India's ancient university returns to life

By Yojana Sharma

media captionNalanda is emerging from the ruins as an image of India's rising power

It was an eminent centre of learning long before Oxford, Cambridge and Europe's oldest university Bologna were founded.

Nalanda University in northern India drew scholars from all over Asia, surviving for hundreds of years before being destroyed by invaders in 1193.

The idea of Nalanda as an international centre of learning is being revived by a group of statesmen and scholars led by the Nobel prize winning economist, Amartya Sen,

The group wants to establish a new world-class residential university with top students and researchers from around the world, on a site close to ruins of the ancient Buddhist institution in the Indian state of Bihar.

The new Nalanda International University will focus on the humanities, economics and management, Asian integration, sustainable development and oriental languages.

Old foundations

But building a top university from scratch, let alone one in a poor under-developed part of India, is a tall order.

Some doubt that an international university can flourish in such an under-developed area.

"Are top students and faculty going to be attracted to rural Bihar?" says Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States.

image captionNobel laureate Amartya Sen is the university's first chancellor

Amartya Sen, the university's chancellor, is undaunted.

"Our job is to get the new Nalanda University going and establish the teaching. This is just the beginning - the old Nalanda took 200 years to come to a flourishing state. We may not take 200 years but it will take some decades."

"After Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s it lingered on for a while - from time to time some people noticed that there was some teaching going on in the following couple of hundred years, but it wasn't anything like the university it had been. There is now absolutely nothing. We have to start from scratch."

In 2006, India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand announced the plan to revive the university based on the vision of the old Nalanda. And it was backed by the East Asia Summit which also includes South East Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US.

International staff

The new university will be built in Rajgir, 10 kilometres from the ancient site with buildings planned on old Buddhist principles.

For now temporary premises have been secured and the postgraduate university has already published invitations to research fellows and scholars from around the world.

image copyrightAP
image captionThe Dalai Lama has spoken of the historic importance of Nalanda

The first two faculties will be history and ecology and the environment with the first intake of students due next year.

Prof Sen says there will be active co-operation with Yale's school of forestry studies, Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University department of history, Seoul University in South Korea and Peking University in China.

This international outlook could boost India's higher education sector which is seen as inward looking and less internationalised than other countries in Asia, including China.

The new Nalanda will be "Asian in inspiration, Asian in motivation but it is not Asian in terms of its knowledge or the range or expertise or personal involvement. If the knowledge works in Asia, it ought to work in Africa or Latin America as well," said Prof Sen.

If all goes well, it will do Nalanda's ancient reputation proud despite the intervening 800 years.

'Soaring into the clouds'

Founded around the 5th Century, Nalanda once had over 10,000 students, mostly Buddhist monks, many of them from China, Japan, Korea and countries across south-east, central and western Asia.

The Chinese monk Xuanzang, who studied there in the 7th Century, left behind an eye-popping account of the thriving, wealthy university, describing a nine-storey library "soaring into the clouds."

Shanghai-based author Mishi Saran followed Xuanzang's route across Asia in her book Chasing the Monk's Shadow.

"Xuanzang was looking to study with the people who knew the (Buddhist) texts best. Nalanda was already reaching the heights of its power and prestige. It was known in Korea and Japan - its reputation had spread through the Asian trade routes," she said.

"When Xuanzang was at Nalanda, it was a vibrant place, packed with scholars, with seminars, teaching and debate. It was a kind of Buddhist Ivy League institution - all the deepest ideas about Buddhism were explored and dissected at Nalanda," said Ms Saran.

The influence of those scholars has survived to this day. While at the Jaipur literary festival in Rajasthan in January, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said "the source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda."

The new Nalanda hopes to match the intellectual rigour, but will not be a religious institution.

"Nalanda was not only interested in Buddhism. Even at that time it took from universal principles. It had secular studies, public health, it was interested in logic, astrology and mathematics and languages," said George Yeo, a former Singaporean Foreign Minister and head of the Nalanda international advisory panel.

Nonetheless, the "spirit of Nalanda" is part of the attraction. Nearby, the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.

'Severe doubts'

But Prof Altbach, an expert on world-class universities, has "severe doubts" about the location.

"The site of an academic institution is important," he said. Nalanda "may attract a certain number of big thinkers, but academics like to be where the infrastructure is. They want culture and amenities and coffee shops, and a wider community of intellectuals than that on campus".

Yet Bihar, has also emerged as India's fastest growing state with economic growth of 12% last year.

image copyrightAFP/Getty
image captionThe writer George Orwell was also born in Bihar, northern India

"The countryside looked arid and impoverished. Today there are lush fields. The shops are fuller, the saris have become brighter," said Mr Yeo.

The university itself will help to develop the region, working with some 60 surrounding villages to improve livelihoods in agriculture and tourism, according to Nand Kishore Singh, a member of parliament from Bihar and a member of Nalanda's governing body.

The next two faculties to be put in place will be information technology, and management and economics which will help develop job opportunities "to enable Bihar to catch up with the rest of India", said Prof Sen.

Already a huge amount of infrastructure is planned for Bihar, including roads and an international airport at Gaya, with the Bihar State government fully committed to the university project.

But "building a top-class university is extraordinarily expensive, especially in a rural and undeveloped location, even with assistance of foreign donors and the central government", said Prof Altbach.

Soft power, hard cash

While the land has been provided by the state of Bihar, the Nalanda's supporters estimate around $1bn (£650m) will be needed. Even that is seen as a modest sum compared to some of the world's major universities.

Australia is funding a dean-level chair of ecology and environment. Singapore will design, build and donate library costing up to $7m (£4.5m). Thailand will contribute $100,000 (£65,000), and China has announced $1m (£650,000) in aid for construction.

"I don't see any dearth of money in the region but they are nowhere near the $1bn endowment, so far not many countries have come forward with their huge purses," said Sukh Deo Muni, a former Indian envoy to Laos and visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

Prof Sen blames India's notorious red tape for holding up funds. But Nalanda will be built up slowly, faculty by faculty rather than having everything at once, he said.

Even its strongest critics admit the idea of a new Nalanda is a viable one. "A country like India must jump on it. It could show that India is present in Asia not only economically and militarily but also intellectually," said Prof Muni.

Others share that bigger vision that will sees Asia asserting itself on the world stage by projecting soft power.

"I'm hoping this project can bring China and India closer together, two great countries, representing two great civilisations of East Asia and South Asia," said Mr Yeo.

But even he admits resurrecting Nalanda "will be a challenge and there is no guarantee that we will succeed. The conception is grand but the implementation will be arduous".

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