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Oldest university on earth is reborn after 800 years

August 5, 2010

Nalanda, an ancient seat of learning destroyed in
1193, will rise again thanks to a Nobel-winning economist
By Andrew Buncombe
The Independent (UK)
August 4, 2010

During the six centuries of its storied
existence, there was nothing else quite like
Nalanda University. Probably the first-ever large
educational establishment, the college – in what
is now eastern India – even counted the Buddha
among its visitors and alumni. At its height, it
had 10,000 students, 2,000 staff and strove for
both understanding and academic excellence.
Today, this much-celebrated centre of Buddhist learning is in ruins.

After a period during which the influence and
importance of Buddhism in India declined, the
university was sacked in 1193 by a Turkic
general, apparently incensed that its library may
not have contained a copy of the Koran. The fire
is said to have burned and smouldered for several months.

Now this famed establishment of philosophy,
mathematics, language and even public health is
poised to be revived. A beguiling and ambitious
plan to establish an international university
with the same overarching vision as Nalanda – and
located alongside its physical ruins – has been
spearheaded by a team of international experts
and leaders, among them the Nobel-winning
economist Amartya Sen. This week, legislation
that will enable the building of the university
to proceed is to be placed before the Indian parliament.

"At its peak it offered an enormous number of
subjects in the Buddhist tradition, in a similar
way that Oxford [offered] in the Christian
tradition – Sanskrit, medicine, public health and
economics," Mr Sen said yesterday in Delhi.

"It was destroyed in a war. It was [at] just the
same time that Oxford was being established. It
has a fairly extraordinary history – Cambridge
had not yet been born." He added, with
confidence: "Building will start as soon as the bill passes."

The plan to resurrect Nalanda -- in the state of
Bihar -- and establish a facility prestigious
enough to attract the best students from across
Asia and beyond, was apparently first voiced in
the 1990s. But the idea received more widespread
attention in 2006 when the then Indian president,
APJ Abdul Kalam set about establishing an
international "mentoring panel". Members of the
panel, chaired by Mr Sen, include Singapore's
foreign minister, George Yeo, historian Sugata
Bose, Lord Desai and Chinese academic Wang Banwei.

A key challenge for the group is to raise
sufficient funds for the university. It has been
estimated that $500m will be required to build
the new facility, with a further $500m needed to
sufficiently improve the surrounding
infrastructure. The group is looking for
donations from governments, private individuals
and religious groups. The governments of both
Singapore and India have apparently already given some financial commitments.

Mr Sen said the new Nalanda project, whose
ancestor easily predated both the University of
Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco – founded in 859 AD
and considered the world's oldest,
continually-operating university, and Cairo's Al
Azhar University (975 AD), had already attracted
widespread attention from prestigious
institutions. The universities of Oxford,
Harvard, Yale, Paris and Bologna had all been
enthusiastic about possible collaboration.

Some commentators believe a crucial impact of the
establishment of a new international university
in India would be the boost it gave to higher
education across Asia. A recent survey of
universities by the US News and World Report
magazine listed just three Asian institutions –
University of Tokyo, University of Hong Kong and
Kyoto University -- among the world's top 25.

Writing when plans for Nalanda were first
announced, Jeffery Garten, a professor in
international business and trade at the Yale
School of Management, said in the New York Times:
"The new Nalanda should try to recapture the
global connectedness of the old one. All of
today's great institutions of higher learning are
straining to become more international... but
Asian universities are way behind." He added: "A
new Nalanda could set a benchmark for mixing
nationalities and culture, for injecting energy
into global subject. Nalanda was a Buddhist
university but it was remarkably open to many
interpretations of that religion. Today, it
could... be an institution devoted to global religious reconciliation."

As Mr Garten pointed out, the new university will
have much to live up to. The original, located
close to the border with what is now Nepal, was
said to have been an architectural masterpiece,
featuring 10 temples, a nine-storey library where
monks copied books by hand, lakes, parks and
student accommodation. Its students came from
Korea, Japan, China, Persia, Tibet and Turkey, as
well as from across India. The 7th Century
Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, visited Nalanda and
wrote detailed accounts of what he saw,
describing how towers, pavilions and temples
appeared to "soar above the mists in the sky [so
that monks in their rooms] might witness the birth of the winds and clouds".

Yet the project is not without controversy. Mr
Sen was yesterday asked about reports that
claimed the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist
leader who has lived for more than 50 years in
the Indian town of Dharamsala, had been
deliberately omitted from the project to avoid
antagonising potential Chinese investors and
officials. He replied: "He is heading a religion.
Being religiously active may not be the same as
[being] appropriate for religious studies."

The Indian authorities believe the establishment
of the college would act as a global reminder of
the nation's history as a centre of learning and
culture. Politician Nand Kishore Singh, who sits
on the country's influential federal planning
commission and who is also a member of Nalanda's
steering group, said legislation would be placed
before the parliament this week. He added: "I
think there is strong bi-partisan support."
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