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Nalanda University | An ancient centre of learning

“Learning is being here,” calls out the rejuvenated Nalanda University, situated besides the picturesque Rajgir hills, about 90 km east of Patna in Bihar. An apt description for a place which is known as the first international residential school in the world, established roughly 500 years before the famed Oxford University. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a new campus of the varsity on June 19.

Although its history goes back to the times of the Buddha, the ‘Nalanda Mahavihara’, as it was known then, was founded in the 5th century CE by Emperor Kumaragupta, and it flourished for the next 700 years, promoting a syncretic learning experience.

The first residential university of the world was sustained by the conscientiousness of the learned monks and teachers, which included masters such as Nagarjuna, Aryabhatta and Dharmakirti. At its peak, it is believed to have possessed 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students.

Chinese travellers Hiuen-Tsang, who wrote detailed accounts about the university and was a student there himself for five years, says in his memoirs that there was a rigorous oral entrance test for students who wished to enrol and only about 20% qualified. The subjects that were taught at Nalanda included Buddhist scriptures (of both Mahayana and Hinayana schools), philosophy, theology, metaphysics, logic, grammar, astronomy and medicine.

The varsity attracted scholars to its campus from places as distant as China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and South East Asia. Those scholars have left records about the ambience, architecture, and learning at Nalanda, as well as about the profound knowledge of Nalanda teachers. The most detailed accounts have come from Chinese scholars.

For a long time, it was the proverbial “look west” destination for Chinese scholars who wished to study Buddhism.

The ruins of the seat of learning were first rediscovered in 1812 by Scottish surveyor Francis Buchanan-Hamilton. Later, in 1861, it was officially identified as the ancient university by Sir Alexander Cunningham. It was in March 2006, while addressing a joint session of Bihar State Legislative Assembly, that the late former President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, proposed the revival of the ancient university.

The ruins of the university had till then been a mere fascinating subject for historians and archaeologists.

Concurring ideas came simultaneously seeking the re-establishment of Nalanda: from the Singapore government; the leaders of 16-member states of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in January 2007 in the Philippines; and from the fourth East Asia Summit, in October 2009 in Thailand, according to the University website. Parliament of India passed the Nalanda University Act, 2010, and in September 2014, the first batch of students were enrolled.

Master plan

In total, 17 countries other than India — Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Mauritius, Myanmar, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam — have helped set up the University. Ambassadors of these countries attended the inauguration of the campus by Mr. Modi.

In 2013, the master plan for the campus, proposed by renowned architect B.V. Doshi’s Vastu Shilpa Consultants, was chosen after an international competition. Built at an initial cost of ₹1,800 crore ($210 million) and spread over 485 acres, it is a large carbon footprint-free Net-zero campus. The design and architectural elements of the new campus are inspired by the original monasteries and buildings at the Nalanda Mahavihara. It includes over 100 acres of water bodies (Kamal Sagar ponds), an on-grid solar plant, a domestic and drinking water treatment plant, and a water recycling plant as well as over 100 acres of green cover. The University also has a 250-capacity Yoga Center, a state-of -the-art auditorium, library, an archival centre and a fully equipped sports complex.

The university’s Visitor is the President of India. The chancellor and chairperson of the governing board is Prof. Arvind Panagariya. The Vice-Chancellor is Prof. Abhay Kumar Singh. The varsity offers Post Graduate and Doctoral programmes in Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religions; languages and literature; ecology and environmental studies; sustainable development and environment; and, international relations and peace studies. At present, students from over 20 countries are enrolled in various courses.

The university admitted its first batch of 15 students in 2014 to the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environmental Studies. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who had been associated with the project since 2007, was the first Chancellor and the then President, Pranab Mukherjee, the first Visitor.

Beginning of the decline

The university has also seen its fair share of controversies since its inception, notably the appointment of Gopa Sabharwal, a former Reader in sociology at a Delhi University college, to the post of Vice-Chancellor. Prof. Sen later recused himself from continuing as the Chancellor for a second term. He was succeeded by former Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, who also left citing concerns about autonomy and political interference in academic matters.

Notably, Mr. Modi and all the other guests failed to mention Prof. Sen’s name during the inauguration event on Wednesday.

The other wrangle is the narrative surrounding the decline of the university. While the dominant account is that it was destroyed by Turkish invader Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 AD, some experts claim that the varsity saw a natural decay coinciding with the decline of Buddhism in the region. “The reality is that there is no historical source that talks about Bakhtiyar Khilji destroying Nalanda,” says Namit Arora, author of the book Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization.

“Forty years after Khilji’s campaign, a Persian account by Minhaj al-Siraj speaks of Khilji’s destruction of a monastery and the killing of its monks. But this was not Nalanda. Scholars have firmly identified this monastery as Odantapuri, 12 km from Nalanda. It was described as located inside a fortified city (now at Bihar Sharif), a political and economic centre, and hence deemed a military target. There is no record of Khilji ever going to Nalanda, which had little political or economic allure, nor was it a thriving centre of religion at the time,” he told The Hindu.

“For over a century, Nalanda had suffered and dwindled owing to funding cuts, followed by active persecution by the Brahminical kings of the Sena dynasty. Many of its monks had fled south long before Khilji. Rather than a dramatic final end, Nalanda continued its long phase of decay and depopulation for decades after Khilji’s death (1206). Nalanda was in fact still limping along in 1234-36, supported by king Buddasena of Bodh Gaya, when Dharmasvamin, a monk from Tibet studied there and wrote about it,” he added.

Demands have also been raised in both the Bihar Assembly and the Rajya Sabha to change the name of Baktiyarpur Railway station, which is just 60 km away from the varsity.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has, though, dismissed these demands, saying Bakhtiyarpur was his birthplace. “When an Act on Nalanda University was tabled in Parliament, an MP had said the destroyer of the famed varsity had stationed his camp in Bakhtiyarpur. Now, a man born in the same place is rebuilding Nalanda University,” Mr. Kumar said in 2021.

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