Rupam Jain Nair
New Delhi. Indian academics have long dreamt of resurrecting Nalanda University, one of the world’s oldest seats of learning which has lain in ruins for 800 years since being razed by foreign invaders.
Now there is a bigger chance of intellectual life returning to Nalanda after the Parliament in New Delhi last month passed a bill approving plans to rebuild the campus as a symbol of India’s global ambitions.
Historians believe the university, located in the eastern state of Bihar, once catered for 10,000 students and scholars from across Asia. Subjects taught there ranged from science and philosophy to literature and mathematics.
Founded in the third century, it gained international prominence before being sacked by Turkic soldiers, with its vast library burnt down in 1193. At that time, Oxford University was only just coming into existence.
“Nalanda was one of the highest intellectual achievements in the history of the world and we are committed to revive it,” said Amartya Sen, the renowned economist and Nobel laureate who is championing the project.
The new Nalanda University has been allocated 200 hectares of land near its original location. Supporters who have lobbied for the cause for several years acknowledge, however, that it will take major funds to make Nalanda rise from the ashes.
Sen said the ancient Nalanda was given funds by kings and villages. Now, it needs money from the government, private donors and religious groups.
Amid financial constraints, there is an urgent need to introduce more high-level educational institutes in India.
With just 350 universities in a growing country of nearly 1.2 billion people, the National Knowledge Commission recommends the establishment of a staggering 1,500 new universities in the coming decades.
Many wealthy Indian families send their children to the United States, Australia and Britain to complete their education, and they often never return.
Advocates for Nalanda’s resurrection believe they could help reverse the tide so foreign students would compete instead to attend Indian universities.
Among those on the board of the Nalanda Mentor Group is Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, who has said Buddhist groups in the wealthy city-state have shown interest in raising funds for the cause.
Supporters in Japan and China are also be ing targeted for financial support.
An estimated $500 million is needed to build the new campus. It would also take another $500 million to improve the surrounding infrastructure in what is one of India’s poorest regions.
For intellectuals, any new university bearing the Nalanda name will have a lot to live up to.
“In the history of universities and learning, Nalanda’s name is sacred and its end was a tragic episode,” said Ravikant Singh, a professor of history in a private college in Bihar.
“Everything was burnt down but its illustrious legacy has remained forever.”