Saturday, December 28

Ulaanbaatar Ger District

Zud (Mongolian: зуд) is a term for an extremely snowy winter that follows a summer drought. Livestock cannot find what little grass there remains under the snow and ice, and large numbers of animals die due to starvation and cold. The last major zud was in 2009-2010; the yurt-belt surrounding Ulaanbaatar swelled up in the year that followed, as pastoralist life finally collapsed for many in Mongolia, due to the hardship of the zud, the growing desertification of the steppe, the erosion in cashmere prices through oversupply, and the increasingly bright lights of a boomtown riding on commodity prices.

From a Feb 2010 news article:

When even Mongolians complain, you know it's cold ... 

Officials in Ulaanbaatar, the snowbound capital, have declared disaster status in more than half of Mongolia's 21 provinces, and more are set to follow across the vast, sparsely populated nation, roughly the size of Alaska.

After weeks of heavy snowfalls, fierce winds and temperatures as low as minus-58 degrees, 2.3 million livestock have perished and an additional 3 million may die by spring, according to the Mongolian government.

Mongolians use the term "dzud" for the combination of summer drought and severe winter that has hardened snow and ice into an impenetrable layer and makes it impossible for livestock to feed.

"The snow and cold are the worst I have ever seen," surpassing the last major dzud in 2000-2001, says Nyamaa Delegnyam, 48, foreign relations officer for the Khovd province in western Mongolia.

The human cost among Mongolia's population of 3 million remains difficult to quantify because of inaccessibility and limited communication. But infant mortality in the 12 hardest-hit provinces jumped by up to 60% in January compared with the previous five-year average ...

Another report later in the year says:

It took 14 days for Erdenebileg's family to drive what remained of their flock the 300 miles from southern Dundgovi province to a bleak hillside in Töv province, close to the city. Once, they enjoyed "a pretty decent life", selling cashmere and spare animals for cash to supplement the meat and milk from their 600-strong herd. Then came the winter.

"Every day we saw our animals dying in front of us. I was devastated," said the 32-year-old, her face etched deep by the wind and worry.

The 80 surviving animals graze close to the family's tent, overlooking a disused concrete factory and rubbish tip. Her husband has been lucky, finding a factory job through relatives. But the couple and their four children will barely scrape by on his 150,000 tögrögs (£75) a month. The government recently withdrew substantial child benefits.

"We hoped things might be easier closer to town, but it's not what I expected. It's much worse," said Erdenebileg. "Our future is uncertain, but we know there's no going back."

Most longer-term migrants are stuck in the crowded ger (yurt) settlements around the capital, where 46% live in poverty. Stray goats pick their way through the mud and children kick at corrugated steel fences separating each plot. Sanitation and services are poor. Many lack the documents to claim benefits – though a registration drive should help – and the skills to find work. Some scrabble over rubbish dumps for plastic or glass to sell to recyclers.

On our last drive into Ulaanbaatar from the Tuul, we take a detour through the ger district. It is raining and the roads are flooded; even in July, the cold of the drizzle pierces through one's clothes; in the distance rises the Gadantegchinlen Khiid, its colossal all-seeing Avalokitesvara watching over the city.

Friday, December 27


Above: Zanabazar's White Tara.

At some point in the 1570s, word filtered back to Mongolia that Altan Khan had met with a new power called the Dalai Lama and that the Tümed Mongols of Inner Mongolia had subsequently converted to Buddhism. Avtai, then Khan of the Khalkha, decided that he must met this great character from Tibet, and then he would decide for himself what he thought of the Dalai Lama and his teachings. "If he is acceptable we shall recognize each other. If not we shall fight," declared Avtai. Thereupon the Khan of the Khalkha set off on horseback from of his homelands on the upper Tuul to the court of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

The meetings went well, and Avtai Khan came back, impressed, with Buddhist relics. Monasteries and stupas started appearing the Mongol heartland. In 1635, forty-eight years after Avtai Khan's death, his grandson Gombo Dorje, now the ruler of the Mongol Khanate in the East, was traveling by Yesön Zuul when he noticed a handsome lama sitting nearby the shrine built by his grandfather. When asked what he was doing there the lama replied, "I am honoring this place with sacrifices." Then the lama disappeared, and the sky was filled with rainbows. Shortly thereafter both Gombo Dorje and his wife Khandu Jamtso started having dreams filled with omens and portents. Subsequently, a little boy was born to the Khan. He was named Yeshe Dorje (Eshidorji.) This boy was destined to be called the Michelangelo of Asia for bringing to the entire region a renaissance in theology, religion, language, art, architecture, medicine and astronomy, even as the Manchu gained suzerainty over outer Mongolia.

