“China’s art and architecture were already highly developed, so China was not looking for just any architect from Nepal. What Arniko took to China was Buddhist architecture with its philosophy and symbolism,” says historian Satya Mohan Joshi, whose treatise on Arniko was published in 1988. “for example the Chaitya in Swoyambhu and Baudha symbolised Chaitanya, or consciousness.”
It is supposed to be Arniko who took Kathmandu Valley’s famous tiered temple style to China, from where it travelled to Korea and Kyoto. But while that is difficult to prove, Satya Mohan Joshi says Arniko took many other Nepali elements north: the wooden gate, stone steps and carved windows (tikijhya) at the White Dagoba, its bronze spire (gajur), Nepali-style statues of Dipankar, Shakyamuni and Maitreya Buddha, Paubha paintings of deities like Mahakala, White Tara, Green Tara, Avalokiteswar.
Amidst the ruins of the Cloud Terrace near the base of the Great Wall is a huge stone arch containing images like the Garud, Nagkanya, crocodiles, elephants, and Panchabuddha. The white stupa in Nanking and other sites actually have inscriptions in Ranjana script – all vestiges of Arniko’s influence in China.
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After Arniko constructed three stupas, nine great Buddhist temples, two Confucian shrines, one Daoist temple, he was made the ‘master of all classes of artisans’. Prof Jing Anning at Michigan State University writes that Arniko made ‘new symbols of the emperor’s sovereignty, based on designs from Indic culture such as the dharmacakra (Wheel of the Law) which was used to lead imperial processions, and the image of Garuda, the celestial bird that was displayed over the imperial throne’.
In another research paper, late historian Dina Bangdel states that Arniko’s works were instrumental in the conversion of Kublai Khan to Tantric Buddhism. ‘Phags-pa directed Arniko to create an image of Mahakala that was used in a protection ritual to aid Khan in his battles (which he won). Arniko’s Mahakala image became a powerful symbol of a leader’s authority to rule,’ Bangdel has written.
Arniko also crafted scientific instruments like armillary spheres and water clocks. However, art works that can be definitely attributed to him are rare. The Cleveland Museum says its image of Green Tara is by Arniko, while portraits of Kublai Khan and his wife Chabi at the National Palace Museum of Taiwan are believed to be by Arniko.