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Vikramashila Mahavihara


Vikramashila Mahavihara a great Buddhist monastic establishment known, according to Tibetan tradition, to have been founded by the Pala King dharmapala (c 775-810 AD). This is supported by Sarvajnamitra's Sragdhara-stotra, which refers to Shrimad Vikramashiladeva Mahavihariya. Dharmapala is known to have borne the honorific epithet Vikramashiladeva.

The Buddha is known to have prescribed five kinds of abodes for the monks and of these one was the Vihara. The Vihara gradually developed into a large dwelling complex where the monks used to live a corporate life. The location of Vikramashila mahavihara has now been established archaeologically at the site of Antichak in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar. The structural work towards the construction of the monastery covered the period from the early 9th century to the 12th century AD.

Antichak excavations initially brought to light a brick-made structure with chambers and antechambers along with two 2.9m wide pradaksina-pathas (circumambulatory pathways). Excavations exposed a chaitya (15m high and 100m wide). An inscribed votive stupa (Shridharmadhara ... devasya) has been found, which suggests some sort of a monastic establishment at the site.

Subsequently, excavations at the same site yielded a fairly large monastery (330m square) consisting of about 208 monastic cells apart from the rectangular structures at the north gate and the rectangular and circular structures along the outer wall. Each of the cells was provided with a 1.35m wide door. The cells were also provided with bed-platforms of the average size 3m x 2m. The cells were open to a common verandah (3.10m wide). The verandah was 30m long in the north and 40m long in the southwest. In the southwest corner a rectangular structure (41.50m long and 18.65m wide) has been unearthed. The thickness of its walls on the north, west and east is nearly 1.9m; but its south wall is abnormally thick - 4.75m. It has been provided with 13 sloping channel-like vents at regular intervals of 2.65m. This structure was connected with the main monastery by a 1.4m wide passage paved with baked bricks. The structure has four cells of varying sizes and a rectangular bigger cell internally connected with the northern wall. This structure in the Mahavihara has been suggested to be a section where manuscripts were written or copied or preserved, because the vents in the south wall were provided for the entry of the cool breeze, essential for preserving talapatra manuscripts. A 3m wide boundary wall surrounded the entire monastic complex.

The Mahavihara is known to have consisted of 58 sangsthas (institutions) within its campus, in which 108 Pandits (scholars) used to live. The academic status of the institutions is not known. The monastery had six gates and a scholar known as dvarapala guarded each of the gates. taranatha gives the names of the gatekeeper scholars as Shanti-pa, Vagishvarakirti, Prajnakaramati etc. The Mahavihara was particularly known for studies in Tantric Buddhism, Jnanapada, Dipankarabhadra and Bhavabhadra being the outstanding scholars in this field. The Mahavihara was headed by such scholars as Dipankara Srijnana, Jetari, Abhayakaragupta, Sakya Sribhadra etc. The head was called Adhyaksa and Jetari, who at the beginning of his career was a dvarapala, and later became its adhyaksa. A number of Upadhyayas-Mahavajrasana, Kamalakulisa etc - are also known to have looked after the scriptural cum academic affairs of the Mahavihara. Translation works were also done in the Mahavihara. Dipankara Srijnana is known to have translated into Tibetan a number of his own works, helped by a monk named Viryasingha. According to Taranatha one thousand monks are known to have permanently resided at the Mahavihara.

Thus the Mahavihara is known to have served as a centre of learning as well as intellectual exercise in Buddhism. Its internal organisation is not known. The centre contributed to acculturation between India and other countries. Some sort of conflagration, as indicated by the deposits of ashy layers in the cells, may have been responsible for its destruction. [Krishnendu Ray]

Bibliography DP Chattopadhyaya (ed), Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India, Simla, 1970; FM Asher, 'Vikramasila Mahavihara', Bangladesh Lalitkala, Dhaka, 1975; A Ghosh (ed), Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, 2, Delhi, 1989.