Soon, little Yeshe Dorje was building small replicas of temples, fashioning statuettes of the Buddha, and sketching lamas. By tradition the son of a Khan was supposed to be surrounded by robust playmates from other noble families; but Yeshe Dorje chose to hang out in temples with monks. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for the lamasery, arranged for a monk named Jambaling to give the him his first vows. Accompanying this came a new name - Jnana-vajra - Knowledge-Thunderbolt in Sanskrit - a formulation soon vernacularized to Zanabazar.

Above: Zanabazar pictured in a tangkha.

It  apparently did not take long for stories of Gombo Dorje Khan's remarkable little boy to spread throughout Mongolia. The boy's extraordinary utterances and prodigy; his taking of his first monastic vows at age three; his skill in drawing, painting, and sculpting - all would have been deeply impressive to people and celebrated in a land where folk thought naught of riding a hundred miles to simply hear an interesting bit of news. By the time Zanabazar was four, not only the Buddhist lamas of Mongolia but also the ruling khans and khatuns had realized that he was destined to play a unique role in their country. In 1639, a great convention was held to anoint him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkha Mongolia, and to establish for him his very own monastery. It is said:

From as far away as Buir Nuur to the east and the shores of huge salt lakes in the Great Depression in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian taiga in the north and the depths of the Gobi Desert in the south, the khans and their entourages of the khanates of Khalkha Mongolia converged on the territory of the Zanabazar's father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els-a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalka Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis-"navel"-of the Mongol realm ... On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or "Yellow Sash Palace". Lama Bürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed him on a throne in the ger, signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar's own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations.

As the boy grew older, it became clear to his handlers that if Zanabazar wished to advance, he would have to continue his studies in Tibet, the source of Buddhism as practiced in Mongolia, and the home of the Dalai Lama, So it was decided that the boy Zanabazar, then 14, would travel to Tibet:

Zanabazar left Mongolia late in 1649 ... There were several caravan tracks to Tibet, but if he took the traditional Shar Zam (Yellow Road) to Tibet he would have veered slightly west from Shankh through what is now Bayankhongor Aimag. Perhaps he stopped at the oasis of Ekhin Gol, then as now one of the main watering holes in south Bayankhongor, before crossing the last ridges of the Gobi-Altai Range just west of 8,755 foot Segs Saikhan Bogd Uul and starting across the dreaded Black Gobi, the most difficult part-mainly because of the lack of water-of the whole journey. From Ekhin Gol to Anhsi, the first sizable Chinese town on the southern edge of the Gobi usually took about twenty days by camel. Then the party would have turned southeast, crossing the Tulai Nan Shan and Datong Shan mountains and skirting the northern shore of Khökh Nuur before arriving at Kumbum Monastery, located in a narrow valley seventeen miles southwest of the present-day city of Xining. Here the party took a lengthy break.

Around 1650, Zanabazar met Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. Lobsang Gyatso is credited with unifying Tibet after a protracted era of civil wars;  he established diplomatic relations with China, met with early European explorers, wrote 24 volumes' of scholarly and religious works, and was the first of Dalai Lamas to wield effective temporal power over all of Tibet. He is usually referred to simply as the Great Fifth. When Zanabazar appeared in Tibet, the Great Fifth was busy building the Potala palace (the name comes from the hill on Cape Comorin believed to be sacred to the Avalokitesvara) overlooking Lhasa. The two hit it off.

Anxious to cement an alliance with the Mongol nobility, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that Zanabazar was a reincarnation of the famous Buddhist teacher and historian Taranatha. Taranatha was considered the 15th reincarnation of a sentient being known as the Jebtsun Dampa. The first incarnation of the Jebtsun Dampa was Lodoi-shindu-namdak, who appeared in Magadha and was one of the Buddha's original 500 disciples. The second incarnation was Barbizobo, the head of Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna (probably in the first century AD). The next two were born in India, but other than their birthplace biographical information is lacking. The fifth Jebtsun Dampa, Ronsom-choi-san, was the first to appear in Tibet, during the lifetime of the famous Bengal-born sage Atisa (982-1054), who moved to Tibet and died at the Tara Temple 20 miles east of Lhasa. Zanabazar now became the 16th Jebtsun Dampa, a name and title which he would use for the rest of his life and pass on to his subsequent reincarnations. Thus was Zanabazar recognized as the latest in a long line of personages in the history of Buddhism, going back to the time of the Buddha himself.

