Nalanda, a very old university
The Buddhist monastery complex at Nalanda, in today’s Indian state of Bihar, was a center of learning founded in the fifth century CE. Archaeological excavations which begun in 1915 has revealed temples, lecture and meditation halls, libraries and gardens, together with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions. Subjects taught here included the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, fine arts, astronomy, mathematics, politics and epistemology, but above all it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta empire, 240-590 CE, despite the Hindu commitments of the Gupta rulers. [Read more: “Indian mathematics“] Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese monks who came here to study in the seventh century. He described the nine storey library as “soaring into the clouds.” The university had some 2,000 professors and 10,000 students who all were accommodated in dormitories. Nalanda was the first educational institution to conduct rigorous entrance exams. The fortunes of the university declined after the Gupta rulers and in the 1190s it was destroyed by invading armies from Central Asia.
There is some discussion regarding which university that is the oldest in the world. The universities founded in Paris and Bologna in the thirteenth-century CE are often said to be the oldest. Yet this ignores the fact that European universities were modeled on similar institutions in Muslim Spain which, in turn, were modeled on an institution such as Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 CE. [Read more: “Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason“] Yet Nandala is older still, although Al Quaraouiyine has been in continuous operation since it was established. But in the Gupta period there were other universities in India too — at Pushpagiri, Taxila and Vikramashila.
Yet since 2014 Nandala University is once again accepting students. Led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and with economic support from various Asian countries, its aim is to once again to become Asia’s leading center of learning. Subjects taught here include ecology, history economics and languages. Buddhism is taught too but features less prominently on the curriculum. The hope is that Nandala University can help contribute to the economic development of Bihar which is one of India’s poorest regions.
15 Minute History, “The era between the empires of ancient India”