The return of Nalanda

Against the epic scale and lofty credentials of its first millennium avatar, the return of India’s oldest university has been modest so far

The Nalanda ruins. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Nalanda ruins. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Betraying all the sprightly and pimply brightness of their youth, none of the four students who sat across a table in the lobby of their makeshift hostel had any doubt about why they joined India’s newest—and remarkably, its oldest too, by well over a millennium—university. Nostalgia, though, wasn’t the reason.

On 1 September, the four students of ecology and environment studies walked in through the gates of Nalanda University, the first batch of students enrolled in 800 years at the institution. They knew exactly why they were there and what they wanted. It wasn’t merely a conventional “talk and chalk education”, as 22-year-old Jyothirmayee Kandula succinctly describes the largely theoretical bias of the Indian education system.

Professors and students of Nalanda University with vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal (in sari) at the site of the Nalanda ruins.
A week into their master’s-degree classes, there is complete unanimity among the group—Sana Salah from Kolkata, Lubna Khan from Patna, Arun Gandhi from Faridabad and Kandula from Vijayawada—on what makes this unique attempt to resurrect a historic university unmatched for students as well: For their course, students can choose between arts or science degrees; the curriculum is flexible enough to admit management and engineering graduates as their classmates (there’s an engineer in the history course); the syllabus is more knowledge-intensive than industry-focused; the faculty is top drawer and multinational; and at the interactive classes, students often speak more while teachers listen. Writing a thesis is mandatory even at the master’s-degree level.

Somewhere in the middle of this list, Salah mentions “the prestige and greatness” attached to the name, Nalanda University. “One gets a feeling of being in a university like no other in India,” she says.

When the ancient Nalanda University, which thrived between the fifth and 12th centuries, reopened in the Bihar town of Rajgir this month, it not only revived an historic institution but also the multicultural internationalism that was intrinsic to a lost era of India’s education system. Backed by 16 countries—Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and India—and with the US, Russia and European Union discussing future partnerships and collaborations, the Nalanda University of 2014 has ambitions that far exceed the aspirations of Rajgir, a small town of mule-drawn tongas; Bihar, with its dismal education record; and India, which struggles to find an entry in top 100 global university surveys.

In its prime, before it was ransacked and razed by the marauding forces of Bakhtiar Khilji in 1193, Nalanda University had 10,000 students and about 2,000 teachers covering more than 100 subjects, including philosophy, theology and the wider arts and sciences. The Buddhist education centre’s reputation was formidable enough to draw students from China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Scholars like Fa-Hien, I-tsing and Hiuen Tsang came to study at Nalanda.

Buddhist school children at Rajgir
Following Khilji’s invasion and the gradual diminishing of the Buddhist influence over India, when Nalanda University—the oldest known hub of learning in the world—finally ceased to exist, the University of Oxford in the UK and Italy’s University of Bologna were in their infancy, while the universities at Cambridge and Paris were yet to come up.

Against the gargantuan scale and lofty credentials of its first millennium past, Nalanda University’s return in the third millennium has been modest so far. With only the historical studies and ecology and environment studies schools functional, student enrolment is a paltry 16 at the moment. Classes are held in a convention centre in Rajgir—the university gets its name from a small village a short distance from the town, about 75km from the state capital Patna—while a government-owned guest house is doubling as the students’ hostel. Office spaces are packed with plastic-wrapped chairs and unopened cartons.

Other than an outer boundary wall, not a single brick has been laid at the site of the proposed campus. Construction is likely to begin early next year and be completed by 2017. “There was pressure from our international partners to begin the academic session, so we had to open hurriedly,” says a senior employee of Nalanda University who did not want to be named.

The first batch of students, known as “Nalanda pioneer students”, enjoyed a 50% fee waiver and are paying Rs.1.6 lakh a year. The fee may go up from the second session.

The Buddhist sculptures from the Nalanda period worshipped at a Hindu temple in Ghosrawan village
The bet is on a future of scholarship and organized transmission of knowledge, says Gopa Sabharwal, vice-chancellor. Apart from the two existing schools, the research university will soon start programmes in linguistics and literature, economics and management, international relations and peace studies, information science and technology and—in a throwback to its roots in Buddhist religious traditions—a course in Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religions. The faculty for these courses will be decided by next year. “It will take some time for things to settle down. The idea is to build an institution that will outlive us,” says Sabharwal, at breakfast with students and faculty members.

The idea of reviving Nalanda came from former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, while he was addressing the Bihar state legislative assembly in March 2006. The Singapore government too was toying with a similar proposal.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (extreme left) and former external S.M.Krishna (centre) during the Nalanda mentor group meet in New Delhi in 2011. Photo: Raveendran/AFP
The idea found immediate resonance with then Bihar chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar. He promptly earmarked a sprawling 455 acres for the new campus, about 12km from the ruins of the original Nalanda University, and found a ready and willing collaborator in Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Prof. Sen is known to have visited the university ruins as a child with his father. Official leaflets of the new university carry his quote on being “bowled over by the vision it offered to humanity”. “I dreamt of bringing the great institution to life some day. I hope to see that dream being realized before long,” he is quoted as saying.

