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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Out of my mind: Farewell to Nalanda

The idea of Nalanda and its revival struck a strong chord in East Asia whose citizens flock to Gaya and Rajgir, and other Buddhist holy places in large numbers.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
Updated: November 27, 2016 12:00:29 am
The ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. (Source: Paras Nath photo) The ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. (Source: Paras Nath photo)

Ten years ago I got a letter from Pranab Mukherjee, now Rashtrapati but then foreign minister, inviting me to join the Indian project to revive the ancient university of Nalanda. India had made a promise at the East Asia Summit to revive Nalanda, the glorious ancient university which flourished for around 700 years near Rajgir in Bihar. Nalanda was forgotten till we read the English translation of the memoirs of Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang). He had come all the way from China to study at Nalanda. The idea of Nalanda and its revival struck a strong chord in East Asia whose citizens flock to Gaya and Rajgir, and other Buddhist holy places in large numbers.

We were a Mentor Group, gathered to explore the idea of how we could build a modern Nalanda. We were an international, largely academic, group. At our first meeting in Singapore, George Yeo, then foreign minister of Singapore, was our host. Amartya Sen, whom I have known since 1964, jab we met in Berkeley, was our chairman and guide. We had Wang Bang Wei, who is a young Chinese professor of Sanskrit at Beijing University. He learnt his Sanskrit entirely in China. We had Wang Gungwu, the doyen of South Asian studies. There was N K Singh, a veteran of the Government of India and well known in Bihar. We had Sugata Bose, a distinguished Harvard historian and biographer of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, his great uncle. There was Tansen Sen, an expert in Buddhist studies and medieval Asian economy, who had grown up in China, and now taught in New York.

We had a blank sheet of paper on which to write, but unlike any other new university (SAARC University, for example) the burden of history was heavy on us. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, was very supportive and gave a plot of nearly 500 acres for the site of the new university. There will soon be a beautifully designed campus with zero energy, water and waste emission. The design was selected through an international competition.

The Bihar government also gave premises in Rajgir to house the university, while the new campus is being built. There is accommodation for students as well as for faculty. The campus expanded one department at a time. Students and faculty are international as well. While planning the university, we met in Asian capitals —Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore — as well as New York, and of course Delhi and Patna.

The ideas of how to build the new university, a post-graduate institution to begin with, emerged from our discussions. We had taught or been in decision-making positions at universities around the world. We chose Dr Gopa Sabharwal as vice-chancellor to the surprise of many. Had Nalanda been an ongoing university in an urban centre, a senior distinguished academic could have been attracted. But going to Rajgir and building a university from scratch is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Last August, Nalanda University had its first convocation, 10 years on from where our Mentor Group started. Once again Pranab Mukherjee was there as President and Visitor to the university.

Our work is finished. We have been disbanded and a new board will replace us.

Ab tumhare hawale Nalanda saathiyo.

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