Farewell to Arniko by Hari Prasad Sharma
His parents already knew of his proclivity to create wonderful images of Hindu and Buddhist deities in clay and wood from a small age. When he could get hold of charcoal from his mother’s kitchen, he would draw strange but striking images on the walls and floors. Wise elders nodded in approval and whispered to his grandparents Mitra and Kundalaxmi that the boy was a prodigy. He would do the Sakya clan proud one day by helping spread the glory of Sakya Muni to the furthest corners of the world.
There have been many myths and legends about child prodigies in all cultures. Lord Krishna’s birth leads to a miraculous baby exchange where his foster parents Nanda and Yashoda sacrifice their own newborn baby girl to save the incarnated Lord Vishnu from the clutches of the evil uncle King Kansa. When Lord Buddha is born the wunderkind takes seven steps to pronounce to the world that he is the anointed one. Christ’s miraculous birth from a virgin mother fulfills earlier prophesies on the ‘incarnation’ of God in human form.
There have been more earthly prodigies galore in most disciplines whether it is in math or sciences, music or art. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Pablo Picasso are just two of the more renowned wunderkind we have come to celebrate. Mozart played piano at age four and started composing at age five. Picasso completed his first painting “The Picador” at the early age of eight.
Laxman ‘Sthapati’ came from a caste of artisans known for sculpture and designing as denoted by his Sanskrit surname. Devoutly Buddhist he and his wife Shumaketai were talented artists and respected in their community known particularly for fine wood carving and metal casting. Patan as the oldest city in Kathmandu Valley was then famous for its arts and crafts and was named Lalitapura, the beautiful city, by the Malla kings well-versed in literary Sanskrit. When Shumaketai’s womb started to swell the whole community rejoiced as the tradition of carving and molding would now continue in the Sthapati family. The Malla kings would bestow on this community the building contracts for future generations to come!
A boy was born to the Sthapatis who was destined to be immortalized as Arniko, the master builder of the Yuan Dynasty of China. From early childhood, the wunderkind was above average in learning his family’s craft. With a sharp intellect, he probed and asked questions that would stun his teachers and bewilder the elders. There is a story about the family’s visit to a Buddhist holy place when the boy was only three years old. He looked up at the pagoda, its multi-tiered eaves and golden finial and inquired of his parents the names of the people who had built them. He learnt quickly the Buddhist sutras and could recite them with utmost ease. It was but a matter of time before he would be noticed and picked up for great building projects that would catapult him into immortality in three different countries linked by the trajectories of geography and history.
The subject of this blog is how Nepal played a significant role in the transformation of China and how history has intertwined the cultures of the two neighboring countries. The person Emperor Kublai Khan depended upon to bring the sway of Buddhism back into his domain was the Tibetan spiritual master Drogon Chogyal Phags-pa of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is said that the great khan was enamoured by the healing abilities of the Tibetan monks. Half a millennium earlier Buddhism arrived in Tibet through the teachings of the bodhisattvas such as Padmasambhaba, known locally as Guru Rinpoche, who at one time or another had made Nepal his spiritual abode. Through time the old Bon animist beliefs were incorporated into the Mahayana sect of Buddhism or the Great Vehicle that strove to absorb the old beliefs to make Buddhism more acceptable and accessible to the masses. The true conversion of Tibet came about when the Tibetan king Tsrong Tsen Gampo converted to Buddhism through the influences of his two consorts, Princess Wen Chen from China and Princess Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal.
During the Licchavi period in Nepal, the ruler Amsuvarman was leaning towards Buddhist beliefs and traditions as attested to by the Chinese chronicler Hueng Tsang who visited the important Buddhist pilgrimage spots including Kathmandu, Lumbini, and Bodhgaya before settling down for studies in the Nalanda University. Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty of North India converted to Buddhism in 250 B.C., the religion proclaiming ahimsa or non-violence, after beholding the brutality wrought by his victorious armies on the battlefield at Kalinga. Legend has it that his daughter Charulata came to Kathmandu Valley as a Buddhist nun and built a monastery at Chabahil. Emperor Ashoka followed soon after and built four stupas in the four cardinal points of the city still extant today in Patan.
