The Revival of Nalanda

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DR MANAS DAS |

SOME say it is an anachronism. To some others it is a mere fancy project. A considerable few are not sure about the future of this renovated legacy and they fume at the brouhaha over it. But not many, in their senses, can dispute the glamour and pride associated with the brand name ‘Nalanda’ that is synonymous with the grand glory of ancient Indian civilisation. More than 500 years before Oxford University was established, this ancient Indian centre of learning was home to nine million books and attracted 10,000 students from around the world.

■ The administrative block at Nalanda University | Manisha Mondal

As the Dalai Lama once said: “The source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have has come from Nalanda.” The glorious institution is a bright relic of the distant past, but such was its charisma that an urge has been felt to revive it more than 800 years after its total destruction.

 

The early days of the new Nalanda started with a great number of teething problems and controversies ranging from alleged mis–governance, financial mismanagement, recruitment of Chancellors, VCs, teachers and administrators, formation of mentors’ group, curriculum and infrastructural inadequacies. A pall of despair came with the exit of the then Chancellor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen

 

At the inauguration of its new campus on June 19 this year, prime minister Narendra Modi said that Nalanda University embodies India’s identity, respect, value and mantra. Terming it a saga, he reaffirmed the emphatic truth that “flames may burn books, but they cannot erase knowledge.” The new campus offers Masters and Ph. D programmes in Historical and Buddhist studies, International Relations, Hindu Studies [Sanatana Dharma], Philosophy and Comparative Religion, World Literature along with modern ones like Ecology and Environment Studies and Sustainable Development and Management to keep abreast with the times.

 

A bill was passed in Parliament to build the university near the ruins of the ancient university. The Bihar government allotted 455 acres of land for its construction. The enrollment of students started way back in 2014, but trouble started within a short time It is pertinent to note that another globally renowned centre of learning of ancient India, Taxila University, located in Rawalpindi district of present–day Pakistan, was burned by the marauding Huns in the 5th century CE and its proposed revival plans are yet to see the light of day

 

The present campus can cater to around 1,900 students with its 40 classrooms, two auditoriums, an international centre, a faculty and a sports complex and many other amenities both for the teachers and students. It is difficult to build a complete full–fledged and successful university at any point of time, more so when the aim is to revive a fully abandoned one with global renown.

■ Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen was served for nine years from 2007 to 2016, first as the chairman of the Nalanda Mentors Group and then as its chancellor since 2010 | File Photo

The Nalanda project is no exception. The early days of the new Nalanda started with a great number of teething problems and controversies ranging from alleged mis–governance, financial mismanagement, recruitment of Chancellors, VCs, teachers and administrators, formation of mentors’ group, curriculum and infrastructural inadequacies. A pall of despair came with the exit of the then Chancellor and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. The global academia went overboard in declaring the premature death of the new version of the famed institution. But the inauguration of the modern campus, albeit after a prolonged period, testifies to the sentiment and commitment the country still has for this Ivy League centre of learning of medieval India.

It was the then President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, a visionary par excellence, who first proposed the Nalanda revival project in 2006 during a visit to Bihar. Subsequently, a bill was passed in Parliament to build the university near the ruins of the ancient university. The Bihar government allotted 455 acres of land for its construction. The enrollment of students started way back in 2014, but trouble started within a short time. After Sen’s departure, a number of faculty members left the institution causing anger and anxiety among students. There were also grievances regarding lack of proper guides, curriculum change, insufficient staff strength and hostel facilities.

■ In 630 CE, Nalanda had 10000 resident students from India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Sumatra and Java. There were 1510 teachers & 1500 workers within the campus & the Chancellor then was Sila Bhadra Maha Thera, who was a foremost Buddhist scholar. Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang stayed there for five years; studied Yoga shastra under Silabhadra’s guidance and was all praise for this ancient institution and its teaching and learning process | Archive

It has taken around a decade to build the new campus with state–of–the–art amenities. But the presence of a great number of foreign dignitaries and their keen interest in the revival project at the campus

 

The glorious institution is a bright relic of the distant past, but such was its charisma that an urge has been felt to revive it more than 800 years after its total destruction

 

inauguration hint at the fact that Nalanda, with its enviable legacy, is still a name to reckon with, an institution that can defy permanent death and destruction. It is pertinent to note that another globally renowned centre of learning of ancient India, Taxila University, located in Rawalpindi district of present–day Pakistan, was burned by the marauding Huns in the 5th century CE and its proposed revival plans are yet to see the light of day.

