Open rooms as study centres, small classrooms with a student-teacher ratio of 1:8, and “bottle-shaped” bazaars and shopping arcades for students — a mere 12 km from the ruins of Nalanda, this soaring idea of a learning space has been taking shape over the last four years in Rajgir, a town that’s over a 100 km from Patna.
Now, as the new campus of Nalanda University prepares for a formal inauguration, the focus is on how best it can retain the cultural and architectural ethos of Nalanda Mahavihara, the 5th-12th Century AD university that is considered to be one of the greatest centres of learning in ancient India.
Nalanda University (NU) Vice Chancellor Professor Sunaina Singh is all set to announce the launch of full-fledged operations on Monday. “As NU is re-purposing its vibrant past with its academic architecture, we announce commencement of the academic year 2022-23, functioning of hostels from the new campus and recent placements of the first batch of MBA students by top recruiters. Besides, various specialised short-term programmes have been launched by the university,” a university official told The Indian Express.
What started in 2014 as two schools housed at the Rajgir Convention Centre — with then President of India APJ Abdul Kalam as its first Visitor and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen its first Chancellor — is today spread across over 455 acres, complete with academic and administrative blocks, teachers and students’ living quarters, laboratories and libraries.
The university has 800 students, including 150 international students from 31 countries. Once all the construction is completed, it can accommodate about 7,500 teachers and students. At present, hostel accommodation for 1,250 students is ready, with about 100 students having already moved in.
In line with Nalanda Mahavira’s multidisciplinary tradition, when students are said to have learnt mathematics, astronomy, grammar, logic and defence studies at a time when the concept of a university was almost unheard of, the present university’s six schools teach Historical Studies, Ecology and Environmental Studies, Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religion, Languages and Literature/ Humanities, Management Studies and International Relations.
In 2021, it started global PhD programmes and introduced two Master’s courses in World Literature and Hindu Studies (Sanatan). It has also started two centres of study — the BIMSTEC-Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies and another on Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies.
To give it a “gurukul” feel, the university aims to achieve a teacher-student ratio of 1:8 ratio – Nalanda Mahavira is said to have had 2,000 teachers for its 10,000 students.
Vice Chancellor Singh, who was VC of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad until 2017, said, “The idea may be to recreate Nalanda but it is impossible to recreate that kind of ethos… Rather, we are looking at it as the university of the future that will establish civilisational outreach. What is most outstanding about Nalanda is that it stayed in the cumulative consciousness as a vishwa guru (world leader) even 1,000 years after it ceased to exist.”
University officials said the new campus, designed by Vastu Shilpa Consultants, has deliberately used only eight per cent of the total area for building construction to “match the architectural and geographical setting the ancient Nalanda University would have provided”.
The campus, around two km from the main entrance, is a no-vehicle zone, and visitors, students and faculty will have to walk or use bicycles to get around.
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The iconic exposed brick architecture, along with the elevated staircase — a signature image of the Nalanda ruins — finds a replica in the Administrative Block or the Wing-1 building that has the VC’s office along with other offices.
The campus is a mix of the modern and the traditional — from classrooms with natural light streaming in to white boards and electronic podiums for teachers. Though the eight-foot-wide walls of ancient Nalanda cannot be replicated, the main wall is made up of two parallel walls with a cavity in the middle that works to trap heat. Among the other energy conservation ideas is a plan to use the heat emitted from air-conditioners to generate warm water in bathrooms.
At the academic spine, which will eventually house all the schools and centres of study, are open rooms resembling the cells of students at Nalanda Mahavihara. Students will have the option of using these as study spaces, said a university official.
The centre of the campus will feature the Kamal Sagar, or the lotus pond, on one side of which will feature a horizontal chain of arcades or bottle-shaped bazaars where students can shop for everything from stationery to eatables.
With 17 countries, apart from India, signing bilateral or multilateral agreements for the setting up of the university, the VC said the institution goes beyond the confines of geography and religion. “Unless we learn to collaborate, we will not exist; unitary existence is nothing…The very idea of Nalanda was approved by 17 East Asian member countries because history, culture and spiritualism connected us,” she said.
As of August 2016, India had contributed Rs 684.74 crore, and China and Australia had contributed $1 million each, besides contributions from Thailand and Laos. According to the university’s annual report of 2019-20, it has utilised Rs 493 crore. Officials declined to divulge the estimated cost of the entire project.
The VC said: “Our mandate is to create a new generation think tank… We now have a centre of peace and conflict… Old certitudes are missing and we need to embark on a new pathway of compassion (and) peace. That’s the strength of Indian culture… that we can fight back with letters and knowledge.”