Above: Zanabazar at his museum in Ulaanbaatar.

In return, Zanabazar converted to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama, and proceeded to encourage his Mongols to adopt Yellow Hat beliefs. He announced that he would now longer live in any monastery connected with the Sakya sect of Mongolia. He established a new Gelugpa monastery near the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers; this monastery became known as Örgöö, meaning palace or camp. Later, the word would be corrupted to Urga, the name used by foreigners for the capital of Mongolia before it was changed in 1924 by the Soviets to Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero.)

As part of Sakya-Gelugpa tussles, Zanabazar faced resurgent Oirats. The Oirat Khan Galdan decided to reunite the Mongol khanates, collaborating with Rus, the rising power on the north, and the Manchus, in the south. When Galdan Khan's army came to Ulaanbaatar, Zanabazar escaped to southern Mongolia. The Manchus were interested in defeating both Mongolian states; sensing opportunity, the Manchu army double-crossed Galdan Khan, and after the battle at Zuun Mod the Oirat were defeated. Zanabazar became a vassal of the Manchu, but allowed to retain Eastern Mongolia as the first Bogd Khan (from Bhaga = divine, plus Khan = king.)

Zanabazar has been called the Michelangelo of Asia. He brought an Indo-Tibetan style into bronze casting and painting in Mongolia. In a dream, he invented the Indic Soyombo (swayambhu - i.e. self-manifested or that which is created by its own accord) script in 1686, and this became the alphabet for Mongolian Buddhism. He instituted the Maitreya Ceremony in Mongolia - in which the Buddha Maitreya is raised and scriptures chanted in the hope of releasing souls of the deceased from suffering, as well as realizing a good harvest of crops with peace. Zanabazar personally directed the creation of tangkhas, sacred music, clothing design, astronomical measurements, and stupa construction. The monks of his school created many figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas well into the 20th century.

Below, the Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar.

Monday, December 23

Sakyamuni on the Steppe

My great city of Dadu (Beijing)! adorned with varied splendor; Shangdu (Xanadu), my delectable cool summer retreat! and those yellowing plains, the delight and refreshment of my divine ancestors! What evil have I committed to lose my empire thus!

This lament is the last recorded words of Toghon Temür, the 10th descendant of Kublai, and the last Yuan Emperor. Kublai had originally named his eldest son, Zhenjin (Chinese: 真金) as Crown Prince but he pre-deceased Kublai in 1285. Zhenjin's third son, with the intrigue of his mother Kökejin, succeeded to the throne and ruled as Temür Khan or Emperor Chengzong following Kublai's death. In the century after Kublai, the Yüan Dynasty, led by ever-more-Sinicized rulers of ever-diminishing capability, more and more corrupted by the indulgences of courtly life, started to teeter. In 1368, Toghon Temür fled his capital in the face of advancing Chinese rebels who would go on to establish the Ming Dynasty; the Mongols lost China, and were forced to retreat to their original homelands to the north of the Gobi. Toghon Temür died shortly after. The irony of Chingis Khan's descendant lamenting the loss of urban comfort will not be lost on the gentle reader.

Toghon Temür's son Prince Ayurshiridhara attempted to rally the Mongols around their old capital of Karakorum, dreaming of eventually recovering the empire his father had lost; but the army of the Ming pursued the Mongol into his homeland, and finally in 1388 dealt him a devastating blow in Dornod. In the disarray that followed, the descendants of Kublai could no longer claim hegemony over much of anything. Oirat tribes rose in the west and claimed overlordship of the Mongol.

The descendants of Chingis Khan were reduced to their traditional homelands around the Tuul. After the death of Manduul Khan in 1467 at the hands of his own advisor Eslem (spy and agent of Ming China), in a battle with his own grand-nephew Bolko. Bolko was in turn assassinated in 1470, and the throne was left vacant.  At this time, a minor Mongol Khatun, Mandukhai the Wise, brought out from hiding and adopted the seven year old orphan Batumunkh, son of the late Bayan Mongkhe Jonon, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. As Batumunkh was the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, Queen Mandukhai had him proclaimed Khan with name Dayan (and subsequently wed him.)

