The life and times of Arniko

The cultural legacy of Nepal’s famous son can still be seen across East Asia

An artist's rendering of the White Dagoba (stupa) built by Arniko, that still stands at the Miao Ying temple in Beijing.

Stamps have been issued, a highway has been named after him, he has been declared one of Nepal’s national icons. But 900 years later Arniko still remains very much an enigma in the country of his birth. 

In China, however, where Arniko went as a master architect to the court of Kublai Khan in 1260, he is still respected. He was given the title of Duke of Liang, and a memorial stele marks the spot where he was cremated in Hsiang Sheng near Beijing. A biography was written about him, and the Yuan genealogy contains a chapter on him.

It is because of these reliable sources from Chinese sources that today we are able to trace the story of this remarkable historical figure from Kathmandu, even though details about him in Nepal itself are patchy.

In 1260, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan asked his spiritual guru Phags-Pa to build a golden stupa in Tibet. When the patriarch of Tibetan Buddhism’s Shakya sect asked the king of Nepal, Jaybhimdev Malla, for a hundred artists the king could muster only 80. Sixteen-year-old Arniko, already known as a child prodigy, volunteered to lead them.

 “The fact that they needed Nepali artists proves just how developed Nepal’s art and architecture were at that time,” explains art historian Manuj Babu Mishra. “In fact, the sixth-century Changu Narayan Temple pre-dated Arniko and indicates the richness of Nepal’s artistic past.”

Due to the decline of Buddhism in the subcontinent Tibet looked upon Nepal as the source of Buddhist wisdom and philosophy. Phags-pa was so impressed with Arniko’s stupas that he trained him into  monkhood and sent him to Beijing to meet the Great Khan himself. Arniko impressed Kublai Khan (Genghis Khan’s grandson) by repairing a bronze statue, and went on to build the White Dagoba, which is a Beijing landmark to this day. 

“China’s art and architecture were already highly developed, so China was not looking for just any architect from Nepal. What Arniko took to China was Buddhist architecture with its philosophy and symbolism,” says historian Satya Mohan Joshi, whose treatise on Arniko was published in 1988.  “for example the Chaitya in Swoyambhu and Baudha symbolised Chaitanya, or consciousness.”

It is supposed to be Arniko who took Kathmandu Valley’s famous tiered temple style to China, from where it travelled to Korea and Kyoto. But while that is difficult to prove, Satya Mohan Joshi says Arniko took many other Nepali  elements north: the wooden gate, stone steps and carved windows (tikijhya) at the White Dagoba, its bronze spire (gajur), Nepali-style statues of Dipankar, Shakyamuni and Maitreya Buddha, Paubha paintings of deities like Mahakala, White Tara, Green Tara, Avalokiteswar.

Amidst the ruins of the Cloud Terrace near the base of the Great Wall is a huge stone arch containing  images like the Garud, Nagkanya, crocodiles, elephants, and Panchabuddha. The white stupa in Nanking and other sites actually have inscriptions in Ranjana script – all vestiges of Arniko’s influence in China.

Read Also: Resurrecting Arniko 

After Arniko constructed three stupas, nine great Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Daoist temple, he was made the ‘master of all classes of artisans’. Prof Jing Anning at Michigan State University writes that Arniko made ‘new symbols of the emperor’s sovereignty, based on designs from Indic culture such as the dharmacakra (Wheel of the Law) which was used to lead imperial processions, and the image of Garuda, the celestial bird that was displayed over the imperial throne’.

In another research paper, late historian Dina Bangdel states that Arniko’s works were instrumental in the conversion of Kublai Khan to Tantric Buddhism. ‘Phags-pa directed Arniko to create an image of Mahakala that was used in a protection ritual to aid Khan in his battles (which he won). Arniko’s Mahakala image became a powerful symbol of a leader’s authority to rule,’ Bangdel has written.

Arniko also crafted scientific instruments like armillary spheres and water clocks. However, art works  that can be definitely attributed to him are rare. The Cleveland Museum says its image of Green Tara is by Arniko, while portraits of Kublai Khan and his wife Chabi at the National Palace Museum of Taiwan are believed to be by Arniko.

Although these claims cannot be proven, Prof Anning says a bronze statue of Manjushri (dated 1305) now in the Palace Museum in Beijing and a brocade image of a three-faced, six-armed Guhyasamaja now in the Potala Palace in Lhasa are by Arniko. 

Arniko established a school of Nepali art in China which trained at least two of his own sons and thousands of Chinese artists. ‘By drawing inspiration from the artistic traditions of Pala, Nepal and China, Anige (Arniko) single-handedly created a new form of court art and promoted it through the huge artisan agencies under his leadership,’ Prof Anning writes.   

The Italian traveller Marco Polo, who journeyed to China from 1271-1295, was a contemporary of Arniko. If they ever met, history has no record of it. Marco Polo is not even named in Chinese history. Ironically, while Marco Polo gained lasting fame after he returned home and wrote of his travels, Arniko despite the respect he commanded in the Chinese court, disappeared from world history after his death in 1306 at age 62.

Satya Mohan Joshi thinks Arniko’s legacy is the enduring bond between Nepal and China, and cites the White Dagoba which was left alone even during the Cultural Revolution, and is still cared for and renovated with high priority by the Chinese state.

He adds: “Nepal needs to live by the policy of panchasheel, and we have historic proof that Arniko espoused it. That is why he deserves to be our national icon.”

Arniko meets Kublai Khan in Beijing

After he arrived, the Emperor looked at him at some length before asking, “Are you afraid to come the big country?”

He answered, “The sage (Kublai Khan) regards people in all directions as his sons. When a son comes to his father, what is there to fear?”

“Why do you come?”

He replied, “My family has been living in the west (Nepal) for generations. I took the imperial edict to build the stupa in Tibet for two years. I saw constant wars there, and wish Your Majesty could pacify them. I come for sentient beings.”

“What do you practice?”

He said, “I take my mind as my teacher and know roughly painting, casting and carving.”

The Emperor was greatly pleased.

(Extract from Arniko’s biography)