational institution for oriental art and learning in the whole Buddhist world attracting students from distant countries including China. The galaxy of luminaries associated with it includes Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu , Dharmapala , Suvishnu , Asanga , Silabhadra , Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita and celebrated Chinese tarvellers Hiuen Tsiang and I-Tsing who have extensively described the monasteries and shrines at Nalanda and life of Monks there. Various subjects like Theology, Grammar, Logic, Astronomy , Metaphysics , Medicine and Philosophy were taught here. The institution was maintained by the revenue collected from the villages bestowed specifically for the purpose by the contemporary rulers as evident from inscriptions.
Excavations conducted by Archaeological Survey of India during 1915-37 and 1974-82 have exposed the extensive remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged on a systematic layout and spread over an area more than a square kilometer. Basically a thirty meter wide passage runs North – South with the row of temples on the west and that of the monasteries on the east of it. The dimension and disposition of rooms within monasteries is almost identical. The most imposing structure is temple no. 3 at the southern extremity, which has constructed in seven phases. It is surrounded by a number of votive stupas and other minor shrines.
Other than structures, the excavations have unearthed many sculptures and images in stone, bronze, and stucco. Significant among the Buddhist sculptures are Buddha in different postures, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Tara, Prajnaparmita, Marichi, jambhala etc. A few images of brahmanical deities like Vishnu, Siva-Parvati , mahishasur-Mardini, Ganesha, Surya etc. Other noteworthy discoveries of excavation includes the murals , copper plates, stone and brick inscriptions, sealings, plaques, coins, terracotta, potteries etc. The antiquities have been exhibited for the visitors in the nearby museum maintained by Archaeological Survey of India .