Vikramshila, one of the most important Buddhist Mahaviharas of ancient India and founded by the Pala Emperor Dharmapala in the late eighth century, was also destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1193 and is only an archaeological site today. But Nalanda had 10,000 students in comparison to Vikramshila’s one thousand, and Taxila, unlike Nalanda, was not exactly a university as it did not have a proper functioning educational system with regular exams and well–planned curriculum.

As for European rivals, the oldest one, Bologna University in Italy was founded in 1088 by which time Nalanda had been churning out graduates from a number of Asian countries for more than six hundred years. Situated in close proximity to the Rajgir hills, the ancient Nalanda University, the first residential university in the world, was founded by the great Gupta emperor Kumaragupta in 427 CE and it reigned supreme for over eight centuries before it was destroyed by the Turkish invader Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 12th century.

 

A minimum of one hundred lectures would be held in a day at Nalanda in the different lecture halls of the university. The huge library had three massive buildings of which ‘Ratnasagara’ was a nine–storeyed one that housed the most precious books and manuscripts. A vast number of rare and sacred books involving many branches of human understanding were kept in all those buildings. Nalanda, for example, had the Upanishads in original and a treasure trove of Sanskrit books and manuscripts like ‘Astrasahasrika Prajnaparamita’

 

The university had ten temples, classrooms, meditation halls, monasteries, dormitories and other facilities including lakes and parks spread across eight compounds. Its curriculum included the study of Mahayana Buddhism, the Vedas, Logic, Sanskrit Grammar, Medicine, Samkhya and many other subjects. Many scholars of the university left accounts of the great ambience, architecture and the quality of teaching in this monastic university. Among its distinguished teachers and students mention may be made of Nagarjuna, Aryabhatta and Dharmakirti. Silabhadra was the head of Nalanda monastery during the time of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang’s visit in 637 CE. Hiuen Tsang stayed there for five years; studied Yoga shastra under Silabhadra’s guidance and was all praise for this ancient institution and its teaching and learning process.

■ Ancient Vikramshila University | Archive

Another Chinese traveller Yijing too left a touching account of the love of learning at Nalanda. According to his account, a minimum of one hundred lectures would be held in a day at Nalanda in the different lecture halls of the university. The huge library had three massive buildings of which ‘Ratnasagara’ was a nine–storeyed one that housed the most precious books and manuscripts. A vast number of rare and sacred books involving many branches of human understanding were kept in all those buildings. Nalanda, for example, had the Upanishads in original and a treasure trove of Sanskrit books and manuscripts like ‘Astrasahasrika Prajnaparamita’ all of which were burnt by Khilji in a most heinous way.

This destruction was also responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy and anatomy as many of the books burnt contained inputs on these subjects. Many monks and scholars were also beheaded to stop the flow of knowledge from scholar to scholar. The destruction being so fatal, no other emperor even attempted to rebuild this gem of an institution to keep the great legacy going. The word ‘Nalanda’ combines three Sanskrit words ~ ‘NaAlam-Da”~ which mean the “Unstoppable Flow of Knowledge.” What made Nalanda particularly interesting was that it adopted the Gurukul system of education and applied it to higher learning, in that the students were offered living facilities within the campus itself. Nalanda was arguably the first institution of its kind to offer living facilities to its students.

 

Vikramshila, one of the most important Buddhist Mahaviharas of ancient India and founded by the Pala Emperor Dharmapala in the late eighth century, was also destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1193 and is only an archaeological site today

 

In its new form, Nalanda appears both anachronistic and futuristic. It may have outlived its glory as a centre of excellence for ancient studies, but with its seamless co–existence between nature and man, between living and learning, the University can definitely boast “Learning is being here.” Rajgir town may have transport problems, the surrounding locality may lack basic educational facilities and the famed collection of books and faculty may have gone forever, but today’s Nalanda can certainly shine with the right mix of sufficient resources, autonomy, good governance, vision and planning, recruitment of quality teachers and ability to attract meritorious and competitive students.

This revived institution has potential to be a global bridge of learning that can build relationships even further than in the past. Because of its great intellectual heritage, Nalanda University can truly be an ideal centre of civilisational dialogue and inter–faith understanding as it once was. Nalanda with its age–old glory and inspiring ideals has the right to exist not just for the common betterment of Asia, but the entire world. ■

(LOOKEAST is not responsible for the opinions, facts or any media content presented by contributors. We are reproducing a The Statesman reportage. The writer, a Ph. D in English from Calcutta University and a freelance writer)

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