One of the oldest seats of higher learning in the world, the university at Nalanda in Bihar, has been revived. The new Central varsity, now called University of Nalanda, started yesterday with 15 students enrolled in two (School of Historical Studies and School of Ecology & Environmental Studies) of the seven schools planned. Set up under a 2010 Act of Parliament, the university will eventually span the 455 acres acquired at the foothills of Rajgir, but for now, With construction yet to begin, classes will be held at the Rajgir Convention Centre, a building owned by the state government.
The revival invokes the glory of ancient India’s middle kingdoms, specifically the Gupta empire, given that the old university is believed to have been started in the 5th century AD under the reign of the Gupta king, Sakraditya. The old university was a centre of learning and academics so renowned that it was sought by scholars from outside what is modern-day India as well. Perhaps the most noted of such scholars was Huan Tsang (Xuanzang) who taught at the university for more than fifteen years and left history vivid accounts of the academic culture of the day. Nalanda of the yore was also one of the largest residential varsities, accommodating 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Given ancient-day Nalanda’s repute has survived for over 800 years—the varsity was destroyed in 1193 in an attack by Turkish invaders—it isn’t surprising 1,000 applicants from 40 countries, including the US, UK, Spain, China, Germany, Japan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, had sought enrolment at the new university. Extrapolating from such global interest and drawing from history, Nalanda presents an opportunity for India to develop and exploit soft power in the South Asian region, if not outright across the globe.