Reviving Nalanda: Where money talks

by Sunanda K Datta-Ray, Business Standard, July 21, 2007

New Delhi, India -- If basics are ignored, Nalanda-II may well go the way of Santiniketan. Judging by last week’s confabulations in Singapore, the $1 billion Nalanda Mark II project is going great guns. But I am still not sure whether it’s meant to be a temple of higher learning, a money-making investment or an exercise in soft power to strengthen ties with China and Japan, draw Australasia closer and provide a cultural focal point for ASEAN and East Asia Summit countries.

Singapore has a “powerful vested interest” in the project, says George Yeo, the devoutly Roman Catholic foreign minister who is a member of the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG), because peaceful Sino-Indian cooperation will mean a boom for south-east Asia. He adds that the China-India equation affects Singapore’s “life chances” as much as the China-US relationship. Yeo can’t be faulted for seeing Nalanda in Sinic terms since it all began with China’s Rs 570,000 gift in 1960 for a memorial to Hieun Tsang, the 7th century pilgrim who visited the ancient Buddhist university.
China is pledged to provide up to Rs 4 crore. If China goes so far, Japan will go further. With most East Asian Summit members endorsing the plan at last January’s Manila summit, it sounds even more like politics than academics.
But judging by newspaper reports, Amartya Sen, the NMG chairman, seems to have a slightly different focus. He announced last week that Nalanda would be “functioning in a small way” by 2009 with “a few thousand students” from all over the world. The curriculum would include philosophy and Buddhist studies, Asian history and classical and modern languages. Scientific research will follow. The scheme’s driving force being Nand Kishore Singh, deputy chairman of Bihar’s state planning commission, business and management studies, tourism and hospitality will also feature.
But a retired South Block mandarin who was here the other day talked enthusiastically of Yeo’s vision, except that he sees Nalanda II as India’s answer to the power now exercised by China and Japan. He bubbled about six-lane highways, airports at Gaya and even Nalanda and de luxe hotels. There would be organised pilgrim tours, crash courses in Hindu and Buddhist thought, yoga centres, ayurvedic clinics, meditation homes and all manner of facilities for rich intellectual pilgrims. Tourist dollars would pour in, trade would flourish and Bihar’s regeneration was guaranteed.
With Asia’s tiger economies involved, these brave plans may well yield result. But one remembers Indian Railways’ luxury train — a Buddhist palace on wheels — that foundered because even devout Japanese travellers demand high standards of catering, comfort, punctuality, hygiene and cleanliness.
But what about Nalanda II as an educational centre?
India needs school buildings that afford protection against rain and sun. Schools cannot function without qualified and adequately paid teachers. They also need textbooks, stationery, libraries, fully equipped laboratories and facilities for studying the sciences. Colleges and universities must be more than factories to dole out the meal ticket of a meaningless degree. Friends in the US, themselves IIT alumni, tell me that even these training grounds of the movers and shapers of the future are now badly in need of upgrading.
India manages, even winning Nobel Prizes, because of the basic genius of the Indian people. But genius has to be nurtured if there is to be a uniform standard of education. That demands firm countrywide foundations before dreaming up the superstructure of what is being called “an icon of the Asian renaissance”. If basics are ignored, Nalanda II may not be any more meaningful than the evaporated dream of Santiniketan or the lost vision of Auroville.
Perhaps I am confusing purposes. The new Nalanda may be an attractive international resort, the thinking man’s Sentosa leisure ground. It may hum and buzz with conferences and seminars, resonate with rhetoric about the dialogue of nations and discourse of civilisations, and stake a claim to contemporary relevance with faculties devoted to global governance, understanding terrorism and the challenge of the Internet.
But A P J Abdul Kalam’s promise last year to recreate the “holistic traditions of knowledge creation, acquisition and dissemination as practised in ancient Nalanda” was a reminder that Chag Lotsawa, the Tibetan pilgrim who visited Nalanda 42 years after it was sacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji, found that scholarship, like love, survived among the ruins. A solitary teacher, 90-year-old Rahul Shribhadra, still devotedly discharged his duty to 70 students.
Can that spirit be revived? Today, the flickering lamp of Pali studies at the Nava Nalanda Mahavira is the only link with the glorious past of a university that lay forgotten for centuries until British archaeologists unearthed its remains in 1860.
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