Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reviving Nalanda International University - A lecture with Amartya Sen

The modern world, to be sure, has a great deal to offer from which people in the past would have liked to have learned and would have been thrilled to learn, but the past too had some great examples of intellectual great truth that can both inspire and inform us today,” Amartya Sen articulated near the end of his 45 minute lecture at Asia Society, New York. A brilliant man with a good sense of humor, Sen spoke on his efforts of reviving the oldest university in the world, Nalanda located in Bihar, India. A topic close to his heart since he was little, Sen’s compassion and deep interest for the subject was evident throughout his lecture, garnering the attention of the 250 audience members that gathered to hear him speak.

Nalanda dates back to the 5th or 6th century and was already 600 years old when the first European university--located in Bologna, Italy--was established. While there is evidence of other institutions of higher education already established in Asia, such as the ancient university of Taxila in Pakistan, Nalanda was the first university to educate society in matters not just within the field of religion, which at the time was Buddhism: “Takshilla never tried to become a higher center of education the way Nalanda succeeded.” Sen described the history of Nalanda from its growth and success to its destruction during the Turkish Muslim invasion in 1193.

Nalanda has a very rich and important history that has greatly impacted the spread of knowledge from mathematics to astronomy throughout Asia, and indeed all around the world. Sen gave a remarkable example of the lingusitcal development of the modern mathematic word ‘sine’ and ‘cosine.’ Sine is the Latin translation for the Arabic word ‘jiba’ which was translated from the Sanskrit word 'jya-ardha’, a word that was formulated at the time of Nalanda’s existence.

More intriguing is the influence Nalanda had on Chinese academics. Nalanda was the only university outside China in which the most well-known Chinese scholars and intellects went to study. In the ancient world, China and India birthed generations of innovators and pioneers who constructed the foundation of certain subjects’ imperative in the modern world, like math.

Today, as China and India become two of the most important players in the international playing field, it is more important than ever to remember the glorious history of higher learning, and the collaboration and respect that existed between the two regions, and even much of modern day Asia. Reviving Nalanda, Sen claims, is a “pan-Asian initiative.” He hopes it will honor the “long history of higher education in India that is hardly recognized,” as well as be a center for aspiring academics in Asia, “I think it will be quite an exciting thing not only for India, but for Asia and the rest of the world.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Kalam not ready to reconsider decision on Nalanda: Nitish

Former President A P J Abdul Kalam is not ready to reconsider his decision not to continue as Visitor of the proposed Nalanda International University (NIU), Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said today. "Kalam Saheb has declined to continue as Visitor of NIU and he is also not not ready to reconsider his decision," Kumar told reporters here. Kumar said "the state government had enacted a law for setting up the Nalanda University and decided to appoint Kalam as its Visitor. "But the state legislation became null and void after the Centre passed a bill for setting up Nalanda International University which has the provision that the President will be the Visitor of the University and will nominate its Vice Chancellor." Despite the law, the central government made a request to Kalam to continue as Visitor and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna too appealed to Kalam to hold the post, Kumar said. "I personally met Kalam in New Delhi a couple of days ago and requested him to reconsider his decision, but he told me that he will be assisting in the university work but it will not not be possible for him to reconsider the decision," he said.
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Vision for a new Nalanda International University !!

Nalanda international University, the world's oldest centre of higher learning, is being re-established through an Asian initiative, involving India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, is chairman of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda University. Professor Sen, the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, believes that Nalanda stands for the passion of propagating knowledge and understanding. It was a residential university, and at its peak had 10,000 students from many countries, especially China, Korea, Japan, and Turkey, studying various subjects. Professor Sen responds to Shreeya Sinha's questions about the project ahead of a lecture he will give at the Asia Society in New York on September 22. Excerpts:

What was the original ethos behind Nalanda University?