As we have seen Buddhism had been introduced in Nepal from time immemorial. The religion sometimes competed against the older Hindu traditions but many times flourished together in symbiotic harmony as we can still witness today. It was only fitting that Buddhism would be exported to Tibet from Nepal during the time of Amsuvarman when Buddhism reached the zenith of its influence. Princess Bhrikuti made a long and arduous journey to Lhasa carrying with her a messianic zeal to convert. It was this tradition Emperor Kublai Khan would rely upon in the person of Chogyal Phags-pa to establish a new religion in his empire to counter the influence of home-grown religions such as Confucianism and Taoism. After having been appointed the Royal Preceptor, Phags-pa would soon ordain the great khan in 1270 A.D.
The Chogyal was greatly humbled by the enormous task placed upon him by the emperor. He made ready a team of experts on religion and another team of artisans and craftsmen who possessed the skill to build Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet and faraway China. He would again look at the Kathmandu Valley for the craftsmen who could stand up to the great task he was undertaking. Kathmandu Valley boasted the greatest number of temples and stupas and a very large number of full-time Newar artisans practicing their craft, richly endowed by the ruling dynasties of the valley. It was said that the valley had more temples than houses for people to live in. It was during his search for a master craftsman that he would discover the 16-year-old Arniko in Patan.
Arniko became the team leader of a group of 80 artisans entrusted by King Jaya Bhim Dev Malla to showcase the peerless pagoda style of architecture adorning his city. The team arrived in Tibet in 1261 AD and built a magnificent golden pagoda in the Sakya Monastery near Shegar in the Tibetan plateau, the seat of the Chogyal’s sect. So pleased was the Chogyal by the outcome that he decided to take the group to Beijing to build another stupa in the new capital. At the end of 1262 A.D. Arniko arrived in Beijing and was received at the court by the great khan himself. Arniko was granted state resources to cast, mould and paint in various media and he excelled in all.
On 25 July 1279 AD, the White Pagoda was completed. Occupying an area of 810 square meters the temple was 60 meters high and dwarfed the residential buildings of the new capital. The 5-meter high gilt copper top reflected light fanning the city with golden rays and dazzling the onlookers. The population gaped at this new structure in wonderment and awe and the temple became a locus of Buddhist veneration. It is chronicled that Kublai Khan, pleased, granted Arniko 15,000 mu of fertile land with 100 heads of cattle and 100 local hands to farm the land. Arniko’s fortune started shining brightly.
Many projects followed after this and Arniko not only worked on the new Buddhist buildings but also on statues of 191 Taoist saints and schools of Confucianism. His next big project was in Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province. This mountain enjoys pre-eminence among four holy Buddhist mountains as the abode of Bodhisatva Manjushri who is associated with the legend behind the founding of Kathmandu Valley. Manjushri drained the primordial Kathmandu Valley lake by cutting a deep gorge at Chobar, south of the valley, thus making the valley habitable. Arniko knew this story well and he yearned to go on a pilgrimage to this holy site. In 1295 AD a grand project befell upon him when the grandson of Kublai Khan, Emperor Chengzong ordered him to build a monastery on Mt. Wuhai for the dowager empress. In the monastery complex was erected the Cishou Pagoda towering 60 meters high. It is written that the dowager empress visited the monastery in person and handed a reward of 10,000 Liang of silver to Arniko in appreciation of his genius.
Arniko had 11 wives. Principal among them were his Newar wife Chaityaluxmi, a princess of Song Court and a Mongol aristocratic woman. His eldest son Asanger and his handpicked protege Liu Yuan carried forward the work of Arniko. Arniko passed away on 9th March 1306 A.D. at the ripe old age of 62 following a short illness. Emperor Chengzong grieved the death of Arniko and halted court proceedings as a mark of respect for the Nepalese artisan who helped achieve his grandfather Kublai Khan’s vision of transforming China into a Buddhist realm. Following Nepalese customs Arniko’s body was cremated and the ashes were buried in Xiangshan, Wanping County. Emperor Wuzhong ordered a tombstone with inscriptions in 1311 A.D. Arniko left behind a rich legacy for the ages to marvel.
Courtesy Subodh Rana: Subodh Rana is a long-time veteran of the tourism industry in Nepal, having run his own travel agency since 1990 and currently holding the position of CEO at Malla Travel an international joint venture company. His years of professional and societal engagement with the people and land of his birth, as well as his unique and historical perspective as a member of the Rana family, a dynasty that ruled Nepal from 1846 to 1951, has endowed Rana with a love for storytelling. Having grown up listening to the experiences of his father, once Commander-in-Chief of the then Royal Nepal Army and tales of his ancestors including his grandfather, the seventh Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, Rana indeed possesses a treasure trove of historical anecdotes and accounts. Through his various published writings and blog, Rana endeavors to bestow these gifts to future generations.