Nalanda University will take time to materialise,
Singapore Buddhists to fund multi-million-dollar library project
Compiled by Tipitaka Network newsdesk, Sunday, August 8, 2010
Updated: Sunday, September 5, 2010
During the six centuries of its storied existence,
there was nothing else quite like Nalanda University. Probably
the first-ever large educational establishment, the college even
counted the Buddha among its visitors and alumni. At its height,
it had 10,000 students, 2,000 staff and strove for both understanding
and academic excellence. Today, this much-celebrated centre of Buddhist
learning is in ruins.
After a period during which the influence and importance of
Buddhism in India declined, the university was sacked in 1193 by a
Turkic general, apparently incensed that its library may not have
contained a copy of the Koran. The fire is said to have burned and
smouldered for several months.
Now this famed establishment of philosophy, mathematics,
language and even public health is poised to be revived. A beguiling
and ambitious plan to establish an international university with the
same overarching vision as Nalanda – and located alongside
its physical ruins – has been spearheaded by a team of
international experts and leaders, among them the Nobel-winning
economist Amartya Sen.
"At its peak it offered an enormous number of subjects in the
Buddhist tradition, in a similar way that Oxford [offered] in the
Christian tradition – Sanskrit, medicine, public health and
economics," Dr Sen said in New Delhi.
"It was destroyed in a war. It was [at] just the same time
that Oxford was being established. It has a fairly extraordinary
history – Cambridge had not yet been born." He added: "Building
will start as soon as the legislation passes."
The Nalanda University Bill, approved by the Union Cabinet
last month, is being introduced in India Parliament.
The plan to resurrect Nalanda – in the state of
Bihar – and establish a facility prestigious enough to
attract the best students from across Asia and beyond, was apparently
first voiced in the 1990s. But the idea received more widespread
attention in 2006 when the then Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam set
about establishing an international "mentor group". Members of
the Nalanda Mentor Group, chaired by Sen, include
Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, historian Sugata Bose, Lord
Desai and Chinese academic Wang Banwei.
The group concluded an extensive two-day meeting on August 3
that was also attended by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish
Kumar. This is the sixth meeting of the Nalanda Mentor Group.
George Yeo, visiting Singapore foreign minister and member of
the mentor group, said he hoped "that by the East Asia summit, the bill
will be passed and work will begin".
[ India Parliament's upper house, Rajya Sabha, passed the Nalanda University Bill
2010 on Saturday, August 21, in a special sitting. The bill proposed to re-establish
the historic Nalanda University in Bihar as an international institute of learning. ]
A key challenge for the group is to raise sufficient funds for
the university. It has been estimated that US$425M (Rs.1,005 crore)
will be required to build the new facility, with a further US$500M
needed to sufficiently improve the surrounding infrastructure. The
group is looking for donations from governments, private individuals
and religious groups. The governments of both Singapore and India have
apparently already given some financial commitments.
The state government of Bihar in eastern India, has acquired
446 acres of land for the university campus and has drawn up plans
for a new international airport, roads, other infrastructure and
ancillary services in support of the university.
Singapore Buddhist organisations have also offered donations for
the construction of a world-class library at the university. 'The Singapore
Buddhist community is making an important gesture to finance the
library,' Sen added. They have reportedly offered around $5-10 million
(Singapore dollars) to finance the institution.
Dr Sen said the new Nalanda project, whose predecessor easily
predated both the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco
– founded in 859 AD and considered the world's oldest,
continually-operating university, and Cairo's Al Azhar University (975
AD), had already attracted widespread attention from prestigious
institutions. The universities of Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Paris and
Bologna had all been enthusiastic about possible collaboration. The new
Nalanda plans to have partners from universities in the western world,
as well as Asian institutes like Chulalongkorn University of Thailand.
The mentor group also announced Gopa Sabharwal as the
vice-chancellor-designate. Sabharwal is a professor in sociology at
Delhi's Lady Sri Ram College.
Some commentators believe a crucial impact of the establishment
of a new international university in India would be the boost it
gave to higher education across Asia. A recent survey of universities
by the US News and World Report magazine listed just three Asian institutions
– University of Tokyo, University of Hong Kong and Kyoto University
– among the world's top 25. (see
Writing when plans for Nalanda were first announced, Jeffrey
Garten, a professor in international business and trade at the Yale
School of Management, said in the New York Times: "The new Nalanda
should try to recapture the global connectedness of the old one. All of
today's great institutions of higher learning are straining to become
more international... but Asian universities are way behind." He added:
"A new Nalanda could set a benchmark for mixing nationalities and
culture, for injecting energy into global subject. Nalanda was a
Buddhist university but it was remarkably open to many interpretations
of that religion. Today, it could... be an institution devoted to
global religious reconciliation." (see
Pegged as a symbol of global cooperation in education, the
Nalanda University, proposed to be set up in Bihar near the site where
an ancient university flourished centuries ago, will have schools on
Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative literature, historical
studies and ecology and environmental studies.
As Garten pointed out, the new university will have much to
live up to. The original, located close to the border with what is now
Nepal, was said to have been an architectural masterpiece, featuring 10
temples, a nine-storey library where monks copied books by hand, lakes,
parks and student accommodation. Its students came from Korea, Japan,
China, Persia, Tibet and Turkey, as well as from across India. The 7th
Century Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, visited Nalanda and wrote detailed
accounts of what he saw, describing how towers, pavilions and temples
appeared to "soar above the mists in the sky [so that monks in their
rooms] might witness the birth of the winds and clouds".