Old Nalanda as an educational institution was fully dedicated to the pursuit of learning. It was committed to educational excellence. Indeed, because it was largely successful in achieving and maintaining excellence that Nalanda attracted foreign students — from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. The institution was Buddhist in terms of its foundation, but Nalanda's teaching and research were not confined to Buddhist studies. Indeed it was well-known also for what it offered in secular subjects such as health care, linguistics, and astronomy. Nalanda received patronage from Hindu kings (such as the Guptas) as well as from Buddhist kings (such as the Palas of Bengal). It was not, in any sense, a specifically Buddhist institution, but it was in the general Buddhist tradition of focussing on knowledge and understanding as ways of solving problems that pester humanity. It was also a “modern” institution — modern in relation to its time — in offering education that went well beyond religion, and included science (such as astronomy) and the pursuit of practically useful arts (such as public health care).

What is your vision for its future?

Ever since I saw Nalanda for the first time as a child, I was completely bowled over by the vision it offered to humanity. I dreamt of bringing the great institution back to life, some day. As I continued to visit Nalanda through my teenage years, the idea of an outstanding centre for higher education at the great centre of ancient Indian civilisation, in Bihar, gripped me more and more. When Chief Minister Nitish Kumar approached me about helping them build a new institution near the old site, I was impressed to see how close his own vision was to what I had hoped would happen one day. I hope to see that dream being realised — at least the initial stages of it — before long. The fact that Bihar also has a lot of economic problems, including persistent poverty, makes it even more necessary for the new Nalanda to offer educational opportunities for the useful arts (such as information technology, environmental studies and management), without undermining the more abstract investigations.

How was the Vice-Chancellor chosen? What qualifications were the Nalanda Mentor Group looking for?

The post of Vice-Chancellor is meant to be open to any of the member-countries of the East Asia Summit, even though for the first Vice-Chancellor, the Nalanda Mentor Group had a preference for an Indian academic, with the practical ability to do things, to get the project moving. The four primary considerations that the selection committee had, on the basis of the deliberations of the Mentor Group, were: (1) academic excellence, (2) administrative ability, (3) interest in — and commitment to — the Nalanda university project, and (4) willingness to be based on the new campus in Nalanda to build an intellectual community there from scratch, and be fully involved with Bihar's problems and concerns.

Members of the selection committee talked with at least 20 people, sought their advice and also checked their own interest in being considered for the position, including living in Nalanda, as and when it becomes a functioning reality. From time to time, reports on these consultations somehow got leaked in Indian newspapers (even though the consultations and ascertaining of interest in being a resident Vice-Chancellor have sometimes been confused, in these reports, as “offers” having been made to this person or that). On the basis of all the information it had, the selection committee decided that the best feasible appointment would be Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, but it was willing to accept the possibility of appointing some other person from a list of three it gave to the Government of India. Dr. Sabharwal's academic qualifications are excellent (one of our advisers on the academic side was Professor Andre Beteille, a world-renowned sociologist); her administrative ability is well established; she is totally committed to the Nalanda project; and her involvement with Bihar and willingness to be based in Nalanda contrasted sharply with some others who could have been considered for the position. The Nalanda Mentor Group, which was authorised to make the selection, listed three names, including that of Dr. Sabharwal, but the government could have appointed any one of the three. The government offered Dr. Sabharwal the position of being Vice-Chancellor Designate, to be followed by being Vice-Chancellor as the legal formalities of the university are sorted out. The Mentor Group was very happy that she agreed to take on this job when she was approached.

I understand that in some parts of the media questions have been raised about whether someone who was not a “full professor” should have been chosen to be the Vice-Chancellor. I suppose an obsession with rank and status in our stratified society makes some people inclined to judge a person not by his or her qualities — and particular qualifications for a very specific job — but by the person's position in the social hierarchy.

Has the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, started functioning, and what steps is she taking to get this big project off the ground?

