(Published in the Business Standard, May 1st, 2007, Speaking Volumes)

Imagine an Indian public library that attracts scholars from all over the world, a gigantic complex of three buildings containing over nine million volumes, Indian and foreign.

Most of these are accessible to travellers, visiting scholars and anyone willing to take up residence on the campus. The buildings have been beautifully designed, lotus ponds are scattered around the grounds, and if you’re up early, you can see the mists rising from the ninth story of the largest of the library buildings.

The newest technologies in the publishing industry find their way here, and are fiercely discussed by experts in the field. For a small fee, students can access copies of rare books, kept away from the main stacks, and for no fee at all, anyone can come and listen to some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers and intellectuals engage in debate. The two requirements for membership are curiosity and scholarship.

No such library exists in 21st century India. There are some excellent libraries—the National Archives, the Parliament library, libraries at the IITs and at various universities across the country—but these are not open to the public. The few public libraries, including the National Library at Calcutta, suffer from a lack of funds, and in some cases from a deep suspicion of the public who are supposed to be the proprietors of such a library.

Between 635 and 640 AD, though, the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, or Hieun Tsang, was one of the many pilgrims who made the journey to the “richly adorned towers” of Dharmaganj, the legendary library at Nalanda University. There were at least three separate libraries: Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka. Academicians and students came from Persia, Turkey, Japan, Korea and Tibet, as well as China, to live and work at Nalanda.

Rare books were placed in wooden chests—possibly camphor chests, to better preserve the volumes—but the main collections, on Buddhist thought, mathematics, grammar, medicine and literature, were accessible on open wooden shelves. Students who wanted individual copies could approach the human equivalent of the Xerox machine—monks who, for a small fee, would make exact copies of manuscripts. The collection at Nalanda included works in Chinese, too, but Xuanzang was interested, like other pilgrims, in copying and translating texts that he would then take back to China, many years later. He was fascinated by the difference in technologies; China’s Imperial Library was experimenting with paper, and used wood and silk as writing surfaces. India’s libraries leaned towards palm-leaf manuscripts.

Both libraries were well aware of the importance of preservation and of the fragility of their collections. A few years before Xuanzang left China on his travels, the Imperial Library had suffered a terrible loss when the collection was being transferred to another location by boat and there was an accident on the waters. In India, librarians had requested that new buildings of stone be made to guard against fire; the local bureaucracy, wanted them to compromise on bricks, which were much cheaper.

In 1193, Bakhtiyar Khalji invaded India and sacked Nalanda. He paid special attention to the library; it was razed to the ground, and he instructed his soldiers to use manuscripts as kindling for their cooking fires. The university—and to a great extent, Indian scholarship in that age—never recovered.

Creating and running an institution like Nalanda wasn’t cheap. It required, according to some accounts, “the revenues of 100 villages”—a sum not so far removed in scale from the bequests of $2.4 million and $5.2 million made respectively by Samuel J Tilden and Andrew Carnegie to establish what would become the legendary New York Public Library.

For most of us born and brought up in India, it is hard to imagine what the loss of Nalanda means because we have no contemporary equivalent of the public library. You cannot miss a space, an institution and an experience that you have never encountered. But when I meet writers or students who have lived elsewhere, one of the things they miss, almost viscerally, is the experience of living in cities where a public library is a necessity, an organic part of most people’s lives. We make do with small equivalents: the excellent but limited British Council and USIS libraries, private lending and circulating libraries that would fit into a tiny corner of Ratnasagar and that still seem huge to us, libraries like the fascinating Marwari libraries that preserve the culture of a particular community.

It would take a lot of dedication—and the revenues of more than a hundred villages today—to create proper public libraries, accessible to all, across India. But the difference it would make in our daily lives is incalculable. We’re very good at constructing malls; it seems that every city and small town now has its own shopping paradises. How hard would it be for a nation of mall-builders to construct a few good public libraries alongside?