S'porean is first prof at revived Nalanda University

When the revived Nalanda University opened its doors on Sept 1 this year, one of the first professors who joined its faculty was a Singaporean - Ms Yin Ker.

In fact, Ms Ker had been associated with the university six months before it started functioning in Rajgir, in Bihar's Nalanda district. She was hired as a research fellow and, as part of her project, worked in Rajgir and Nalanda.

Ms Ker, who teaches art history, holds a PhD in the subject from the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). Prior to joining Nalanda University, she tutored at Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design & Media and lectured at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. "I also worked on exhibition projects as an independent curator, as well as at the Singapore Art Museum and Centre Pompidou," she told tabla!.

The revived university has 15 students from three countries - India, Bhutan and Japan. They do a two-year master's programme offered at the two schools in the university: School of Ecology and Environment Studies and School of Historical Studies.

Compare this to the Nalanda University of old. It was founded around the 5th century and it is said the university had more than 10,000 students, mostly Buddhist monks, many of them from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and countries across south-east, central and western Asia.

It was set on fire by invaders and the blaze in the huge library is believed to have raged for several days. The revived university plans to grow its student numbers to 3,000 by 2021 and it will be fully residential. Currently, its students are housed in a former hotel.

Ms Ker was inspired to join the faculty from "what had been pieced together of the ancient university's legacy, as well as Nobel Prize winner Professor Amartya Sen's vision for the new institution. There was the excitement of upholding and actualising certain ideals of education, a holistic education with the end of serving fellow human beings. For the art historian that I am, the archaeological wealth of this area that was ancient Magadha remains absolutely compelling".

Prof Sen, who is the chancellor and chairman of the governing board, visited the university last month.

Said Ms Ker, 36, of the visit: "I think we were all impressed by his wit and vitality. I was especially so by his reaching out to hear each and every one of us, students and faculty members alike. It was not a lecture he gave in Rajgir but a discussion and sharing of ideas. That was immense for the students."

Singapore is closely associated with the revival of Nalanda University. Former foreign minister of Singapore George Yeo is on the governing board and the country has pledged a substantial amount of funding for the new university. However, there are no students from this part of the world at the university right now.

"With the government of India giving six full scholarships to students from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, we're looking forward to students from these countries if not the rest of ASEAN, Asia and beyond," said Ms Ker, who went to Nanyang Girls' High and Victoria Junior College before doing her university studies in Paris.

She said she is enjoying her stint at the university "attending classes conducted by fellow faculty members and participating in their discussions". Food is also not an issue with her.

"I was fortunate to have been very well taken care of at the local Thai monastery, Watthaisirirajgir, where I stayed during my first six months in Rajgir as a research fellow before the arrival of the other faculty members and students in late August. Now at the university's residential hall, we get a variety of Indian and sometimes Chinese dishes prepared from scratch by our own kitchen staff. They do their best to cater to our very different tastes," she said.

During the six months she spent in the region before the university started, she explored Rajgir and Nalanda independently. "Keen to share my skills with the people here and to better understand them in the process, I ran drawing classes for girls in Grade 8 at the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Girls' Home & School which is opposite the university's temporary office. I also tutored Indian novices between Grades 3 and 10 at the local Thai monastery, where the novices are either from Nalanda or Arunachal Pradesh, while the monks are Thai.

"In hindsight, my presence and activities in Rajgir as a member of Nalanda University prior to the university's official inauguration can be understood as the institution's readiness to reach out to and to grow with the local community."

Ms Ker also has good things to say about the local people.

"I have been immensely touched by the goodwill of the local community in Rajgir. Whether it is at the market or at festivals like the recent Chhath puja, they have made me feel welcome and at home - not overcharging me, refunding me even Rs2 (S$0.42), helping me to load groceries on to my bicycle, stopping in the middle of the road to fix the grimy chains of my bicycle when it is 45 deg C, and sharing blessings with me by applying bright powder on my forehead. This is all in spite of the fact that I speak neither Hindi, nor Magadhi. They didn't need to, yet they did."

The present makeshift campus of the revived Nalanda University will give way to a new building complex in Rajgir, 12km from where the ancient Nalanda University stood till the 12th century. Rajgir is about 70km from Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment over 2,500 years ago and is considered the birthplace of Buddhism. It was the first capital of the Magadha kingdom and one of the Buddha's favourite places.


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