Dr. Sabharwal has made an excellent beginning in setting up the campus, with the help of the Bihar government (which has been impeccably cooperative), and also in planning the legal, administrative and academic arrangements. The first two faculties to be started will be environmental studies and historical studies, to be followed by others such as information technology and international relations. The work on setting up these faculties is very much on the way. Nalanda University, under Dr. Sabharwal's leadership, has also established reciprocal relations with the Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre in Singapore and the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and, at an informal level, with the Peking University in China, through Professor Wang Bangwei of that University who, as an active member of the Mentor Group, has been involved in the planning of Nalanda. There will be a partnership with Korean and Japanese universities as also with leading American universities. These possibilities are now being explored. The making of the architectural plans for the campus and the buildings is in high gear right now, along with securing and looking after the land that the Bihar government has given to the university.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sabharwal still remains “Vice-Chancellor Designate” rather than being the actual Vice-Chancellor, because of administrative delays at the level of the Government of India, and this does hamper Dr. Sabharwal's ability to discharge her duties even more efficiently. The Board of the Nalanda University very much hopes that these delays would soon come to an end, which would help her do her job with even greater speed. The Nalanda University Act was passed in Parliament last November (in line with the recommendations of the Mentor Group), and it is anticipated that the administrative delays at the governmental level would soon cease.

How will the university be financially viable?

At the moment the bulk of the expenses are being met by the Government of India, through the Planning Commission, which is also helping in sorting out the administrative hurdles. There have been promises of contributions from abroad, both from governmental and non-governmental sources (from China, Singapore, Australia, Laos and elsewhere). But there is a long way to go in firming up the financial base of the university.
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kalam’s refusal to be Visitor at Nalanda International University questions its credibility!!

The preparations for revival of Nalanda International University and start its academic session in 2013 has received a major setback after former President APJ Abdul Kalam refused to be the first Visitor at the university.

Kalam’s decision has not only shrugged the much talked about project rather the whole plan is now tangled in various technical hassles.

The fate of the ancient university that is being revived in collaboration with16 nations and with a whopping investment of over Rs 1000 crores is now in limbo.

While Kalam has refused to be the first Visitor at the university, the appointment of the already chosen Vice Chancellor, Dr Gopa Sabharwal is also waiting for his approval, making her position questionable.

She has been fulfilling the responsibility as the varsity’s VC since October 2008 on the direction of the Foreign Ministry and the recommendation of the Mentor Group led by Amartya Sen.

Speaking to Dainik Jagran, Gopa said, “The government informed about Dr Kalam’s decision in the Interim Governing Board meeting held in Patna on July 6 to July 7. Then, Board Chairman Amartya Sen wrote a letter to Dr Kalam requesting him to take up the post but he expressed inability to accept the honour.”

However, the sources revealed that apart from technical hassles, existence of ego hassles between Kalam and Sen cannot be ruled out behind Kalam’s refusal. One of the reasons being cited is the Mentor Group not consulting him on appointment of the VC and other major decisions.

It is to be noted that Dr Kalam was behind the idea of revival of Nalanda University for which the Bihar government made a law to appoint him as the first Visitor at the varsity.
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Amartya comes to NIU VC Gopa's defence

The appointment of Dr Gopa Sabharwal, currently associate professor at New Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College For Women in Sociology, as the vice-chancellor of the upcoming Nalanda International University (NIU) has kicked up a row in academic circles across the country. Scholars have questioned her 'academic' as well as 'administrative skill' to run a university like NIU.

But now, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist who was the chief of the erstwhile Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) and is now the head of the varsity's governing council, has come to her defence.

Breaking his silence on the controversy from Boston, Sen, in an interview to a US-based organization, Asia Society, said that Sabharwal's academic qualifications are excellent and her administrative ability is well established. She is totally committed to the Nalanda project.

"Her involvement with Bihar and willingness to be based in Nalanda contrasted sharply with some others who could have been considered for the position," Sen said.

"The four primary considerations that the selection committee had, on the basis of the deliberations of the MNG, were: (1) academic excellence, (2) administrative ability, (3) interest in — and commitment to — the Nalanda university project, and (4) willingness to be based on the new campus in Nalanda to build an intellectual community there from scratch, and be fully involved with Bihar's problems and concerns," he said.

Sen added that members of the selection committee talked to at least 20 people, sought their advice and also checked their own interest in being considered for the position, with the requirement of living at Nalanda, as and when it (the varsity) became a functioning reality.

