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Early Libraries: 400s CE

Let's explore the rise of pilgrimages and libraries of higher learning.

During this time, it was common for people to make a pilgrimage to seek out and copy important works. Travelogues from the period detail the experiences of these traveler. For instance between 399 CE and 412 CE, Faxian (337-422CE) traveled to India, Sri Lanka, and Kapilavastu on a quest to acquire and copy Buddhist scriptures. A Chinese Buddhist monk, he recorded his travels in a book called "A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms."

Nalanda Monastery and University Library
Birhar, India

Nalanda Wikimedia Commons

An ancient center for higher learning, Nalanda emerged as a Buddhist center for learning in the fifth or sixth century. The university attracted scholars from China, Greece, and Persia. Part of the school's fame came from its vast library system with authoritative texts. The image above (CC-A PrinceRoy) shows the ruins.

The library was known as Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth) or Dharmaganja (Treastury of Truth) and was located in three, nine storied buildings (Ratnasgara "Sea of Jewels", Ratnodadhi "Oceans of Jewels", and Ratnaranjaka "Delighter of Jewels") where copies of texts were produced. The collection including hundreds of thousands of volumes. Some have estimated that the classical Sanskrit texts numbered in the millions.

Pilgrimage Wikimedia PDAccording to Lerner (1999, 47), "the books were placed flat on wooden shelves divided into compartments, with the most valuable manuscripts stored in heavy wooden chests. Tradition holds that a huge inkpot provided the means for many students to copy books simultaneously from dictation."

In the 7th century the Chinese Buddhist monk and pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664) traveled to Nalanda to copy manuscripts. Like many monks, he was concerned about incomplete and incorrect translations that were found in China.

He took them back to the Hungfu monastery and spent the rest of his life translating the books. Like Faxian, he wrote about his journey in his book "Great Tang Records on the Western Regions."

The image on the right shows Xuanzang.

When the Turkic Muslim invaders attacked in 1193, it took three months to burn the contents of the library according to Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj.

Indian Books

Paper was made by cutting open young palm leaf buds, boiling them, and drying for several days. Pages were held together with string and covered with wooden boards.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Ranasinghe, R.H.I.S. (2008). How Buddhism influenced the origin and development of libraries in Sri Lank (Ceylon): from the third century BC to the fifth century AD. Library History, 24(4), 307-312.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Lerner, Fred (1999). Libraries through the Ages. Continuum Publishing.

Watters, Thomas (1904). On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India 629-645 A.D. Royal Asiatic Society. Available: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924071132769

Wriggins, Sllay (1996). Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road. Westview Press.

Xian, Fa; tr. by James Legge (1886). A Record of Buddhistic kingdoms; being an account by the Chinese monk FA-HIEN of his travels in India and Ceylon, A.D. 399-414, in search of the Buddhist books of discipline. The Clarendon Press. Available: http://www.archive.org/stream/recordofbuddhist00fahsuoft

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