Rise, fall, and rise of Nalanda University, the ancient seat of learning

After eight centuries since it was reduced to ruins, the Nalanda University has taken its infant steps on the long road to regain its past glory.


Nalanda University, which was once the ancient seat of learning had been destroyed 800 years ago, has now re-opened its gate to offer knowledge. History became reality on September 1, 2014, when 1600-year-old Nalanda University marked its first academic session in 800 years. Some 15 students and 11 faculty members, who were a part of the first session, have got their names engraved in the history of this university.

“We are reliving the ethos of Nalanda University. The university is a link to the knowledge that existed hundreds of years ago. The education to be imparted to us is a fusion of history and science,” says Machn Daniel, a student enrolled in the School of Ecology and Environment Studies.


Nalanda University was first started by the Gupta kings in the fifth century A.D. around the year 427, after which it went on to become one of the most prestigious universities of the world.

It had one of the greatest and well-equipped libraries, drawing people and scholars from various countries. The nine-storey-library consisted of thousands of books on art, medicine, astronomy, literature, logic, Hindu scriptures, and Buddhist and Jain literature. Apart from being the Buddhist centre of learning, the university perfected students in subjects like medicine, astronomy, mathematics and politics of war.

The university hosted around 10,000 students and over 2,000 teachers.

The university functioned for 800 years without much disruption before being destroyed by a Turk invader, Bakhtiyar Khalji, in the late 12th century. On his orders, the university was set on fire and as many as nine million manuscripts were destroyed, along with the huge campus building.


The idea of reviving the 1600-year-old university was first proposed by former Indian president, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The idea took shape of a Bill in 2010 and was passed by both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in the same year. It got the president’s nod in September, 2010 and finally became an Act in November, 2010. The University has been in existence on paper ever since.

During the admission process, around 1000 applications from aspiring candidates from different parts of the world, including United States, Russia, England, European Union countries, South-east Asian and Asian countries were received by the university’s selection panel. However, only 15 students, including five women, made it to final list of candidates. A Bhutan University dean and a Japanese postgraduate in Buddhist studies are a part of the first batch. Matching the standards of the old Nalanda, the selection procedure was tough before the most deserving students could be chosen.

Sessions began in Rajgir, a city in Bihar in a make-shift building on September 1, 2014 as construction of the proposed campus for the university is yet to be finished.Nalanda-University-Rise-Fall

Focus on excellence

The institution, like its older self, has its focus on academic excellence and thorough research-based education. The school is open to students who are keen on grasping in-depth knowledge.

Following the footsteps of the ancient Nalanda, the 21st century version of the university promises cutting-edge knowledge, and international exposure.

“We are a research university; our mandate is to be a research university. We are serious place of academics – research and teaching. We are not a mass university. Ours is truly international-style curriculum and teaching,” said the Vice Chancellor of Nalanda, Dr. Gopa Sabharwal.

Long way to go

The university has instituted two schools in the first phase – School of Ecology and Environment Studies, with a focus on natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, and School of Historical studies, with an aim on enriching students on global history, inter-Asian connections, archaeology, art history and economic history. The institution plans on starting seven schools for research and postgraduate students by the year 2020. Two more schools are expected to be ready and running by 2016.

It is a tough task, however, to establish a long-buried university once again and reclaim its lost glory. But, the students studying at the university are confident of its gradual rise. Daniel says, “There is a long way to go to enjoy the kind of name and fame the old university enjoyed. But, the university has some pretty strong collaborations and highly educated faculty.”


The university has established collaborations with several prominent institutions and organizations in India and around the world, including Yale University, U.S.A., Peking University, China, European Consortium for Asian Field Study, France, and Archeological Survey of India, etc.

The governing body of Nalanda has chosen well-known economist, Amartya Sen as its chairman and comprises of members like a former foreign minister of Singapore, a member of India’s RajyaSabha, and alumni of esteemed universities around the globe.



Gopa Sabharwal,

Vice Chancellor,

Nalanda University


Q. What is the connect between the new Nalanda university and the ancient Nalanda?

A. It is on many levels. There is a connect of what Nalanda stood for as an institution. It was cutting-edge knowledge. It was truly international; it was the earliest form of university that we can identify. The fact that it lasted and managed to be successful to do what it was doing for 800 years, it was a remarkable feat. We connect with it at various levels. Also, at the level of ecology and environment, it was a sustainable campus which managed to survive for many years.

How do you plan to match the reputation of the older university?

A. We are building a Nalanda for the 21st century. So we can only aim to do what all Nalanda did in this modern avatar, which is to be the best cutting-edge. We are a research university; our mandate is to be a research university. We are a postgraduate institution. We are a serious place of academics -- research and teaching. We are not a mass university. We do not only teach India-related things. Asian interconnection is part of what we teach in every course. Our curriculum and the kind of course that we offer are very different from what is offered anywhere in the country. It is a truly international style curriculum and teaching. Our faculty is international. They are cutting edge people.

How many more schools do you plan to open in the future?

A. Seven are listed on the website and there should be two more schools by 2016.

Will you be taking any more students this year?                                 

A. There is a rolling admission. If some people want to apply still and they think they can fit into our academic standard, they can. This year we were not ready to do more than 15. We wanted to get our things going and start our operations. But, if there are some bright people who want to join in and they think they can make up because we have had a week of classes.

You have been promised huge amount of fund. How is the fund going to be divided?

A. We have not received any huge amount. As of now, the government of India has released about 46 crores to us in four years. The expenditure finance committee of the government of India has cleared our expenditure but we have not taken in.

What are the challenges you face as VC of emerging institute?

A. Getting the facility on the ground in a new place. I think, on the one hand our location, we think, is our biggest asset when it comes to curriculum design; it allows us to have absolutely unique position in terms of leading university where a lot of the learning will be like field school. You go out and learn from the area around as much as you learn in the classroom. But, sometimes in pragmatic terms that location can also be a challenge in getting the facilities up and running at an international level. It is definitely a challenge but I think that is part of the excitement.

As told to Trisha Mahajan


Good faculty

The students are quite impressed with the teaching staff at the university too. With teachers hailing from reputed national and international universities, Nalanda has raised the bar for the Indian education system.

A 22-year-old student of the university from Patna, Lubna Khan, is all praises for the faculty.  “I feel great because faculty is really good. The teachers come from the top universities. And they are always available for help.”

The university is adopting a different approach in classes. By making the students grasp the subject better through PowerPoint presentations and presenting a holistic view of the issue, the institute has attracted much interest of the students. In a few days time, the students will start going out for field study, which will help them gain practical experience.

The authorities plan to keep a student-teacher ratio of 1:8 in the coming years. The admissions for this year are still on and the institution is open to receiving worthy students.


The new campus is being built on 455 acres of land located near the site of the ancient university, and is scheduled to be completed by February, 2015. The new establishment is proposed to have a lake and a huge library. A competition was held to bring the best constructors onboard and to ensure state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Rs 2,700 crores have been granted to the university by the government to be used over 10 years for university related work. The government has already granted rupees 46 crores in the last four years. Government bodies of US, China, Thailand and Australia have also aided or pledged aid to the university.

Even though the university might think of creating a placement cell later, it presently envisages the vision of producing well-educated students who can make their own mark. Taking on the education system of Indian institutes, Dr. Sabharwal says, “It is the quality of graduates that is more important than people coming out with a certification but yet being unhireable. The challenge for educational institutions is to ensure that their students are actually learning something.”

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