Member of Parliament Nand Kishore Singh, who is a member of Nalanda’s governing body, said the university – which will admit its first intake in 2014 – will balance local and global research goals.
“A study and revival of Oriental languages and translation of several manuscripts will enable us to understand cross-cultural experiences which governed India and Asia long before globalisation,” said Singh, speaking at the “One Globe 2013: Uniting knowledge communities” conference on global education in South Asia, held in New Delhi from 7-8 February.
Studying the past will help Asian countries realise how well integrated Asia used to be, contributing to building better relations, Singh said.
In 2006 China, India, Singapore, Japan and Thailand announced a plan to revive the renowned university, which existed in the northern Indian state of Bihar from the 5th century until it was ransacked and burnt to the ground in 1193 by Turkish invaders.
Based on Buddhist architectural principles, the new university will be built on 180 hectares in Rajgir, 10 kilometres from the site of the ancient Nalanda University, which at its height had more than 10,000 residential students and nearly 2,000 teachers, attracting scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.
The new university will also be residential, offering courses in science, philosophy and spiritualism along with social sciences.
Speaking at the Jaipur literary festival in India’s western Rajasthan state last month, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said: “India is our guru, we are the chelas (disciples), and the source of all the [Buddhist] knowledge we have, has come from Nalanda.”
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who was last year appointed the new university’s chancellor, has said there will be seven postgraduate schools, including a school of peace studies and international relations.
Last month the university published invitations for applications for research fellowships from scholars and researchers from any country, shedding light on the main areas of research.
“These fellowships are designed to encourage excellence in multidisciplinary research in specific fields and they mainly relate to inter-Asian interconnections while also engaging with various aspects of building a unique university,” the institution said in the document.
Research will initially concentrate on two inaugural schools – of historical studies, and environment and ecology – which will operate from rented premises from this year.
History fellows will help develop academic programmes in intra-Asian interactions, Asian history, regional history, heritage studies, the silk routes, art history and archaeology, among other areas.
Researchers in the school of ecology and environment will focus on human ecology, disaster management, agriculture, climate change, ecology and literature, and religion and ecology.
While environment and ecology are areas of global concern, Singh said they were equally relevant to the local context and population.
“A unique feature of Nalanda is that perhaps it is the only university which, as part of its academic responsibility, has encompassed 200 villages, which are integral to the immediate environment in which the university will come up,” said Singh.
The university has already identified 60 villages with which it will work to improve livelihoods, promote sustainable agricultural practices to improve productivity, start eco-tourism and impart skills training to the local population.
The importance of connections with local villages is also a response to many critics who say the university is too 'isolated' and in one of India's poorest states, although 100 kilometres from the state capital Patna, to attract the best researchers.
Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, has questioned whether the university can be a success so far from major urban centres. He wrote in an article last year:
“The concept, of course, is wonderful – to recreate in modern garb a true cultural and intellectual treasure of ancient India. The plan for the university focuses on the humanities, social sciences, ecology and business studies – not the usual engineering and technology emphasis. But some serious practical and conceptual questions need to be asked."
"The site of academic institutions is of key importance," Altbach said. "For Nalanda International University, which wants to attract the best and brightest from India and the world, location is of special relevance. Are top students and faculty going to be attracted to rural Bihar?"
A committee headed by Singh is tasked with helping to create an endowment of US$1 billion. “We have several countries that have come forward to support us. But apart from funding we will also forge strong research and academic links,” Singh said.
Australia is supporting the establishment of a dean-level chair of ecology and environment. Singapore has announced it will design, build and donate a state-of-the-art library, at an estimated cost of up to US$7 million.
China in 2011 announced US$1 billion in aid for the reconstruction of the university after a meeting of Nalanda’s governing board in Beijing at the invitation of then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Thailand has contributed US$100,000.