Recently Amartya Sen gave the keynote at the Indian Science Congress at Chennai and the topic was Nalanda.
But how does it compare with other old universities in the world? Well, what is the oldest university in the world? In answering this question, one’s mind turns to Bologna, initiated in 1088, to Paris in 1091, and to other old citadels of learning, including of course Oxford University which was established in 1167, and Cambridge in 1209. Where does Nalanda fit into this picture? “Nowhere” is the short answer if we are looking for a university in continuous existence.
Nalanda was violently destroyed in an Afghan attack, led by the ruthless conqueror, Bakhtiyar Khilji, in 1193, shortly after the beginning of Oxford University and shortly before the initiation of Cambridge. Nalanda university, an internationally renowned centre of higher education in India, which was established in the early fifth century, was ending its continuous existence of more than seven hundred years as Oxford and Cambridge were being founded, and even compared with the oldest European university, Bologna, Nalanda was more than six hundred years old, when Bologna was born. Had it not been destroyed and had it managed to survive to our time, Nalanda would be, by a long margin, the oldest university in the world.[Nalanda and the pursuit of science]
But isn’t Takshashila the oldest university? This is what I found out
There was no single Takshashila University in the modern sense. Each teacher formed his own institution, teaching as many students as he liked and teaching subjects he liked without conforming to any centralized syllabus. If a teacher had a large number of students, he assigned one of his advanced students to teach them. Teachers did not deny education if the student was poor; those students had to do manual work in the household. Paying students like princes were lodged in the teacher’s house and were taught during the day; non-paying ones, at night.[In Pragati – Takshashila: The lighthouse of a civilization]
Coming back to Dr. Sen’s speech, credit is due to him for mentioning that it was Bakhtiyar Khilji who wiped out the place. But note that he did not mention why Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed a six century old place of learning.