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Learning from history

Founded in the fifth century, India's Nalanda University was a seat of scholarly endeavour for 800 years. Now, nearly a millennium later, an international effort is being made to revive the once-great institution, writes Amrit Dhillon

 

At a time when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, one lamp of learning shone brightly in the East, illuminating generations upon generations of minds. Nalanda University, an ancient seat of Buddhist learning and one of India's lost glories, was founded in the fifth century and earned a reputation for intellectual excellence long before Oxford or Cambridge universities were built.

In the 12th century, that light went out. Muslim invaders rampaged through Bihar, in the northeast of India, sacking Nalanda. Legend has it that the multi-storey library and its great towers, bejewelled and gilded to reflect the rays of the sun, was so vast it took weeks to burn. Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj narrated how "smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills".

The marauders destroyed what many say was the world's first university. Its name and reputation were known across Asia, even as far away as Greece. For 800 years, it was a centre of knowledge not only for Buddhist studies but for philosophy, medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Nalanda ceased to exist just when other universities were opening in Bologna, Italy, Paris, France, and Oxford, England.

Now, almost 1,000 years later, a group of men and women are working to revive Nalanda University. The institution is being recreated close to the spot it occupied a millennium ago - where only a few ruins remain of the original red-brick complex - and the hope is that it, too, will become an international centre of learning, with top faculty and students from around the world.

The idea was conceived by Indian Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, and efforts are being driven by scholars and statesmen. Given the scale of the US$500 million project - and the fact that India does not have much recent experience of establishing grand universities - China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore are lending their support.

"The history of Nalanda is an inspiration for the future of Asia. It's a legacy that has enriched Asia and I hope the new university will bring Asia together," says George Yeo Yong Boon, a former minister in Singapore and now a vice-chairman of Hong Kong's Kerry Group (the controlling shareholder of the SCMP Group, which publishes this magazine).

Faculty are being recruited and admissions are about to begin for the first intake of students. Invitations have been sent to research fellows and scholars. Vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal says she is pushing to have the residential building and other amenities ready in time because she wasn't happy with the original plan, which was to use temporary premises.

Construction is scheduled to start in December at the 185-hectare site at Rajgir, 10 kilometres from what remains of the original. It will eventually accommodate 2,500 students and 500 teachers.

The university will come into operation in phases, beginning with post-graduate classes in ecology and the environment, and history. This will be a modest start by historical standards.

"Nalanda, at its height, had over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Our challenge is to match the excellence of the Nalanda of the first millennium for the third millennium," said Sen, last year, in Delhi.

Most of the students at the original Nalanda were Buddhist monks from China, Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia. And, according to legend, Buddha himself visited. The seventh-century Buddhist monk and Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, famous for his 17-year overland journey to India, also studied there.

Xuanzang stayed for two years (in one of the first student dormitories) conducting research in theology, philosophy and religion. A pagoda-shaped building - the Hiuen Tsang Memorial, using another name for Xuanzang - stands in Nalanda town, as a tribute to the scholar.

In his chronicle, Xuanzang portrayed the institution as a kind of Buddhist Ivy League university, buzzing with ideas, debates and seminars. He described towers, temples and pavilions that appeared to "soar above the mists in the sky so that monks in their rooms might witness the birth of the winds and clouds" and how "the lives of all these virtuous men [the monks and scholars] were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind".

Peking University is participating in the project, along with other universities in the 18 countries that make up the East Asia Summit, and China was the first country to hand over cash - US$1 million, for a Chinese studies library.

Singapore will design and pay for the main library; Australia is funding a dean-level chair of ecology and the environment; and Thailand has committed US$100,000. American university Yale is also a partner, along with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The excitement among the team in Delhi rose a few notches in June, when an international jury selected the winning design for the university - that of Vastu Shilpa, a firm of architects based in Ahmedabad, western India. Up until then, on visits to the site, the team had to use their imagination when visualising the new facility. Now, they can enjoy a frisson of expectation as they walk around with the designs in hand, sensing for the first time how they are going to recreate the grandeur and tranquility of the first Nalanda.

Whether the final university bears any resemblance to the master plan made by Vastu Shilpa, though, is not a given. India is a country where ambitious projects are rare and the few that do emerge often end up as scruffy, watered-down versions of the original concept. The reasons are numerous and include bureaucratic interference, poor execution, cost overruns and the sheer inability to deliver something original.

The design proposes a massive central lake and a huge dome-shaped structure that will house the library. The architects plan to harness rain runoff from the Rajgir hills to create several bodies of water.

"The brief we got was wonderfully evocative of the original Nalanda - mango groves, azure pools, lotus ponds and bodies of water everywhere," says Rajeev Kathpalia, senior architect with Vastu Shilpa. "If you see the way the original building was constructed, it was eco-friendly and preserved water."

The location was well chosen by the original founders, he adds.

"On testing the soil, we discovered that it would be perfect for burnt brick and compressed earth blocks. We also plan to use specially designed bricks to keep out the summer heat and preclude the need for air conditioning."

For some, the real challenge will be attracting top educators and students to Bihar. It is one of India's most impoverished states, with little infrastructure and few amenities. With not a cafe, bar, theatre or restaurant in sight, who would want to live in such a remote area? The Bodhi tree where the Buddha achieved enlightenment is nearby, at Bodh Gaya, but the pleasure of sitting under its shade and communing with Buddha may prove to be a poor draw.

No university could flourish in an impoverished area such as Bihar, professor Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education, at Boston College, in the United States, and an expert on world-class universities, told the BBC. "The site of an academic institution is important," he said. "Nalanda may attract a certain number of big thinkers, but academics like to be where the infrastructure is. They want culture and amenities and coffee shops."

