Bihar's Pride - India's greatest university is making a comeback

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India's greatest university is making a comeback

F or an institution that was one of the finest universities in recorded history, the makers of the new Nalanda University have a tough act to follow.

Walking in the awesome ruins of the masterpiece set up as early as the 5th century -- past lecture halls, rooms for monks and temples -- it is quite daunting to know that you are at a site where Xuanzang or Huan Tsang, the great Chinese philosopher, was a student for five years and taught here for a year.

Then, of course, there is the town of Nalanda itself. Trudge through its dusty roads and pathways -- and you could indeed be walking in the footsteps of the Buddha.

Lord Buddha is known to have visited the town several times. So did Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainisim.

Nalanda University existed till the 12th century. It housed 10,000 students, 2,000 teachers and had a curriculum including Buddhist studies, fine arts, medicine, mathematics, politics, astronomy and the art of war. Its buildings were an architectural masterpiece which attracted scholars from all over Asia.

Steeped in such overpowering history -- Nalanda University is once again looking towards bringing an Asian renaissance by attracting scholars and students from around the world.

A short distance from the well-preserved remains of the old university, 500 acres of land are being acquired by the state government to rebuild the ancient seat of learning.

"This project will cost Rs 1,000 crores spread over the first few years," says Dr Madan Mohan Jha, Bihar's human resources commissioner. "The deadline for beginning construction is next year."

The state government has already provided Rs 16 crores for the land and is committed to alloting more funds, adds Dr Jha.

The Dalai Lama, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, British economist Meghnad Desai and economist Jean Dreze will advise the Bihar government on setting up the university.

D rawing inspiration from Oxford and Cambridge -- the English universities that came into being about the time Nalanda University was witnessing the end of its glorious days -- the new university hopes to transform Nalanda into a university town.

"If you go to Oxford or Cambridge, you will see the entire city is a university. The city survives because of the university. We are looking at something similar," says Dr Madan Mohan Jha.

The state government hopes for ancillary activities like enhanced air and road traffic that will economically boost the area -- 200 villages close by will also be developed -- after the university is established.

Since any new university can either be set up by a law enacted by the state legislature or by Parliament, the Bihar cabinet cleared the Nalanda Bill last month. It was passed by the state legislature on March 26.

W hen students make the headlines for getting higher and higher salaries even before they graduate from the IIMs, the new Nalanda university wants to provide a novel curriculum -- which strikes a balance between modern and ancient thought.

While its seven schools will provide courses like Communication, Applied Sciences, Development Studies, International Studies, Languages and Natural and Resource Management, it will also teach Theology, Astronomy, Culture, Ethics, Philosophy and Buddhist Studies.

"Subjects that are missing in most of our modern universities will be taught here. Most modern universities are built up on the principle of materialism, consumerism and high salaries and we are confident there will be many students interested in these courses," says Dr Jha.

"The government is not an inanimate thing, if it can think on those lines, I am sure there will be others who think the same way."
W ith a deplorable reputation in higher education -- where delayed academic sessions and erratic quality of teaching, has resulted in an exodus of students to other states -- the founders of the university come with enormous baggage from the past.

Still the state government is sufficiently upbeat and hopes the university will give Bihar a brand.

"There are a lot of things happening in Bihar's universities," says Dr Jha, "like restoring academic activities and the academic calendar of old universities that have acquired bad names. We are trying to offload that baggage."

The senior IAS officer, who is also Bihar's education secretary, packs it with a crisp, candid explanation:

"We have said if we are bad, we are not going to run this university. We will allow others to run it. The Bihar government will be a facilitator -- means we are acquiring land, we are making a law, which has sufficient mechanism to have representation from international donors, and to bring the university to such a situation where it is not even dependent on Bihar for money."

The university will be an autonomous institution and will not be run by the Bihar government. But the state will try to find the first visitor, the first vice-chancellor and constitute a core that will become autonomous.

"It will then withdraw completely," adds Dr Jha, "and the university will run as a community with a structure of the court and governing body which is given in the law."
T he university will have an international character and attract students, faculty and research staff from different parts of the world. It will offer post graduate and research degree programmes in engineering technology, fundamental and basic sciences, social sciences, conflict resolution, knowledge management etc.

The school of Languages will be the only programme providing undergraduate courses in Persian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese etc.

Like the Nalanda University of the past, it will be completely residential. Its Chancellor will be a person of international eminence who may not be required to reside within the campus.

The project report also indicates that the seven schools of the university will be set up in a phased manner. 582 teaching faculty and 5,812 students estimated by the end of phase II, with a student-faculty ratio of 1:10.

The report also assumes that there will be 46 international faculty and $36,000 per anum will be paid to them as salary.

"The detailed project report is a proposal which the government will consider, accept and then send it to the Central government for international funding," says Dr Jha.

The state government has received a formal intimation from Japan's department of economic affairs showing interest in the project, while Singapore and South Korea have also promised funding.

The financing of the university will be conceived with international partners from friendly countries that would ensure its autonomy and educational excellence. 'The university will meet its expenses primarily through self financing, grants and donations with amounts from the govt as it deems fit,' reads the Nalanda Bill.
A spiring to be international in character, the university will have a focus on Asia because of the relevance of Buddhism in the region. Yet its planners say it will not be a religious university, although it will provide the study of religions, theology, philosophy etc.

Plans are underway to enhance associated infrastructure like roads, accommodation and better connectivity that would not only assist in attracting students and faculty but boost tourism in the area.

Nalanda, Rajgir and Bodh Gaya are Bihar's foremost tourism attractions, of immense relevance to the followers of Buddhism and Jainism.

As part of the agenda to enhance tourism in the area, the three major roads connecting these towns will shortly have four lanes. "The project will funded by JVIC ( a construction company ). The proposal has been submitted to them," says Bihar Tourism Secretary Anjani Kumar Singh. "We are also trying to develop rural tourism near the university area."

N alanda, along with the Vikramshila university near Bhagalpur in Bihar, were the two ancient repositories of Buddhist learning in India till they were both destroyed by invaders.

Takshila in present day Pakistan -- widely considered as the oldest university in the world -- was the other important centre for Buddhist teaching.

Founded under the Gupta empire, Nalanda was destroyed thrice and rebuilt twice before it was finally burnt -- according to the Archaeological Survey of India -- by marauding Turkish invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji. Its nine-storeyed library and priceless books, the government tourist guide notes, burned for days.

Today, the ruins of the university are easily one of the Archeological Survey of India's best kept monuments. Just before the harsh north Indian summer set in, its green lawns and colourful dahlias make a perfect picture against the red brick remains.

Resurrecting such a glittering academic past will not be easy, but that it is being revived is a fitting tribute to one of the finest universities of all time.

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