When Dayan Khan died in 1543, as was tradition the 'hearth' land around the Three Rivers Region around the Kherlen, Tuul and Onon rivers went to his youngest son Geresandza Ochigin. His group of Mongols eventually became the Khalkha. The title of Great Khan, however, went to Dayan's grandson Bodi, who built a base around Dolonuur in what is now Inner Mongolia in China. Bodi's third son Barsa-bolod and grandson Gün Biliktü occupied the Ordos Desert in the great loop of the Yellow River. Gün Biliktü's younger brother, Altan Khan, became leader of yet another group, the Tümed Mongols, who were centered around present-day Hohhot, the current capital of Inner Mongolia. Altan Khan played a decisive role in introducing, or, more properly, re-introducing, Buddhism to Mongolia.

[Above: Cover of the book on Buddhist Art from Mongolia edited by Carmen Meinart.]

Chingis Khan himself had met with some Tibetan Buddhists as early as 1205, a year before the founding of the Mongol Empire, and had been impressed by their doctrine. He had sent a message to the Sakya Lama So-Pan, stating, 'I have not finished the wars of my reign yet, but as soon as these are over, please come to Hor with your disciples and spread the Teachings of the Buddha.' And we have seen Kublai Khan open to the teachings of both Daoists and Buddhists in China. In 1566, while on an expedition (or raid) to Tibet,  Sechen Khongtaiji (Altan Khan's grand-nephew) met some monks who he brought back to the Khan's camp near Ulaanbaatar. It is not clear whether these monks came as prisoners or as teachers; in any case, they introduced Sechen Khongtaiji to the teachings of Buddha and finally managed to convert him to Vajrayana Buddhism. Sechen Khongtaiji then converted his uncle:

Defeat the Oirat . . . take into your hands the power of the State. The wise and learned say that divine teaching is important for this and for the next two lives that will follow. Would not it be a wonder if the Buddha . . . of the Land of Snows . . . comes here and a State Religion is created?

According to other accounts it was Altan Khan himself who had captured the Buddhist monks, who then introduced him to the doctrines of the Sakyamuni. Yet another account claims that while on a raid into the Uighur regions of Xinjiang Altan Khan captured two Uighur chiefs and three Uighur Buddhist monks; and so on.

When Sonam Gyatso, the lama presiding over prayers in Lhasa, received his first invitation from Altan Khan in 1571 to come to the Khan's ordu, he made excuses, fearing for his safety on such a long hazardous journey to the court of faraway unruly barbarians. Altan Khan, whose curiosity on Buddhism had been whetted by the monks he had captured, issued more and more invitations till finally his summons could no longer be ignored. One never knew with the Mongols - if the Khan's requests continued to be ignored it was plausible that a horde turn up at Lhasa and seize the lama anyway.

Sonam Gyatso left Lhasa for the Khan's court in late 1577. A formidable entourage followed him to Reting, the monastery 95 miles north of Lhasa (founded in 1057 by Dron Tönpa, chief disciple of the great Atisa Dipankara.) Here Sonam Gyatso's followers again begged him to abandon this fool's errand of a journey to the court of the Mongols; but he ordered the entourage to turn back at Reting, and prepared to continue on his own - when the Tibetan King Tashi Rabten ran up and taking hold of the lama's stirrup, cried out loudly:

May your lotus feet proceed safely, o Lama who are the glory of the Buddha's Teachings! May the whole word fill with the Holders of this teaching!

This re-invigorated the resolve of all; they pressed on and eventually reached an Yangtze River in flood. According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, Sonam Gyatso only had to point at it with his finger and the river became quiet, allowing him to cross. The same occurred at the Yellow River crossing.  At the Khan's ordu:

Altan Khan himself arrived, dressed in white clothes, which meant he had whitened the boundless realms of darkness. He was accompanied by the retinue of about 10,000 men, his wife and many attendants.

The Mongols expected religious figures to perform feats and Sonam Gyatso could not disappoint. Asked by the Altan Khan to demonstrate his power:

He reached his arm into an enormous boulder lying near the Khan and from it extracted a huge conch shell, the matrix of which circled in reverse. He placed the conch to his lips and blew a sharp note, whereupon the earth shook.

