How the 16 Arhats statues came to Nalanda

Reported  by Ven. Yonten to Ani Thubten Tenzin

Yonten 150x newThe story of the Sixteen Arhats statues started in 2006, when Lama Zopa Rinpoche was asked what would be best for the altar of Nalanda’s new gompa. Rinpoche replied: “A large Buddha Shakyamuni statue, Je Tsonghkapa and his two spiritual sons, Twenty-one Tara’s and Sixteen Arhats”.

By that time, Jonathan Partridge, the Australian sculptor of Nalanda’s main Buddha statue, had already created the Sixteen Arhats statues in Tushita centre Dharamsala. The plan was that, from these sixteen master statues, moulds would be made, so that many FPMT centres could have copies. However, there were obstacles for making the moulds, and the statues remained in storage in Tushita for two years through monsoons and very dry Indian summers. Finally, it was decided that Nalanda was a better place to make the moulds, having an arts workshop already established.

In February 2007, when Ven. Yonten travelled to Dharamsala for his gelong ordination with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he volunteered to bring them to Nalanda Monastery on his return. Seeing them for first time, he was aware of their beauty but also of their extreme fragility, due to weathering, and due to their being made of breakable, porous clay. “They were biscuit-like”, he says.

Then, Yonten’s personal purification practice began. With a mind freshly holding his gelong vows, he set about the task of finding a way to protect, package, and transport the Sixteen Arhats statues to Delhi. Tushita centre had given him the name of an Indian carpenter. He started to make the wooden boxes but soon he and Yonten realised that each arhat was slightly different in size. Each one needed to be measured and have its box custom hand-built. Next, Yonten had to find a product that would help insulate the statues. He came up with a high density foaming aerosol spray, which he ordered from Delhi. It arrived only three days before his departure, without an application to spray it. Anyway he managed, and soon had the statues in a bed of foam.

A driver was organised, and Yonten set off in a jeep, with twelve the arhats statues inside plus four strapped to the roof of the jeep. Driving with his precious cargo down to Delhi in the middle of the night on uneven roads, potholes, they get a punctured tyre “in the middle of nowhere". The driver walks off tyre in hand after warning Yonten to lock all the windows and doors, and not to open them to anyone. Two hours later he returns, tyre repaired, and they recommence their journey. They get a second puncture, same tyre, this time near a petrol station. After they get it repaired, they finally arrive at Delhi’s cargo airport, and the driver promptly falls asleep.

Eventually, Yonten finds two men with a wheelbarrow, they all manage to get the 16 statues inside, they take them to customs, who ask that the nailed down boxes be inspected, after getting the lids open, the customs officer asks Yonten for their antiquities certificate
This is the first time Yonten has heard of it: no artwork can leave India without a proof that they are not antiques. Asking how to get one, he is told he must hire an expert from Delhi university to come to the airport to verify they are not antiques.

Yonten acknowledges that this is when he felt stuck. He could not get them out of the airport, he could not get them onto a plane, he could not leave them behind, and he had his plane to catch. It had already taken nearly two days to get there. He was exhausted, a tiny bit unbelieving: this surreal situation. He went to visit his airline. They kindly advised him to wait until the end of the officers shift, to see who would appear. He did, and three hours later a woman started her shift, and very kindly waived the statues through. Then, Yonten had to find a porter to nail the boxes shut. Beyond wondering if the Sixteen Arhats had survived or were in crumbs, he caught his flight back to Toulouse. The boxes with the Sixteen Arhats, having arrived first, were waiting for him. He signed them out and brought them to Nalanda.

The rest is history: the statues languished for nearly seven years in storage, this time in France, with only a small repair on them three years ago. Until now, as the vision of Nalanda with the Sixteen Arhats statues in their Gompa altar is being realised with the arrival of Spanish artist Cai. How she is restoring them is another story...

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