"The selection committee decided that the best feasible appointment would be Dr Sabharwal, but it was willing to accept the possibility of appointing some other person from a list of three it gave to the GOI (government of India). Dr. Sabharwal's academic qualifications are excellent (one of our advisers on the academic side was Professor Andre Beteille, a world-renowned sociologist) ...," Sen said.

However, French Buddhist scholar Claude Arpi told TOI over phone: "A person without Buddhist links has been selected as the VC of the new Nalanda university; it's a shame".

Former head of the department of history, Patna University, Surendra Gopal remarked, "To the best of my knowledge, she is not known among academia in social sciences. She has no experience to run a university like Nalanda. He also expressed surprise over the non-inclusion of any scholar from Bihar as well as from Delhi in the NMG.

Chairman of the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi, Alakh N Sharma had similar views, "She does not possess any intellectual stature among social scientists in the country."

Neeraj Kumar, president of the Society for Asian Integration, New Delhi, had a different take on the issue, "The new VC should be appointed as per Nalanda tradition — through a public debate among the contenders who fulfil the eligibility criteria."
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Nalanda University: Nitish fails to change Kalam’s mind

With A P J Abdul Kalam dissociating himself from the proposed Nalanda International University, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Friday reached out to the former president in an attempt to persuade him to reconsider. Sources close to Kumar, however, said Kalam may not change his mind.

Kalam, who had been appointed the university’s first visitor, recently decided to disassociate himself from it. Nitish is learnt to have been taken by surprise as he had personally sought the former president’s services to push the university project. In fact, the project had got on track during Kalam’s tenure as president.

Kalam, it is learnt, offered all possible support from his side but politely excused himself from reconsidering his decision during his meeting with the CM at his residence in the Capital on Friday.
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Friday, September 16, 2011

Urgency to Revival of world oldest University !!

AT a summit meeting of leaders next week in the Philippines, senior officials from India, Singapore, Japan and perhaps other countries are scheduled to discuss the revival of an ancient university in India called Nalanda. It is a topic unlikely to receive much mention in the Western press. But no one should underestimate the potential benefits of this project to Asia, or the influence it could have on Asia’s role in the world, or the revolutionary impact it could make on global higher education.

Americans are used to thinking about the rising powers of Asia — China, India, South Korea and even some of the smaller countries — primarily as formidable economic competitors. In the case of Beijing, we also recognize the potential for superpower political and military status. But there are at least two questions that are key to Asia’s future that we do not generally ask.

First, for all the talk about the rise of Asia in the “knowledge age” that we live in, are these countries ultimately constrained in their potential to be great nations by their lack of top-flight systems of higher education?

And second, is the Asian region any more than a series of nation-states obsessed with guarding their sovereignty — and do they have the ability to interact peacefully and constructively, much as the European Union is trying to do, to pool their individual strengths for the betterment of their region and the world beyond it?

The possibility of rebuilding Nalanda University goes to the heart of both those issues. Founded in 427 in northeastern India, not far from what is today the southern border of Nepal, and surviving until 1197, Nalanda was one of the first great universities in recorded history. It was devoted to Buddhist studies, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war.

The university was an architectural and environmental masterpiece. It had eight separate compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so that individual scholars could have their own collections. It had dormitories for students, perhaps a first for an educational institution, housing 10,000 students in the university’s heyday and providing accommodations for 2,000 professors. Nalanda was also the most global university of its time, attracting pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.

The university died a slow death about the time that some of the great European universities, including those in Oxford, England, and Bologna, Italy, were just getting started, and more than half a millennium before Harvard or Yale were established. Its demise was a result of waning enthusiasm for Buddhism in India, declining financial support from successive Indian monarchs and corruption among university officials. The final straw was the burning of the buildings by Muslim invaders from what is now Afghanistan.

But Nalanda represents much of what Asia could use today — a great global university that reaches deep into the region’s underlying cultural heritage, restores many of the peaceful links among peoples and cultures that once existed, and gives Asia the kind of soft power of influence and attraction that it doesn’t have now. The West has a long tradition of rediscovering its ancient Greek and Roman roots, and is much stronger for that. Asia could and should do the same, using the Nalanda project as a springboard but creating a modern, future-oriented context for a new university.