Prof. Sen is the chancellor of Nalanda University and chairperson of its governing board, which also includes George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore, Meghnad Desai of the London School of Economics, Sugata Bose of Harvard University, Wang Bangwei of Peking University, Tansen Sen of The City University of New York, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn of the Chulalongkorn University of Thailand, and Japanese scholar Susumu Nakanishi. At least five seats of the board are mandated to be held by member states of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a forum of 16 countries in the region, which supported the establishment of the university at the summit held in Thailand in 2009.

Born in Santiniketan in West Bengal and deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, a known votary of a pan-Asian identity, Prof. Sen had previously floated the idea of working to revive cross-cultural connections. Besides Asian interconnections, programmes at Nalanda University will lean towards the social sciences, according to Sabharwal. “The social sciences are under siege worldwide. Pushing them out is not a good idea for any society. Our courses will be at the cutting edge and experiential in the real sense. A student of economics will have to interact daily with a student of literature and all students will have to connect with the outside world,” the vice-chancellor says.

Already, among intellectuals in Patna, there are misgivings about the elitist nature of the newly founded university, as well as its refusal to be “job-oriented”. Sabharwal counters the charge by observing that a keen analytical mind can perform any job.

Students at a makeshift hostel
In its earlier form, “the institution was noted for its specialization in the last stages of a University education, for aiding in the solution of doubts, and training in the arts of disputation and public speaking,” noted historian Radha Kumud Mookerji in his seminal book Ancient Indian Education: Brahmanical And Buddhist, first published from London in 1947. The 100-odd lectures that were imparted daily there were aimed at building minds through debate. The demand for Nalanda-trained intellectuals is illustrated in the book with an anecdote involving one of Nalanda’s most famous students, the Chinese scholar, Hiuen Tsang, who studied there for well over a decade.

When officials at Nalanda took their time sending Hiuen Tsang to Assam, where king Kumara (Bhaskaravarman) wanted him to be spiritual adviser, the king threatened a military invasion and the destruction of Nalanda. Hiuen Tsang eventually went. But the even more powerful king Harsha of “Mid-India” asked that Hiuen Tsang be sent back or Kumara would risk “losing his head”.

On his part, Hiuen Tsang wrote about the confluence of religious thoughts at Nalanda. As a student of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, in which the university specialized, Hiuen Tsang would also spend five years studying sacred Hindu texts, especially the Vedas, and had as a teacher the highest authority on yoga-shastra, Silabhadra.

Some of the ideas and approaches of the old continue to be relevant for the new, and not just in the sense of inter-disciplinary education. The university will be designed by Ahmedabad-based architecture firm Vastu Shilpa Foundation, which has veteran architect Balkrishna Doshi as founder director. Doshi studied the minutiae of the ruins. The width of the walls which kept the interiors cool, the wide open spaces that allowed interactivity, the eco-friendly bricks and the in-campus water bodies are all likely to be appropriated for the proposed campus, which will accommodate 2,000 students.

While the new university is likely to get a further endowment of a hundred acres for “commercial use” from the Bihar government, Sabharwal says that they aim to achieve self-sustainability, to the extent that they will grow their own food.

Currently, the Union government has allocated Rs.2,727 crore for capital and recurring expenses till 2021 and countries like China, Australia, Thailand, Laos and Singapore have contributed funds or pledged infrastructure support.

In Rajgir, the buzz around the new university is unmistakable, with land prices and optimism on the rise. Shaibal Gupta, who heads the Patna-based social science research organization Asian Development Research Institute, and was reported to be part of a think tank which advised former CM Kumar on Nalanda University’s revival, even describes it as the coming of a renaissance in Bihar.

“The involvement of Prof. Sen and global academic minds will bring Bihar back on the map,” he says. Some commentators fear the opposite: that the new university will struggle to overcome the challenges of being located in Bihar, with its poor physical and social infrastructure and public perception.

Yet the legacy of the ancient Nalanda University has survived in Bihar, especially Rajgir. In the pleasant hill-flanked town, an hour away from Bodh Gaya, Japanese and Chinese signage greets visitors. The only star-category hotel, Indo Hokke, flaunts a Japanese menu and minimalist architecture. There are Buddhist temples constructed by Japan, China, Cambodia and Thailand; it’s a popular destination with backpackers; and there’s even a public memorial dedicated to Hiuen Tsang. You can almost feel the cultural pluralism.

After Kumar assigned him the job of identifying the 200 villages whose revenue was dedicated for the upkeep of the old university, archaeologist Bijoy Kumar Choudhary discovered not just a rich archaeological repository in Nalanda district itself, but also got a whiff of the religious compatibility of the era.

“I found 125 Hindu villages which had Buddhist sculptures and relics, dating back to between the sixth and 12th centuries, the period of Nalanda University. I have found no indication of conflict and the religions obviously coexisted in harmony. It is only now that some of us segregate,” he says.

In the village of Ghosrawan, around 25km from Rajgir, at the 25-year-old steel-aluminium-marble wrapped temple of Ma Shakti, we are surprised by the presence of broken and intact black stone statues of Lord Buddha, their vintage undeniable and even resembling the famous Nalanda art style popularized through the former university. The statues sport vermilion marks on the forehead and the 70-year-old priest, Nawalkisore Upadhyay, says they have been worshipped daily along with Hanuman, Ma Shakti and others from the Hindu pantheon.

For worshippers in the village, which reportedly has a high unlettered population, the previous millennium continues in seeming syncretic perpetuity. For many others in Rajgir, the best days of Nalanda University are set to return.

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