University of Melbourne backs revival of ancient Indian uni

06 June 2013

The Australian Financial Review reported on 1 July that the Australia India Institute, based at the University of Melbourne, will play a key role in the revival of an ancient Indian centre of higher learning which is working to develop its first online course.

AFR's TIM DODD reported that The University of Nalanda in Bihar state was founded in the 5th century and operated for more than 700 years before teaching there died out after it was ransacked by invading armies in 1193. However, the ancient academy is now being revived as Nalanda International University with funding from India and international supporters, and one of its first courses is likely to be a massive open online course, or MOOC, partly developed by A.I.I.

The world's oldest university will now run the world's most modern course," A.I.I Director Amitabh Mattoo told the Review. Titled "Understanding Contemporary India", the course is expected to feature lectures by authorities on India from around the world, including Harvard Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who is Nalanda's chancellor. Other possible contributors include Harvard historian Sugata Bose, Melbourne Uni's new chair of Indian Studies, Anthony D'Costa and Professor Mattoo himself. 

"This will become the flagship MOOC course on contemporary India," Professor Mattoo told the Review. "We'll do it in a brand-building way, getting the best around the world to give lectures."

Nalanda has special significance for India, having existed long before Oxford and Cambridge were established in the West. The plan to revive the ancient campus was announced in 2006 by India, China, Singapore, Japan and Thailand. The plan was backed by East Asia Summit countries including Australia, which is funding a chair in environmental studies.

The original Nalanda at one time boasted more than ten thousand students, mostly Buddhist monks from as far afield as Japan and Korea. The new site is ten kilometres from the ancient ruins, near Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree. New buildings will be planned on Buddhist principles to retain their links to the site's heritage, although reports indicate delays due to bureaucratic red tape and lack of funds. The university's first students are supposed to start enrolling in 2014.

Professor Sen told the BBC this year that Nalanda would be built slowly.

"This is just the beginning - the old Nalanda took 200 years to come to a flourishing state. We may not take 200 years but it will take some decades."