In January of 2017, the government authorities of Yunnan province in southwestern China imposed travel restrictions upon Buddhist pilgrims, preventing them from attending the annual Kalachakra initiation ceremony in India. Live streamed on Tibet TV’s YouTube and Facebook pages, this 13 day ritual beckons the believers of Vajrayana Buddhism from all across the world, to witness the initiation of monks into the Wheel of Time that was first set in motion in northern India around the 5th century CE.
The sibilance of wood scuffing against metal is a hypnotic echo that pools around the artists creating the Kalachakra mandala. For the eight days that it takes to develop this geometric sand painting, a team of monks in crimson robes will each undertake a section of the design from the inside out, and even wear masks so as not to breathe on the coloured grains. The chak-pur, a serrated brass funnel to pour the fine grains with precision upon the canvas, is held in one hand while the other glides a piece of wood over the ridges on the funnel, stirring vibrations that help the sand dribble in a controlled manner. Sometimes as long as seven feet in diameter, the parallel lines intersecting at the centre of the mandala are blessed with saffron water inviting 722 deities to reside within the contours, while curtains veil this art form from the new initiates until the time is right.
First appearing in the Sanskrit text Rig Veda, mandalas have found cultural significance as a representation of higher thought encouraging an awareness of one’s relation to the conscious design of the cosmos.
Springing up in art, architecture and meditation as a common motif, the symmetry of the mandala is known to direct the mind of the observer inwards from the outer periphery toward deeper reflection on the nature of God and reality. Predominantly a circle, a mandala may also be a square enclosing a circle or a circle around an image (like a star or a lotus) and the psychedelic quality of this symbol has made it relevant in Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, Shinto, Persian and Celtic iconography.
Featured on the covers of the Torah and Tanakh, glimmering in halos around Christian saints, embossed upon the ceilings of mosques and warding off the evil eye in the modern emblem of a dreamcatcher, the mandala is a chameleon that has scuttled across cultures and hidden in plain sight as a powerful motif.
The Islamic legacy of naqshbandi art in Kashmir embracing the symmetry of mandalas has been kept alive by calligraphers and Sufi saints who inscribe the select names of Prophets and the holy Companions in concentric circles all surrounding the central tenet of Allah Haqq or ‘God is Truth’, and these images are usually installed in homes for blessing and protection. Also known as ‘Little Tibet’, the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan have yielded the oldest surviving manuscripts, wall paintings and sculptures known to Buddhism.
The tantric mandalas found in these artefacts have resonated through the ages with many abstract and modernist painters like Sayed Haider Raza, who have inculcated the ‘bindu’ composition as well, to depict natural phenomena that recur cyclically through the journey of evolution. Located at a crossroads of homegrown Shaivism and Buddhism from western Nepal, the Kashmir valley was a pit stop on the monastic circuit for illustrated books and devotional objects, and thus the regional style inherited the transient murals and cloth painting traditions that often featured mandalas or their smaller avatars called yantras.
The mandala, among other patterns, has also been historically co-opted for tattoos by diverse tribes — like Baigas in Madhya Pradesh, the Rabaris in Gujarat and the Konyaks in Nagaland — often puncturing the skin when children reach puberty and can be introduced to the realm of suffering and worldly sin. The geometric tattoos of Khond women in Orissa are believed to help them find their sisters in the spirit world after they die. Mandala tattoos have flourished as intricate body art interlaced with bliss and wisdom, mortality and eternity, to signify the natural order that underpins the chaos of human existence.
Bindu, also known as avayava in Sanskrit, is the dot around which the mandala is created emulating the infinity contained within a nutshell that bursts to give us the universe. Contemporary artists like Shan Jain and Shweta Surekha or therapists from the Jungian school of thought have maintained that not only focusing on the bindu in the mandala but also constructing one from scratch can elicit a healing response for the troubled psyche. The patience and attention to detail can compel you to channel your energies upon the task at hand, doing away with extraneous concerns, slowly leading you into a trance as you work your way from the single point of focus to the rim of your consciousness.
Traditionally, a mandala is split up into four quadrants, and to make it as balanced as possible, the artist begins by plotting a large circle that has X and Y axes drawn, drawing one’s energies into the seed thus making the mandala a microcosm where the awareness of the self is grasped. Along the axes, other circles revolve around the seed, and the flower of life blooms as a series of polygons in a very specific ratio.
At the Kalachakra initiation, once the mandala is unveiled, one monk begins the sabotage by sweeping a rogue palm through the sand. Another monk clears the perimeter and eventually all the grains are stored in an urn and dropped into flowing water. Nothing is permanent in the world, not even the revelations one has at therapy and releasing the positive energy of the deities trapped within the mandala out into the world can restore the essential balance of nature.
The Ngari Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in the Himalayan region of Ladakh is dedicated to the preservation of rituals like Kalachakra sand painting and often commissions a travelling order of monks who circumnavigate the world to raise awareness and funds. On the Great Compassion Mandala Tour, these monks disperse grains in foreign cities, chanting about the Buddha and the school children they sponsor back in India. The experience of watching the sand form kaleidoscopic illusions of the mandala and then dissolving back into shapelessness can be rewarding and intense at the same time.
And in this way, a mere symbol becomes an act of compassion, a tangible effort intersecting the lives of people across the axes of our planet.