The new dean, Anjana Sharma, and her colleagues, met Altbach last year to convince him that he was mistaken. They failed, but Sharma remains adamant that the professor is wrong. Many of the great universities in the US and Europe probably started in villages, too, she says, adding that there is no reason why a new university must, by necessity, be in a metropolitan area.

"I was at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. When it was first set up, it was a totally agrarian setting, a farming village. But gradually it transformed the area, which now revolves totally around the college," says Sharma.

Until seven or eight years ago, Bihar was a basket case. Kidnapping was a key industry, thanks largely to an absence of law and order. The buildings of government-run schools were worse than cattle sheds. Hospitals lacked basic X-ray machines.

But Yeo, who has visited the area five or six times and driven around the countryside, says he believes the economic growth of 9 per cent that Bihar has been experiencing for the past few years will change the landscape sufficiently to attract faculty.

"Every time I visit, I see more trucks on the roads, fatter cows, with fewer ribs showing, brighter saris and shops that are better stocked than before," he says. "The capital, Patna, is bustling with traffic. You hear horns all day and night. There is a lot of economic activity happening and it will bear fruit."

Local politicians are hoping the university will have the same effect as that of Penn State on its surrounding area, and help to develop the region. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has been lavishing money on roads, power stations, convention centres and tourism projects centred on Buddhist sites.

The money he is investing in the new Nalanda is reminiscent of the way, at the old Nalanda's zenith, the university depended on help from the surrounding villages. A copper-plate edict issued by a local king in the ninth century still exists. It asked the villagers to contribute in kind towards the university so its scholars could concentrate on acquiring knowledge.

"Actually, we want to reverse that flow. Instead of the villages contributing to Nalanda, we want the new Nalanda to give back to the countryside by bringing people from all over the world here and helping to lift up the region," says Sharma.

 

ARUN PRAYAG, A 22-YEAR-OLD physics undergraduate at Patna University, is a disenchanted man.

"The lecturers turn up maybe once a term, otherwise they don't teach us. I am getting through the course by paying for tutors in private coaching centres. There is no teaching. We go to the university only on the day of the exams," he says.

Worse, the corruption that has ingrained itself into every single transaction in Indian life has not spared the marking of degrees, at least not in Bihar.

"If a student legitimately gets 85 per cent in the final marking, the examiners knock off a few points. They tell you they will only restore them if you give them a bribe," says Prayag.

That sort of difficulty is something Altbach has perhaps never imagined, even in his most dystopian musings on rural Bihar.

Nalanda, of course, has been conceived with more high-level interest than any run-of-the-mill Indian university. Its revival coincides with India and China laying claim to being the economic superpowers of the future. For many on the continent, the rise of Nalanda will be an icon of the "Asian renaissance".

Its rise will also be a boon for Buddhist studies across Asia, and for Indians rediscovering their country's role in the origins of the religion.

According to scriptures, a Brahmin priest named Mahakasyapa presided over the first Buddhist council in India, held, interestingly, at Rajgir.

Buddhism flourished for many centuries and spread far beyond India, to Japan, Tibet, Bhutan and China. It even became the state religion when the Hindu emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism in the third century.

The great leader was inspired to convert when filled with disgust and guilt by the sight of the battlefield on which he had conquered the Kalinga region, in east India. Ashoka sent his ambassadors far and wide to spread the Buddhist faith. But, in the 13th century, as the faith flourished elsewhere, it began to decline in India itself.

In fact, the Turkish invader who sacked Nalanda, Bakhtiyar Khilji, was trying to uproot Buddhism from Indian soil, to make it more receptive to Islam. Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his 1260 chronicle Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, reported that hundreds of monks at Nalanda were burned alive or beheaded by Khilji, who was apparently incensed that the library had no copy of the Koran.

The vast networks of scholars in the region must have worried Khilji. For Sharma, one of the most exciting elements of the project is recreating those old networks.

"We are supported by all the countries of East Asia," she says. "The US and Russia are backing Nalanda. And for countries like China, Thailand and Singapore, they are as thrilled with the project as we are because Nalanda is also their history."

At a conference of the Association for Asian Studies, in Toronto, Canada, last year, the Nalanda team held a round table meeting to explain their project. After they had reeled off all the Asian countries involved and the support coming in from American universities, a young woman stood up.

"She was a European student," says Sharma. "She wanted to know why on earth Europe was not a part of the revival of Nalanda."

If India's red tape, which can snuff out the best of ideas, doesn't hold proceedings up too much, the university should be completed by 2020. Project execution in India is generally appalling, with many a slip coming 'twixt cup and lip. Time overruns can amount to decades; cost overruns can add zeroes to the original estimate. Even acquiring land for a project can take years, although Nalanda is lucky in that the Bihar government has given it the site. Mind you, seven years have already elapsed since the project was announced, in December 2006.

"It took 200 years for the first Nalanda University to be built," said Sen, last year. "I hope this new campus won't take as long."

For Sabharwal, though, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a new institution. The romance of reviving a historical legacy, meanwhile, keeps Sharma motivated.

So, bit by bit, Nalanda is taking shape. Sen, Yeo, Britain's Lord Meghnad Desai, Professor Wang Bangwei of Peking University and all the other luminaries on the governing board are giving generously of their time. The admissions forms are going to the printers soon; the first applications for fellowships are coming in.

"It will all come together," says Sharma. "The old Nalanda was always ahead of its time. We have to make sure that the new Nalanda also sets new standards."

Yeo, however, is not worried about the time it's taking, saying he would rather not rush: "We need to build something that will endure."

 

 

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