First global varsity revived after 800 years

First global  varsity revived after 800 years

Tourists, domestic or international, who visit Bihar keep at least one place in their itinerary for sure. That is, Nalanda. They visit the ancient ruins of Nalanda University (NU), ask the guide about all the minute details related to the ancient seat of learning, take awesome pictures and return with some fond memories.

But next time, when they visit the same site, they will have one more place to
explore. The modern NU, which has come into being from September 1, thanks to the concerted efforts of former Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and backed by Manmohan Singh-headed UPA government. The modern university has been funded by the Ministry of External Affairs and other Association for south-east Asian nations.

Actually, it all started in March 2006, when the then President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, while addressing the legislators of Bihar, mooted the idea that since Bihar had the rare distinction of having the first varsity – NU – established in the fifth century-- efforts should be made to revive it. Kalam’s idea set the ball rolling for its revival. The Nitish regime in Bihar held a special Cabinet meeting and cleared the Nalanda Bill in 2009. The UPA Government cleared another hurdle when it passed the Nalanda University Act in November 2010. Around the same time, the Singapore Government proposed its revival as a symbol that would connect Southeast Asia. On September 1, the new university eventually kicked off with seven faculty members and 11 students.

Though External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will formally inaugurate the university on September 19, teaching has already commenced from a make­shift campus, just 12 km away from the ruins of ancient NU, which was destroyed by Muhammad Bin Bakhtiyar Khilji, a general of Qutbuddin Aibak in the 12th century.

A beginning has been made with just two schools: the school of ecology & environmental studies, and the school of historical studies. “Many more students and faculty members will join us in the coming days and months,” said NU Vice-Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal.

She said that the university had been set up as a centre of excellence to impart seamless knowledge to students not confined by boundaries, geographical or intellectual. “Our ethos will be the same as the NU of the yore, but in a modern avatar,” she added.

The Union Government has already sanctioned Rs 2,700 crore to raise the residential university which is likely to have seven schools for postgraduate and doctorate students by its scheduled completion in 2020.

The modern centre of excellence is to come up on a sprawling 443-acre campus, encircled by an 8-km long boundary wall. Till its permanent campus is completed, the NU administration has made a temporary arrangement to lodge its students in a state government hotel where it has hired 40 rooms and three suites for holding classes. “One floor of the hotel is for boys, while another one is for girls. The university will run a mess at the hotel for its students as well as faculty members,” said the VC. 

The tuition fee for the PG courses has been pegged at Rs 3 lakh per annum, plus an administrative charge of Rs 75,000, besides fee for boarding and lodging. At Rs 3.75 lakh per year, the fees are not cheap, and, therefore, have drawn flak by eminent educationists.

“People will pay that kind of money to go to an IIT or an IIM. But they won’t pay it for liberal arts,” said a Patna University professor, wishing not to be identified. Apart from the fee which could be a stumbling block in attracting the bright students, NU has been at the receiving end for other reasons too.

“The revival of NU is an important effort. But most members of its governing body are based abroad and hence are unaware of the nitty-gritty of the project,” said social scientist Ajay Kumar. 

Notably, a governing body comprising Chancellor Amartya Sen, Lord Meghnad Desai, Professor Sugata Bose and acade­mics from Singapore, China and Japan, is responsible for its administration. The earlier avatar of NU, considered to be one of the finest universities in recorded history, and renowned for its connection with Lord Buddha and famous Chinese philosopher Hieun Tsang, is said to be one of the ancient schools of knowledge during the period of 5th to 12th century.

Established during the reign of Kuma­ra Gupta-I (AD 414-445 ), NU was argua­bly the highest seat of Buddhist learning. Spread over in nearly two square kilometres, it had about 1500 professors and 10,000 students. Legend has it that scholars such as Panini and Jivaka studied there.

According to Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang, who was a student and later a teacher at the ancient NU, it was a six-storey building where the staff and students had a free boarding and lodging. Students were not charged any fee but entrance to the university was through an extremely tough entrance test.

The university offered a choice of many subjects – philosophy, astronomy, literature, logic, Buddhism and Hindu­ism. The university had helped spread
Indian culture in many South Asian countries like Tibet, China and Japan.
The NU ruins are a protected monument and a popular heritage site.

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