Sunday, May 11, 2008

Nalanda to move from ruins to riches



NEW YORK: Why would a mentor group associated with a university that will be founded in the boondocks of Bihar outside a village called Bargaon be meeting in Tokyo, Singapore, and now in New York?

Because the stakeholders come from far and wide, stretching from East Asia to the United States, and the university is no ordinary one. We are talking here of Nalanda, the famous Indian seat of learning and one of the world's first residential universities founded some 1500 years ago that in its heyday boasted of over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers coming from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.

Last week, representatives from host nation India and the East Asian countries had their third meeting in New York to decide the nuts and bolts of reviving the original globalist school "aimed at advancing the concept of an Asian community...and rediscovering old relationships."

Chaired by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, the mentor group decided on six faculties for what will largely be a post-graduate research university. They include a School of Buddhist studies, philosophy, and comparative religion; School of historical studies; School of International Relations and Peace; School of Business Management and Development; School of Languages and Literature; and, School of Ecology and Environmental Studies.

The mentor group also decided to select an eminent academician to be the Inaugural Rector an initial appointment period of five years to oversee the project, which is expected to start rolling in 2009 after the group meets again in New Delhi in August and gives its recommendation to the East Asian Summit in December. By then, countries are expected to write out the checks to revive one of the world's landmark learning centers.

The numbers are still fuzzy, but the founders are looking at an initial endowment of anywhere from $250 million to $ 1 billion, a modest start in an era when Harvard University's endowment stands at $35 billion ( see Indiaspora ).

"The idea is not to have a Harvard replica...and besides, the dollar still goes a long way in India," said Neelam Deo, India's consul-general in New York who hosted the meeting, adding that the aim of reviving the university was "to emphasize the importance of eastern intellectual endeavour and ensure that human aspiration is not be dominated by western imprint."

The oldest extant universities in the world -- in continuous operation -- date back to around 1200 years ago, and they are all outside the United States. The University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco (founded 859 AD), is listed as the world's oldest, continually-operating, degree-granting university, followed by Cairo's Al Azhar University (975 AD).

European universities all came in the next millennium with Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), and Oxford (1167) listed as the oldest. Nalanda preceded all of them, having been founded around 450 AD under the patronage of the Gupta
emperors, although some records date it back to 500 BC around the time of Buddha. It functioned till 1193 when it was sacked by the armies of Bakhtiyar Khilji.

But now, with the economic weight of the world shifting again to the east, countries in the region appear keen to also gain intellectual heft. Although India, China, Japan and Singapore are the prime movers, even Australia and New Zealand are said to be keen to contribute to the Nalanda project.
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