We tend to think of a mandala (मण्डल) as a graphic pattern, though the Sanskrit derivation of the word is from the ‘cycles’ or ‘circles’ (ie ‘sections’ or ‘books’) of the Rig Veda. The Vedas were hymns recited on ritual occasions. Mandala patterns were developed to symbolise the rituals and the ideas underying the rituals. Buddhists took on the idea from Hindus and used mandala patterns in the design of stupas (chortens), tankas and many other things. Used in this way, a mandala symbolises the geography of the cosmos. Early mandala patterns had a lotus flower with open petals and the Buddha at its centre. Circles and squares were added and a mandala came to represent the four material elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, wind) with Mount sumeru as the world axis. Energy moves in a cosmic dance from the centre to the periphery, and then back to the centre, encompassing inanimate and living things.
Buddhist Chinese and Japanese gardens are also mandalas. The word ‘Pagoda’ derives from ‘stupa’ and these gardens symbolise the cosmos, with the temple as a house for a Buddha. In later Chinese gardens temples evolved into garden pavilions for the delight of their owners.
A real landscape can also be a mandala, with the Lapchi region on the Nepal-Tibet border a famous example, which includes Milarepa’s Cave. Lapchi’s mandala landscape is conceived to have three sacred triangles formed by the sky, the earth and the three rivers. The central mountain is seen as the Palace of Chakrasamvara.
The landscape around the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh can be thought of as an emerging mandala landscape.
- It has a modern mandala plan, by Arup and Arup Associates.
- It is in view of three famous Buddhist gompas: Shey, Thikse and Matho.
- It is in the valley of a sacred river: the Indus
Time lapse photography of Buddhist monks using coloured sand to produce a sand mandala (courtesy camera_obscura):