Sonam Gyatso then delivered his first discourse to the Mongols. He asked them to give up the practice of human and animal sacrifices ( Ögedei had had forty "moon-faced virgins" scarified in honor of Chingis Khan) and told them to destroy their shamanic idols including Khan Tengri.  Instead of blood sacrifices, he requested that Mongols offer up part of the deceased's possessions to temples and monasteries. He also implored the Mongols not to conduct bloody raids on their neighbors but instead try to live in peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. Finally, he taught them the sutra on Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, the One who sees in all directions, and the accompanying mantra: Aum Manipadme Hum.

The Mongols were bowled over. Altan bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso the title of "Dalai Lama". Dalai is a Mongolian for "vast" or "oceanic"; it is also a direct Mongolian translation of the Tibetan word Gyatso. In return, Sonam Gyatso recognized Altan Khan as a reincarnation of Kublai Khan and therefore the legitimate wearer of the mantle of the Yüan Dynasty of China.

We are standing outside the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (Mongolian: Гандантэгчинлэн хийд, Gandantegchinlen Khiid) in Ulaanbaatar. This Tibetan-origin name translates to the 'Great Island of Perfect Rejoicing'. It houses a colossal statue of Migjid Janraisig, aka Avalokitesvara.

In the 1930s, the Communist government under Khorloogiin Choibalsan (and Joseph Stalin), destroyed all but a few monasteries in Mongolia and killed more than 15,000 lamas. 'Zaya's great grandfather was one of them.

Gandantegchinlen Khiid escaped this destruction, was closed in 1938, and then reopened in 1944 to continue as the only functioning token Buddhist monastery, under a skeleton staff, as homage to a postcard-representation of Mongolian culture under communism. The statue of Avalokitesvara was, it is said, melted down to make bullets for Soviet troops WWII.  Only with the end of communism in Mongolia in 1990 were restrictions on worship were lifted; 'Zaya recalls people crying in streets that day. The 26-m-high statue was rebuilt in 1996 funded by donations by ordinary Mongolian people. 'Zaya's family gave all the copper they possessed - pots, pans, old coins.

People are solemnly tying scarves to the pole in the compound, praying. Aum Manipadme Hum. As I step out of the sanctum, I stumble against the doorstep. 'Zaya comes running - No! No! That's bad luck. Go back in and come out again, step carefully over the threshold without touching it with your feet.

Sunday, December 15

Araniko and Kublai

In 1224, Kublai, the 9-year-old younger son of Tolui and Sorgaqtani Beki, took part in his first hunt with his older brother Möngke on the steppes by the Ili river. The boys managed to bring down a rabbit and an antelope; their grandfather Chingis Khan, just back from annihilating Samarqand and Bukhara, was pleased; he smeared fat from the carcasses onto Kublai's middle finger in accordance with tradition.

Under Ögedei Khan  the Mongols established control over the Jin lands of Northern China in 1234. In 1236, Ögedei gave Hebei Province, attached with 80,000 households, to the family of Tolui, who had died in 1232. Kublai received an estate of his own, comprising 10,000 of these households. From childhood, Kublai had received strong Chinese influence - his wet nurse, who Kublai honored highly, was a Buddhist Tangut woman. Kublai's early life was spent in studying contemporary Chinese culture; he invited Haiyun, the leading Buddhist monk in North China, to his ordu in Mongolia, and when they met in 1242, asked him questions about Buddhism. Haiyun named Kublai's son, who was born in 1243, Zhenjin ('True Gold.') Haiyun also introduced Kublai to the former Daoist, and now Buddhist, monk Liu Bingzhong. Liu was a painter, calligrapher, poet and mathematician, and became Kublai's advisor when Haiyun returned to his temple in modern Beijing.

In 1251, Kublai's older brother Möngke became the great Khan of the Mongol Empire, and Kublai received viceroyalty over Northern China. He moved his ordu to Inner Mongolia. During his years as viceroy, Kublai managed his territory well, boosted the agricultural output of Henan and increased social welfare spendings after receiving Xi'an as appanage. These acts received acclaim from the local warlords and were essential to the building of his own power-base in China.

Attracted by the abilities of Tibetan monks as healers, in 1253 he made Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, of the Sakya order, a member of his entourage. Phagpa bestowed on Kublai and his wife, Chabi (Chabui), a Tantric Buddhist initiation. Kublai appointed the Uighur master Lian Xixian (1231–1280) as head of his pacification commission in 1254 to bring the Uighur and Tibetan peoples into alliance with the Mongols and the peoples of Northern China. Some officials jealous of Kublai's success said that he was getting above himself, and surely dreaming of having his own empire by competing with Karakorum. The Great Khan Möngke sent two tax inspectors, Alamdar (Ariq Böke's close friend and governor in North China) and Liu Taiping, to audit Kublai's officials in 1257. They found fault, listed 142 breaches of regulations, accused Chinese officials and executed some of them; Kublai's pacification commission was disbanded by the Great Khan. Kublai responded by sending a two-man embassy with his wives and then appealed in person to Möngke, who publicly forgave his younger brother and reconciled with him.

