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THE PAGODA - NEPAL'S EXPORT PAR EXCELLENCE

Prologue


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.  

The great Mongol looked at the vast plains stretching before him in eternity and decided that this would be the place where he would build his new capital city, Dadu, and move the court from his citadel in Inner Mongolia Shangdu or Xanadu as we have come to be familiar with in the English language. It was a decision based in realpolitik as after all he was the ruler of China now, not just a barbarian from the outer fringes of empire as his grandfather Genghis Khan and his ancestors had been. To be accepted as the ruler of China by a conquered and cowed populace he had to firstly transform himself into a local hero. He had to re-invent himself as a Chinese ruler. He had to do three things to achieve this end: bring his seat of government nearer to the Chinese heartland, start a new dynasty and change his religion. In one fell swoop Kublai Khan created the city of Beijing, founded the Yuan Dynasty, promoted Buddhism to eclipse the older Taoism and changed China forever.

Portrait of Kublai Khan painted by Arniko
The subject of this blog is how Nepal played a significant role on 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 in 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 bodhisatvas 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 in 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 times 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.

Portrait of Empress Chagui painted by Arniko
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. 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 A.D. 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.

Statue of Arniko in Beijing outside White Pagoda
In 1272 A.D. he was commissioned to build the White Pagoda. It was completed by 1279 A.D. and, as the tallest structure in the new capital, it became a showcase of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan himself presided over the huge Buddhist religious ceremony that was organized to consecrate the temple. In an investiture ceremony soon after Arniko was made a Duke and the emperor's chief consort Chabui arranged for him a rich Chinese wife. Along with his first married Newari wife Chaityaluxmi Arniko lived and died in China, never to set foot again in his homeland. He is immortalized in China as the prodigy who came over the Himalayan passes to change China forever. Nepal would honor his memory by naming the highway to Tibet after him.

Old painting of White Pagoda towering over Beijing




Comments

  1. According to Nepalese historians, it is yet to be established that Araniko's Nepali wife, who he had left behind when he departed for Tibet, could reunite with him ever.

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