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INDIA: Ancient university resurrection a step closer

India's dream of resurrecting one of the world's oldest seats of learning, Nalanda University, came a step closer on Tuesday with the first meeting of the board of governors. The governing body announced that the university, which has lain in ruins for 800 years since being razed by foreign invaders, will be functional (tentatively) by 2013.

Five countries - Japan, China, Singapore, Thailand and India - have undertaken to build the new Nalanda, which will start with a strong focus on postgraduate education and research in the humanities.

Other departments will include information sciences and technology, business management in relation to public policy and development, and ecology and environment, in addition to languages and literature, religion and philosophy, historical studies, international relations and peace studies, and Buddhist studies.

"There has been immense interest from the international community. Scholars not just from East Asia, but from the West have expressed interest in collaborating with the project," said newly-appointed Vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal.

A global design competition for the university's architecture will soon be launched, Sabharwal announced.

"The idea is too big and we need the best brains in the world right from the design to the teaching. A lot of thought has gone into the resurrection of the university and I don't think attracting the best will be a challenge," she said.

Sabharwal said the immediate challenge would be turning Nalanda into the natural choice for students and teachers.

"The past glory is there. But as a university we have to build the reputation of our courses, teaching and research so that it is the preferred choice for everyone. A lot of thought has gone into planning. A world-class university is not built in a few years.

"We will also have to coordinate with our international partners as Nalanda is an Asian project and not an India one," Sabhrawal said.

The Nalanda Mentor Group was set up in 2007 and has spent three years brainstorming and debating the vision of the university.

Speaking to local media in New Delhi, Amartya Sen, the renowned economist and Nobel laureate and chair of the governing board, said Nalanda was not a diplomatic exercise but an academic venture.

As the project recaptures its past glory and élan, it will boost Asia's confidence in its intellectual and academic capacities and dent the heavy reliance that exists today on Western universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard for Asian scholars' professional credibility and recognition, Sen said.

Historians believe that the university, in Bihar, once catered for 10,000 students and scholars from across the Asia, studying subjects ranging from science and philosophy to literature and mathematics. Founded in the third century, it gained an international reputation before being destroyed and its vast library burnt down in 1193, when Oxford was only just coming into existence.

Piles of red bricks and some marble carvings are all that remain at the site, 90 kilometres from Bihar's capital Patna.

"Nalanda was one of the highest intellectual achievements in the history of the world and we are committed to revive it," Sen said.
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