Reviving India’s Nalanda University

For the last three weeks at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, India’s top museum for modern and contemporary art, an exhibition of a different sort has been on display - designs for the Nalanda University campus.

The exhibition charts how the project to revive the ancient university of Nalanda - backed by Singapore, among other countries - has evolved in the last seven years to the finalisation of the design of the US$281 million (S$351 million) campus.

The winning entry by Indian firm Vastu Shilpa Consultants, chosen by a panel of architects from Singapore, Japan, China and India, includes a dome-shaped library at the heart of the campus.

The ancient Buddhist university in northern India was famed for its nine-storey library that housed thousands of books and the legend is that when the university was destroyed by invaders in 1193 and the library was set on fire, it burnt for days.

The world’s first residential university, it thrived from the fifth century until its destruction, and attracted students from as far off as Greece and China.

Today only a couple of brick structures of the original university survive.

The effort to get the new university, 12km away from the site of the ancient university in Rajgir in the state of Bihar, off the ground is now gathering pace.

The plan is to set up the School of Ecology and Environment Studies and the School of Historical Studies in a temporary campus and enrol students by next year.

"We are working to start the academic session from next year from a temporary campus," said Mr Prasoon Mishra, accounts assistant at Nalanda University. He said that the response to the exhibition had been good from students and architects alike.

The project to revive the ancient university, which once housed 10,000 students and faculty, was announced in 2006 and backed by the East Asia Summit, a regional grouping that includes Asean.

The initiative is being led by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, chairman of the governing board, and statesmen like former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo who is on the governing board of the university.

Its backers have said that collaborations are being looked at with foreign universities such as Yale, Peking University and Seoul University.

But the push to revive the university is not without hitches, including procedural delays like funds being released from the federal government that Prof Sen blamed on red tape.

A major challenge is building a university of excellence and attracting students from different countries to study in the state of Bihar.

Growth rate of the state has gone into double digits but it is still struggling to catch up with other advanced states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

The change in Bihar started when Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar, a keen supporter of the Nalanda project, took over as chief minister of the state in 2005.

Students from the state migrate in large numbers to study in other parts of the country. But many believe that a good university can be created at Nalanda.

"If the university is different and offers something fresh or has a fresh approach, then I think it will catch on wherever it is,” said Mr Devinder Sharma, a trade policy analyst who has written extensively on Bihar and recently visited the ruins of the ancient university and also saw the new site.

Prof Sen said on the Nalanda University website: “It would be absurd to expect that Nalanda would burst into excellence within a short time... The old Nalanda can be a great inspiration for that."

"Even though for nearly 1,000 years, Bihar was the cradle of what we can call the Indian civilisation, it is now very much a backward part of a rapidly advancing India. Bihar needs development with great urgency and Nalanda can be more than an inspiration for this," he