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Ancient University of Nalanda in India

The ancient university of Nalanda, and its revival in the modern day


Nalanda University was an ancient centre of learning in India, and among the first great universities in recorded history, predating such institutions of higher learning like Al-Azhar in Egypt (10 th century AD), the University of Bologna in Italy (11 th century AD), and Oxford University in England (12 th century AD). It was also the first ever residential university in the world, holding capacity for thousands of students to stay on campus in dorms.

Incredibly, Nalanda University was founded as early as the 5 th century AD in the north eastern Indian state of Bihar. During its heyday, Nalanda could boast of its capacity to accommodate 10,000 students and 2,000 professors, and the dormitories provided by Nalanda University are believed to have been the first of its kind. The complex also included lecture halls, meditation halls, libraries, monasteries, hostels, chetiyas, temples, lakes and parks.

Ancient University of Nalanda, dormitories

The remains of the dormitories in the ancient university. Credit: Naveen Choudhary

One of the interesting aspects of Nalanda University was its intake of ‘international students’ from as far away as Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, as well as Southeast, Central, and Western Asian regions. Nalanda University’s appeal to scholars from these regions was due to the fact that it was one of the most important seats of learning in the Buddhist world.

But despite its focus on the study of Buddhism, students at Nalanda University were allowed to pursue other areas of secular knowledge, such as the fine arts, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, politics, and even the art of war. As a result, numerous illustrious thinkers, such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, and Asanga, were associated with the university.

Inside the ruins of Nalanda University

Inside the ruins of Nalanda University. Photo source.

The real blow to Nalanda came with the arrival of Muslim invaders in 1197 led by Mohammad Bakhtiyar Khilji, a general of Qutbuddin Aibak, who were intolerant of other religions and cultures.  Much of the university was demolished, its priceless library was burnt down, and many of its scholars, including Buddhist monks, were mercilessly slaughtered, in what was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism in India.

Despite its death over 800 years ago, the spirit of Nalanda University still lives. In fact, plans were made several years ago to revive this ancient university. In 2006, a plan to bring back the vision of the original university was announced by India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. This plan was backed by the East Asia Summit which also includes Southeast Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the USA. This plan is being led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and is aimed at establishing a new world-class residential university in the Asian region. The new university hopes to attract top scholars and researchers in the humanities, economics and management, Asian integration, sustainable development and Oriental languages from around the globe.    

Despite these ambitious plans, the new Nalanda University will be taking things one step at a time. The university’s first academic session will be beginning in September 2014. During this session, two schools (the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environmental Studies) will be launched, each of which will have 20 students. The university’s chancellor, Amartya Sen, is confident that the new Nalanda University will be a success. Whilst the original Nalanda University took about 200 years to achieve prominence, Sen believes that the new university will be able to establish its place in the academic world in just a few decades.

The revival of Nalanda University shows that old ideas may still be used in the present world. Of course, unlike its original model, scholarship in the new Nalanda University is not so focused on the study of Buddhism. Nevertheless, the idea of a global university in Asia is one that is worth thinking about. With support from several Asian nations and numerous distinguished members of staff, this ancient idea might become a reality after all. Still, only time will tell if this venture is a success or not.

Featured image: The remnants of the library of Nalanda University. Photo source: Wikimedia.

By April Holloway


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India has many rich cultural heritage sites, but these look to be exquisite.

malisa wright

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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