October 10, 2016 1:00 pm JST

India's oldest university is slowly coming back to life

YUJI KURONUMA, Nikkei staff writer

The number of foreign students coming to study at Nalanda University has been increasing year by year.

NEW DELHI -- A revival is underway at Nalanda, site of one of the oldest centers of learning in the world, which flourished in India between the fifth and 12th centuries.

The initiative began slowly and quietly, with the new Nalanda University opening its doors to the first batch of 15 students in 2014. It remains small, with the current third class of students bringing the total number to around 150. However, in keeping with the tradition of the original university of ancient times, Nalanda is working to establish itself as a seat of learning for students from across Asia. Located near the remains of the original university town, it aims to become an leading center of interdisciplinary learning.

Nalanda is a three-hour car ride from Patna, capital of the eastern state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India. Rolling fields give way to scenes of women washing clothes in village ponds, old men herding buffaloes and children playing cricket in paddy fields. The journey ends in the town of Rajgir, a provincial outpost with roadside hawkers selling vegetables and fish. 

Scholars from afar

"The location of this university is [one of] our biggest plus points. ... There is knowledge right outside," said Gopa Sabharwal, the vice chancellor. As is the case with most countries, most Indian universities are found in cities. Nalanda, by contrast, nestles among farms. The courses are designed to take advantage of this rural setting, and the curriculum includes weekly excursions to surrounding villages and historical sites.

The university began the 2014 academic year with courses in history, ecology and environmental studies. In August this year, it added a new school of Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religion. All courses are interdisciplinary. The history course, for example, includes lectures on Asian history, archaeology, Buddhist studies and economics. Navneet, a student from India, said she chose Nalanda "because this is a university that creates value, rather than learning contents from books."

The aim is to revive the glory of the original Nalanda University, one of the oldest seats of learning in the world and one of the few key centers for Buddhist studies in Asia during the fifth to the 12th century. 

The redbrick ruins of the original school, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are near the new incarnation of Nalanda. According to Sanjay Kumar Pandey, an official guide, in its prime the original Nalanda housed a nine-story library that was used by 1,500 tutors and as many as 10,000 students. Chinese scholar and monk Xuanzang -- author of "Datang-Xiyu-Ji," ("Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty," which inspired the classic work "Journey to the West" -- lived and studied at Nalanda for five years during the seventh century. Yusuke Murakoshi from Japan is a student at the university today. He said he wants to "work to address social issues by studying philosophy here, the birthplace of Buddhist studies."

Nalanda is once again seeking scholars from far away. The original 15 students included two foreign students, from Japan and Bhutan; the second group of 50 students has six international students from countries such as Laos and Myanmar. The third has 20 foreign students from 12 different countries.

The idea is to follow in the footsteps of the original university, creating a place for intellectual exchange for scholars from around the world. According to the vice chancellor, although Nalanda is well known as a center for the study of Buddhism, the ancient university was also a place of "cutting-edge knowledge of its time." The old Nalanda also had "medicine, astronomy, mathematics" in its curriculum.

From the start, the revival of Nalanda was planned with strong international representation in mind. The idea of the university was first proposed by the Indian government in 2006. New Delhi then sought endorsements and funding from countries across Asia, including Japan. The university's directors include academics from Singapore and Thailand, and it recently signed a memorandum of understanding for academic exchange with Peking University in China, a country with which India has had tense relations at times. It is this spirit of international collaboration that has attracted students such as Shuang Cui from China, who wants to follow in the footsteps of Xuanzang and "promote economic and cultural ties between China and India."

The pace of expansion has been slow, both in terms of course offerings and the number of students admitted. Sabharwal said this is a conscious decision. While most new colleges and universities start off with a wide range of courses with the idea of quickly recovering the initial investment, Nalanda has a different approach. She adds that moving deliberately is all the more important given the significance of the effort, noting, "We can't afford to fail. It has to be done very carefully. You can't rebuild Nalanda twice. You can only do it once." Thus, the university's development has been slow and steady, with plans to gradually include subjects such as languages and public health.

While its growth may be slow, the setting is magnificent. The university has acquired 1.8 sq. km of land near the current temporary campus that will be developed into an integrated learning center. The plan is to have classrooms and dormitories for 2,400 students. The goal is to build an environmentally friendly, international center of learning.

 

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