This could be the New Bihar Story. From the thousand-year-old ruins of an ancient university, a blueprint is being unveiled to build a world-class institute of learning...
Nearly 90 km from Patna lies a morsel of the past. Though dead and mostly buried, it jibes at the present: it speaks of a legacy that the state of Bihar perhaps so undeservedly lays claim to. Till recently, no one listened to the ruins of Nalanda. Now, their silence is being heard.
In a visionary gesture, the Nitish Kumar Government has decided to revive the university that was perhaps the biggest international seat of learning between 5th and 12th centuries AD, the first residential academic centre that attracted scholars from as far as China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. Some of these countries, including China and Japan, are now coming together to bring Nalanda to life.
“You can gauge the enthusiasm from the fact that the issue figured in the recent talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao and then with the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. It also figured in the East Asian Summit held in January in Philippines this year and is likely to be raised again at the summit in November in Singapore,” says N.K. Singh, Deputy Chairman, State Planning Board.
Though countries from East and Southeast Asia—for whom Bodh Gaya and Nalanda were crucial pilgrimages—had always wanted to revive the university, it took concrete shape when it was pursued by outgoing President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He had outlined the contours of the proposed university during his special address to the Bihar Legislature last year. Of the 10 suggestions for a prosperous Bihar, revival of the university figured as crucial.
The Nitish Administration lapped up the idea, with the Chief Minister taking a keen interest in the project. He, perhaps, realises that the project can transform Bihar’s image in the international arena and yield long-term benefits for the state in terms of investment. Within a short span and at a surprising pace, the Government identified around 500 acres of land for setting up the international university and had a bill enacted by the state assembly. “By next week, we hope to take possession of around 450 acres,” says Nalanda District Magistrate Anand Kishore.
The proposed university will be situated 16 km from the ruins of Nalanda at the foot of the hills in Rajgir (earlier known as Rajgriha) and start functioning from 2009. It will be unique in the sense that it will be owned jointly by several countries, especially from South and Southeast Asia. The University Act clearly talks about setting up a consortium of international partners and friendly countries, and the project has already attracted the attention of some of the most dynamic economies of East and Southeast Asia, ringing hope in a state lagging far behind in all indices of development. The Nalanda project hopes to revive the historical ties this region enjoyed in areas like trade, science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and philosophy.
Possibly the first of its kind in the world, it intends to recreate the spirit of its ancient counterpart. “The architecture and the buildings for the university and its campus shall be carefully designed so as to reflect its vision and mission as set out in the objectives of the university,” the Act for the university states.
History has it that Nalanda was an architectural marvel and its sprawling campus could accommodate nearly 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. It had a nine-storey library, eight compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. The ancient university was multidisciplinary and the scholars jostled to take lessons in subjects ranging from fine arts and medicine to philosophy and astronomy. Mathematics and politics were the other crucial disciplines along with warfare. Nalanda’s most celebrated scholar was perhaps Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang, who not only studied here but also taught and spent nearly 15 years at the university. In fact, India and China have recently erected a memorial at Nalanda to honour Tsang.
The Union Government has also set up a Mentor Group, which would be headed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, have members drawn from different countries and Foreign Secretary as its ex-officio member-secretary. Singapore Foreign Minister George Hui, Wangei Hui, Director, Institute of Indian Studies, Beijing, Prof Sugata Bose (Harvard), Lord Meghnad Desai and Prof D.N. Jha of Delhi University are some who have consented to be members.
“The Mentor Group will give a report on pedagogy, syllabus, academic calendar, funding and organisational structure of the university. The group’s first meeting is scheduled in the middle of July in Singapore. After that it will hold three more meetings in Tokyo, Beijing and India to give a final shape to the plan. The report is expected by the end of the year,” says Singh.
“The report will be given a final shape in consultation with the university’s Visitor—likely to be Kalam after his term as President ends—and it will then be submitted to international agencies for funding,” says Bihar Human Resource Development Secretary Madan Mohan Jha. Nitish Kumar will formally offer the Visitor’s post to Kalam after he leaves the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The Bihar Government has already had a detailed project report (DPR) prepared by Educational Consultants of India Limited (EDCIL) for the establishment of the university, which is expected to incur a total expenditure of Rs 630 crore and an annual recurring expenditure of Rs 375 crore. Once international funding is assured for the University of Nalanda, the state government hopes that its other projects for developing tourist infrastructure would also receive international support.
To begin with, the new university will have seven Schools of Learning, including Philosophy and Buddhist Studies, Information and Communication (Informatics), Basic and Applied Sciences, Development Studies, Natural Resource Management, International Studies and Languages. The final structure will, however, depend on the report of the Mentor Group.
In the first phase, the university will offer only postgraduate, research, doctoral and post-doctoral degrees, and it expects to attract students from several countries. A scholar of international repute will be the university’s chancellor.
According to the DPR, in the first year, the university will have 1,137 students and the number will increase to 4,530 by the fifth year. The university will maintain a 1:10 teacher-student ratio and a minimum proportion of academic and non-academic staff in the ratio of 70:30. The faculty members shall be so selected that they are culturally tuned to the vision and mission of the university.
Realising that history could repeat itself in the modern context, the Nitish Kumar Government has already chalked out an ambitious plan to develop Nalanda and Rajgir as per international standards. A state-of-the-art tourist park, township, airport and golf course have been planned, targeting foreign investments, which will be used to build world-class infrastructure in the region to help boost tourism.
The biggest challenge before the state, Centre and others involved in establishing the university would be to arrange funding and get the best faculty. Only then can it hope to attract students from across the world. Only then may the clamouring ruins of Nalanda finally fall silent, the dead past laid to rest.