At the Asian summit meeting next week, a consortium led by Singapore and including India, Japan and others will discuss raising the $500 million needed to build a new university in the vicinity of the old site and perhaps another $500 million to develop the roads and other infrastructure to make the institution work. The problem is that the key Asian officials are not thinking big enough. There is more talk about making Nalanda a cultural site or a center for philosophy than a first-rate modern university. The financial figures being thrown around are a fraction of the endowments of Harvard, Yale or Columbia today. A bolder vision is in order.

The rebuilt university should strive to be a great intellectual center, as the original Nalanda once was. This will be exceedingly difficult to achieve; even today, Asia’s best universities have a long way to go to be in the top tier. In a recent ranking of universities worldwide, Newsweek included only one Asian institution, the University of Tokyo, in the world’s top 25. In a similar tally by The Times of London, there are only three non-Western universities in the top 25.

The original Nalanda might have been the first to conduct rigorous entrance exams. The old university had world-class professors who did groundbreaking work in mathematical theorems and astronomy. It produced pre-eminent interpreters and translators of religious scriptures in many languages.

The new Nalanda should try to recapture the global connectedness of the old one. All of today’s great institutions of higher learning are straining to become more international in terms of their student body, their professors, their research and their course content. But Asian universities are way behind. A new Nalanda, starting as it will from scratch, could set a benchmark for mixing nationalities and cultures, for injecting energy and direction into global subjects and for developing true international leaders.

In the old days, Nalanda was a Buddhist university, but it was remarkably open to many interpretations of that religion. Today it could perform a vital role consistent with its original ethos — to be an institution devoted to religious reconciliation on a global scale.

Today, Nalanda’s opportunity is to exploit what is lacking in so many institutions of higher education. That includes great medical schools that focus on delivering health care to the poor, law schools that emphasize international law, business schools that focus on the billions of people who live on two dollars a day but who have the potential to become tomorrow’s middle class, and schools that focus intensely on global environmental issues. Can Asia pull this off? Financially, it should be easy. China’s foreign exchange reserves just broke all global records and reached $1 trillion. And Japan’s mountain of cash isn’t that far behind.

But the bigger issue is imagination and willpower. It is not clear that the Asian nations are prepared to unite behind anything concrete except trade agreements, either for their benefit or the world’s. It appears doubtful that with all their economic prowess, and their large armies, they understand that real power also comes from great ideas and from people who generate them, and that truly great universities are some of their strongest potential assets.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Reader ‘appointed’ as VC of Nalanda International University

A Reader serving as the Vice Chancellor of an International University! Sounds somewhat grotesque, yet this is the fact.
If the RTI reply of November 22 last year is to be believed Dr Gopa Sabharwal, Reader in the Department of Sociology in the Lady Sri Ram College is the Vice Chancellor of the Nalanda International University, whose idea was conceived by the then President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.

Though she has nothing to do with the Buddhist Studies, on which the University specializes, she as the VC draws a salary of Rs 5,06,513 per month, double than the VC of Delhi University. Not only that she and seven of her associates are drawing salaries since October 2010.

But that is not the strangest part of the story. What is ridiculous is that the Minister of State for External Affairs, E Ahamad, told Rajya Sabha on August 25, 2011 that no VC has been appointed by the government.

Interestingly, Dr Gopa did not meet the mandatory qualification set by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the Vice Chancellors of the central and state universities.

Only a distinguished academicians with a minimum ten years of experience as a professor in a university can be appointed as the VC.

" Its shocking for all of us that how a mentor group headed by Prof. Amartya Sen recommended a candidate for the post of VC of Nalanda International University who is hardly known for his academic excellance or proven administrative capability. Can any senior academician would ever think of joining this university under current VC." said anguished economist Prof. N K Chaudhary.

The RTI reply was provided by none else but the Joint Secretary Nagendra Kumar Saxena of the same ministry. It revealed that on the recommendations of the Nalanda Mentor Group, Dr Gopa Sabharwal was formally appointed Vice Chancellor.

