At the last cabinet meeting, the draft legal frameworks were approved in principle to establish two more new public universities in the country. Both are in North Bengal - one in Thakurgaon, the other in Naogaon. The number of public universities in the country has crossed 50. While there are many discussions around the state of education in our country, the opening of the two new universities has created an enthusiastic environment in the concerned districts. The thought that more seats will be available to account for applying students might be the reason for the celebratory and hopeful air in Thakurgaon and Naogaon.
After the news of the cabinet meeting came out, netizens in Naogaon began commenting on social media expressing their opinion on where the campus should be situated specifically. Naogaon is rich in history and tradition. The oldest historical monument in this district is Sompur Mahavihar (also known as Somapura Mahavihara), which is also very important in the history of world civilisation.
This Buddhist monastery was built in the style of a university during the Pala period around the 8th century. Students from all over the world used to come here for education. History bears testament to the fact that knowledge has been practiced here for over three hundred years. This monastery is also famous as a place for writing 'Charyapada', the most ancient form of Bengali literature discovered till date.
During the Gupta and Pala periods, several monasteries were built in ancient Bengal (Barindra and Magadha) for the pursuit of knowledge, and they were called 'Bihar' and 'Mahavihar'. Sompur is one of these monasteries, which was called the Sompur Mahavihar. The renowned Buddhist intellectual Atish Dipankar Srigyan served as the Chancellor of this ancient University. In 1985, UNESCO declared the Sompur Mahavihar as a World Heritage Site.
After the discovery of the ruins in the 18th century, it became very clear that Sompur is the second largest monastery in the southern part of the Himalayas, while Nalanda is the largest of the five monasteries built by the Palas.
Sompur was a little smaller in size but not any less significant. This is because the five monasteries built by the Gupta and Pala dynasty namely Nalanda, Odantapuri, Bikramshila, Sompur and Jagaddal, were built in a similar manner. In the beginning, only religious education was predominant, but gradually other disciplines were also introduced.
Buddhist monks, scholars, students and researchers involved in theology and preaching stayed in the monastery for extended periods of time through the accommodation system. The idea of universal education in universities in ancient India originated from these monasteries.
Among the oldest surviving universities in world history, only Al-Azhar University in Egypt was founded in the ninth century AD. However, the institution was not called a university until 1961. Even then, the history of its development is one for the books. Besides, all the other ancient universities were founded after the tenth century AD. As such, our ancient monasteries are the oldest universities in the world. But since they have been in disuse, the monasteries have been renovated and preserved as antiquities.
The only exception is Nalanda University in India. In 1951, the Bihar government set up a new Buddhist and Pali educational institution called 'Nava Nalanda Mahavihara ' in the same style next to the ruins of Nalanda. Many years later, in 2014, Nalanda University restarted its journey with a truly modern look.
Nalanda's new campus is built around archeological monuments and ancient traditions. Several countries, including China and Singapore, helped establish the campus, considering its importance.
The ancient campus is thought to have been built on about 30 acres of land in Nalanda. And the modern Nalanda University is being built with 455 acres of land. In the same manner, we can transform the preserved ruins of Sompur Mahavihar into a modern campus.
As far as the installation is concerned, it is spread over an area of at least 60 acres. If Naogaon University is built here it will help ensure the educational progress of the district's youth along with increasing tourism to the region, which happens in Nalanda.
There is already a dearth in opportunities for higher education in archeology in our country. Jahangirnagar was the first university to establish an archeology department in the nineties. Later on, two public universities in Comilla and Rangpur inaugurated their very own archeology departments. Considering the historical legacy of Sompur Mahavihar, if Naogaon University is launched, a conducive environment will be created for teaching archeology. It will even attract international students to pursue their higher studies here.
Although Paharpur, where Sompur is located, falls within the boundaries of Naogaon district, its geographical location is convenient for more than one district. Its distance from Naogaon is 30 kilometers but it is only 12 kilometers from Joypurhat. Also its distance from Bogra, along the new Dupchanchia-Akkelpur road, is about 50 kilometers. Apart from Joypurhat, at least two other railway stations are very close to Paharpur. So it is a convenient place in regards to communication.
If the ancient Nalanda can be revived, then why is it not possible for us to revive the Sompur Mahavihar at Paharpur in Naogaon? This initiative can be a great way to bring the historical legacy of our civilisation and education to the forefront of the world. In that case, the matter of establishing the university in Naogaon, which was approved by the cabinet in principle, can be considered as a continuation of the ancient Sompur Mahavihar.
Shiblee Noman is a journalist works for Jamuna Television from Rajshahi
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.