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.