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There have been many myths and legends on 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 new born baby girl to save the incarnated Lord Vishnu from the clutches of the evil uncle King Kangsa. 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 'incarnation' of God in human form. There have been more earthly prodigies galore in most disciplines whether it is in maths 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 from age five. Picasso completed his first painting "The Picador" at an early age of eight.

Picasso's painting, 'The Picador'
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 and metal carving. 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.

Arniko's Departure for China - painting by Hari Prasad Sharma
My earlier blog covered the story of Arniko and his artisans getting selected by Dragon Phagspa to build a stupa in the Sakya Monastery in Tibet as per the edict of Emperor Kublai Khan. The success of this enterprise led him to Dadu, the new imperial capital of Yuan Dynasty, known today as Beijing. Here Arniko was bestowed by the emperor a project to build a pagoda temple in order to protect his whole country. Having received the imperial edict, Arniko presented the drawings of the Tibetan stupa-style Dagoba that looked like a holy vessel and had a stylized gilt pagoda on its top.

On July 25th 1279 A.D. 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 onto 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 A.D. a grand project befell upon him when the grandson of Kublai Khan, Emperor Chengzong orderd 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 Mongol aristocratic women. 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 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.


  1. Is Arniko's tombstone still there?

    Great blog, at a time when Nepal is expecting so much from China, to remind us that Nepal has also contributed to China.

    1. Yes, the tombstone is still there at the burial site.

  2. Wonderful blog. Please keep posting.

  3. very uneasy lull on your part sir! My kids (both born and raised outside of Nepal) enjoyed reading your blog posts.

  4. Is there any evidences of Arnico's life history in Nepal. We have only the literal evidences and mention of of the monuments he built from the Chinese side.


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