According to a report recently published in Tehelka magazine the government has spent Rs 2.11 crore on meetings held by a Mentor Group constituted under the chairmanship of Professor Amartya Sen in Singapore, Tokyo, New York, Delhi and Gaya to conceptualise establishment of the University.

As per the report the Group was formed in 2007 and was supposed to file a final report within a period of nine months, but it has not done so yet. The Parliament, however, enacted the law for it in 2010 which was notified on September 22, 2010.

But the moot question is how the a Vice Chancellor-designate was appointed even before the Act was notified for its establishment and that too at such a huge salary.

Not only that Gopa Sabharwal was appointed through an order issued by a Secretary in MEA on the recommendation of the Mentor Group.

Now questions are being asked as to who authorised the Mentor Group to recommend the name of the first VC of the university and why the ministry accepted the sole name proposed without seeking a panel of names required for such an appointment.

It is not only that: Dr Sabharwal picked up her friend Dr Anjana Sharma, an Associate Professor in Delhi University, as the Officer-on-Special Duty (OSD) on deputation, with gross monthly salary of Rs 3.30 lakhs, which is more than the salary of a Vice Chancellor in the rest of the country.

They also found nothing wrong in setting up headquarters of the university in a rented building in the R K Puram in South Delhi in January this year even though the Act specifically says the university’s headquarters shall be in Nalanda district in Bihar.

The Standing Committee of the ministry says in its report just tabled in Parliament that the Nalanda project was estimated in 2007 to cost Rs 1,005 crore but this may have to be revised, and that the same Mentor Group has now become the Interim Governing Board of the University. In its very first meeting in February last the Board, according to the report, nominated adviser committee and the two persons representing India in it are Ms Upinder Singh, daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and her colleague Ms Nayanjot Lahiri, who are not experts on any aspect of the Nalanda tradition or history.

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Dr A.P.J Kalam Dissociates Himself From Nalanda University

Former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has dissociated himself from the upcoming Nalanda International University in Bihar, says his aide.

The former president's personal secretary R.K. Prasad told IANS over telephone from Delhi that Kalam dissociated himself from the university, which is coming up in Nalanda district, about two months ago.

"Kalam is no longer connected with the university," Prasad said. He had earlier been appointed the university's first visitor, a key post.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's office could not confirm the news. An official in his office told IANS: "We have no information of any such thing."

Media reports here say Kalam was not in agreement with some of the decisions of the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG).

Kumar himself is yet to say anything on the issue.

An official associated with the proposed Nalanda International University said three months ago Kalam had refused to be the visitor.

"Kalam turned down the offer in mid May when a letter from the external affairs ministry reached him in this connection, nearly seven months after the gazette notification was issued and the Nalanda University Act came into force," an official said.

According to officials, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who headed NMG, requested Kalam to accept the offer. The latter said he would teach and have other engagements, but not as a visitor.

The idea of the university was first mooted in the late 1990s but it was Kalam's initiative in early 2006 that gave shape to the project.

Later Kalam was appointed the university's first visitor who was to play a key role in the constitution of the governing body, the varsity's supreme body.

The visitor will also have the power to inspect the varsity and appoint one or more people to review its work and progress.

In February 2008, Kalam accompanied by Nitish Kumar visited the site where the land was acquired for the university.

In July this year, it was decided in the meeting of the NMG that the university would begin in 2013 with two schools - the school of historical sciences and the school of environment and ecology - if the Bihar government provided suitable accommodation.

Officials said the state government had acquired nearly 500 acres of land and infrastructure work was on at the site.

The university will be fully residential, like the ancient Nalanda. It will have courses in science, philosophy and spiritualism along with other subjects.

The new university will be built in an area of 446 acres in Rajgir, 10 km from the site of the ancient university in Nalanda district.

A fifth century architectural marvel, the ancient centre of learning was home to over 10,000 students and nearly 2,000 teachers from the world over. Though it was devoted to Buddhist studies, it also trained students in subjects such as fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war.
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India committed to boosting BIMSTEC connectivity: PM

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