The great Newar artist, Arniko
At the age of sixteen Arniko confidently volunteered to lead a team of eighty Newar artisans to Sakya monastery in Tibet, in order to construct a golden stupa that would commemorate the life of Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), the spiritual advisor to the Mongolian leader Godan Khan. The construction of this stupa was sponsored by Kublai Khan, the Mongolian Emperor and founder of China's Yuan Dynasty, who appointed Sakya Pandita's young nephew, Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (1235-1280), to oversee this project. This stupa took two years to complete (1261-63), and evidently some miraculous phenomena occurred during its consecration ceremony, which resulted in Arniko taking ordination as a monk.
After the completion of this golden stupa Phagpa insisted that its brilliant architect, Arniko, should accompany him to meet Kublai Khan at his Summer Palace in Shangdu (Xanadu), Mongolia. Impressed with Arniko's fearlessness and confidence, Kublai asked the young Newar craftsman about his training, to which he replied: "I recognize my own mind as my teacher, and I basically know about painting, casting and carving." Kublai then decided to test Arniko's skill by asking him to repair a bronze statue that had been deemed irreparable by all his court artists. After expertly restoring this statue Arniko was next asked to repair an important copper statue from the Song Dynasty, which he meticulously restored over a two-year period.
Kublai Khan had enormous respect for Arniko, appointing him as 'Supervisor of all Classes of Artisans' in 1273, with several thousand Chinese craftsmen training under his guidance. Kublai Khan later bestowed the hereditary title of 'Duke of Liang' upon Arniko, a title which was normally given to the Emperor's son. A part of the inscription on Arniko's memorial stele reads:
Only the Duke of Liang twisted gold and cut jade.
The glorious temples he built are towering and majestic.
Who can say he was merely a guest?
He wore royal robes and returned again to the laity.
He achieved fame and fortune.
His birth was glorious, yet his death was tragic.
He began with care, and he ended with grace.
Arniko's epitaph states that he designed and built three great stupas, nine Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Taoist temple, and a large number of sculpted images, paintings and ceremonial artifacts for the Yuan court. The portraits of Kublai Khan and his wife Chabi, which now hang in Taipei's National Palace Museum, are attributed to Arniko. A famous Green Tara painting in the USA's Cleveland Art Museum, and a limestone statue of Panjara Mahakala (dated 1292) in the Muisee Guimet, Paris, have also been attributed as the work of Arniko. But his most important surviving monument is the White Stupa, or White Dagoba, in Beijing. This stupa took ten years to build, and at a height of 170 feet still exerts a dominating presence over this 'Imperial City'. Arniko spent forty years in China, thirteen of which he spent at Mount Wutaishan, the sacred 'five-peaked' mountain dedicated to Manjushri, where he constructed a similar great White Stupa, which is likewise preserved as part of his unique artistic legacy.
As the indigenous evolution of Buddhist art began to spread throughout Tibet, many new regional painting styles began to develop through the inspiration of individual visionary artists and renowned thangka painters, some of who were also great spiritual practitioners and incarnate lamas. Partly because of this development the role of the three ancient Newar cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur - respectively known for their skilful painters, statue-makers and woodcarvers - began to change. Only the statue-makers of Patan maintained an enduring relationship with their Tibetan patrons into the present day. However, it was mainly due to the increasing absorption of Hindu religion and culture into the Kathmandu Valley over the last few centuries that led to the Newar Buddhist art traditions becoming somewhat static and neglected. In part this was also due to the influence of Indian miniature painting, and to the fact that both Nepal and Tibet had chosen to remain isolated from the outside world. Nepal only first started to open its doors to foreign tourists after the 'conquest of Everest' in 1953.
© Text by Robert Beer