In 1258, Möngke put Kublai in command of the Eastern Army and summoned him to assist with an attack on Sichuan. Suffering from gout, Kublai was allowed to stay home, but he moved to assist Möngke anyway. Before Kublai arrived in 1259, word reached him that Möngke had died.

Kublai marched north to the Mongolian steppe. Before he reached Mongolia, he learned that Ariq Böke had held a kurultai at  Karakorum, which had named him Great Khan with the support of most of Genghis Khan's descendants. Kublai and the fourth brother, the Il-Khan Hülegü, opposed this development. Kublai's Chinese staff encouraged Kublai to ascend the throne in Xanadu (or Chinese Shangdu, Mongolian: Šandu, the capital of Kublai's viceroyalty in China, before he decided to move the seat of his dynasty to the Jin Dynasty capital of Zhōngdū (Chinese: 中都), which he renamed Dàdū, present-day Beijing.) Almost all of the senior princes in North China and Manchuria supported his candidacy, so upon returning to his own territories, Kublai summoned his own kurultai. Few members of the Mongol royal family supported Kublai's claims to the title, though the small number of attendees included representatives of all the Borjigin lines except that of Jöchi. This second kurultai proclaimed Kublai as Great Khan on April 15, 1260, despite Ariq Böke's earlier claim.

[Mughal miniature by Qesu Qalan - Kublai's Ascension.]

Civil war between the brothers ensued;  Kublai cut off supplies of food to Karakorum with the support of his cousin Kadan, son of Ögedei Khan. Karakorum quickly fell to Kublai's larger army. In the twelfth month of 1260, he appointed  Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, the fifth patriarch of Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, as his Imperial preceptor, and granted him a jade seal and the position of leader of Buddhism. By doing so, Kublai officially acknowledged Phagpa as his highest religious authority and was obligated to patronize the Sakya teaching. As an extra precaution to ensure the accumulation of merit, Kublai asked Phagpa to build a golden stupa for Suer chi wa (Tibetan: "Chos rje pa" or "the Lord of Dharma"), i.e. Sakya Pandita Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (1182–1251), the fourth patriarch of the sect; the building of the stupa was not only a tribute to the Sakya Pandita, but intended also as a project to win religious blessing in a critical year - Kublai expected the Sakya sect to provide religious sanction in his struggles against his brother.

Ariq Böke represented a traditionalist faction who believed that the Mongol Empire should remain centered in Mongolia; that the hordes should pillage neighboring lands and return to the steppe to resume their traditional nomadic ways. As far back as the reign of Ögedei, the more extreme exponents of the traditionalist view had favored the extermination of north China's peasants and the reversion of their fields into pasture for Mongol horses. Hülegü and Kublai, who had respectively embraced the high cultures of Persia and China, entertained the different view that the civilized life of the cities was ultimately preferable to the rustic ways of Chingis Khan and his clan, and that if the Mongol Empire truly aspired to longevity it must ultimately be ruled from the basis of superior knowledge rather than only superior force. As for those millions of peasants who the traditionalist faction had wanted to liquidate, the urbanists held they could be made to pay taxes, expropriation of which would result in lasting wealth for the Persianized or Sinicized Mongols.

Anyway, to build the golden stupa on behalf of Kublai, Phagpa drafted artisans from Nepal, who were closer to the source of Buddhist traditions. He intended to recruit one hundred artists, but Jaya Bhimdev Malla, the king of Nepal, was able to hand over only eighty. These artists bound for Tibet were ordered to choose a leader from among themselves. Perhaps due to the uncertainty of their future, nobody was courageous enough to take up the responsibility, except for a confident boy, the 17-year-old Arniko (Nepali: अरनिको.) When the king tried to discourage the lad because of his youth, he replied, "My body is indeed young, but my mind is not." Jaya Bhimdev Malla then made him the team leader of the eighty artisans, and the group traveled under him to Lhasa.

[Araniko statue, at the White Stupa temple in Beijing.]

Nepalese history does not have any contemporary record of Arniko and everything that is known of him comes from Chinese accounts. Modern Nepali scholars opine that Arniko could possibly be from Patan, a place famous for sculpture and fine arts. As such, he would have been from the Newa people and a Buddhist. It is known that Arniko lived in Kathmandu Valley during 1260. In the Chinese records the name of his grandfather is given as Mi-ti-rha (Mitra in Sanskrit) and grandmother as Kun-di-la-qi-mei (Kundalakshmi.) His father's name is given as La-ke-na (Laxman) while his mother's name was Shu-ma-ke-tai (Sumukti.) An anecdote from his epitaph in Beijing relates that when he was three years old, his parents in took the child to a temple to pay homage to the Buddha. Looking up at a stupa, he asked "who made its wooden stambha, its bhumis, its anda?"

In Tibet, Arniko impressed Phagpa at their first meeting in 1261. Phagpa immediately recognized his exceptional artistic skill and administrative ability, and entrusted him to supervise the construction. The stupa was built within the Main Hall of the Sakya Monastery. Arniko spent two years on this project; upon its completion, Phagpa was unwilling to let him leave when he asked for permission to return to Nepal.

In 1262, the Chagataid Khan Alghu, who had been appointed by Ariq Böke, switched his allegiance to Kublai and defeated a punitive expedition sent by Ariq Böke. The Il-Khan Hülegü also sided with Kublai and criticized Ariq Böke. Outnumbered, Ariq Böke surrendered to Kublai at Xanadu on August 21, 1264. The rulers of the western khanates now acknowledged Kublai's victory and rule in Mongolia, and the Yuan dynasty began to establish itself in China.

Arniko arrived in Xanadu by the end of 1262. The following account of the meeting between Arniko and Kublai Khan is recorded:

After he arrived, the Emperor looked at him at length before asking, "Are you afraid to come to the big country?" He answered, "The sage 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 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 there. 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."

During his lifetime, Arniko completed three stupas, nine great Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Daoist temple, and countless images and objects used in and out of the Yuan court. It can be said that the art of Yuan China was single-handedly fashioned by this Nepali boy. Arniko executed a number of portraits of the imperial family; the portraits of Kublai Khan (at the top of this posting) and his wife Chabi (below), 'evacuated' to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, are believed to be his works.

Arniko re-married and settled in China. He was made the Duke of Liang. Apart from his Nepali wife, he had two Mongolian wives and seven Chinese wives. Together they had six sons and eight daughters. He lived in China until his death in March 1306 at the age of sixty two. Of his death it is recorded:

On the eighth of March of 1306, he looked at the people around himself and said, "If I am going, you should set up curtains in the hall and a couch, so that I can pass away in peaceful sleep." The next day, he took a bath and went to court. After returning, he appeared ill. Palace envoys and doctors visited, but he passed away in sleep on the eleventh. The emperor grieved over his death after hearing the news and halted the court session. He ordered palace officials to take care of the family, and reward the family twenty-five thousand taels of silver. The Emperor ordered the authorities concerned to make arrangements for the funeral. That night a star fell into the courtyard. The next day saw icicles on the trees. Seven days after, on the seventeenth of March, his remains were cremated according to Nepali custom. On the fifteenth of July, his ashes were buried in the stupa at Gangziyuan, Xiangshan, Wanping County.

From the stele to Arniko, Duke of Liang's memory in Beijing:

Having joined the Sangha,
He traveled to the East.
Enlightening was the teaching,
Like the shining sun.
His words to the Emperor
Were modest and excellent ...
To his superb skill
All lands pay tribute.
For every thing it is appropriate
To begin and continue,
So that it can last for thousands of years.
The artists in the past
Were by no means stupid.
But some had no chance,
Others were not appreciated.
Only the Duke of Liang
Twisted gold and cut jade.
The splendid temples he built,
Are towering and majestic.
Who says he was a guest?
He wore royal robes.
Returned to the laity,
He achieved fame and fortune.
His birth was glorious,
His death was grievous.
He began with care,
He ended with grace.
His sons continue his offices,
Good news never ends.

Today, the Araniko Highway connects Kathmandu with Kodari on the Nepal-Tibet border. Thence, at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge, it connects with the Tibetan National Highway 318 to Lhasa, and eventually goes to Beijing and Shanghai.

Below - a Tibetan Tsam dance by the Tumen Ekh ensemble in Ulaanbaatar.