Those who are familiar with Buddhism know about the Tibetan tradition of building sand Mandalas.
The creation of sand Mandalas goes far beyond being just a stunning piece of artwork. This geometrical artwork takes days and sometimes weeks to be completed, only to be destroyed later.
Sand Mandalas promote the understanding of impermanence.
They are a reflection and a representation of our own existence. Just like the creation of sand mandalas, we work hard to live and build everything from nothing—be it jobs, relationships, expectations or physical materials. However, none of what we build lasts. Everything we are and do has a certain expiration date.
Whatever we build today, will be destroyed tomorrow.
Buddhism tells us more about this concept through the construction of sand Mandalas. Monks patiently work for hours to create a breathtaking artwork then destroy it in order to accept the impermanence of all phenomena.
For me, sand Mandalas have always been an interesting concept. I have a sheer affinity for the meaning that lies behind this creative artwork.
For the past four years, I wished to see a Mandala being created. But my wish seemed to be far beyond my reach. Instead, I would go online and look for photos and videos that show how monks spend hours constructing sand Mandalas. Back then, online photos were enough to temporarily satisfy my thirst for them.
Months ago I went backpacking in India. I stayed around a month and a half in Ladakh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is known to be a spiritual place where most of the Tibetans live. Monasteries are almost everywhere and Buddhism permeates the greater part of this area.
Before heading to Nubra Valley for three days, a friend of mine told me that he had spent an exquisite day at a monastery 20 minutes away, with monks who were creating a sand Mandala. I lost my mind upon hearing this. I felt a rush and eagerly wanted to go. He told me that they were still working on the Mandala for one more day, until its completion. Unfortunately, the next day I was heading to Nubra Valley and I already had everything planned and reserved with other people. Thus, canceling with them would be pretty rude.
I remember sleeping that night quite disappointed and lost. I didn’t know whether I should cancel my plans and head to the monastery or wait for another lifetime to witness the construction of a Mandala.
I thought about the saying: If we truly want something, it will happen. To my surprise, we woke up the next morning only to learn that the roads that lead to Nubra Valley have been closed due to a recent flood. Hence, our plans were canceled.
Without any second thoughts, I grabbed my camera bag and ran to Thiksay Monastery, where the creation of the Mandala was taking place.
There were a group of about 12 monks. One monk supervises the Mandala, while four of five of them surround the Mandala and draw it.
One of the monks gave me a further explanation about the process and its aim.
At first, they outline the Mandala with chalk. Then, they fill the gaps with colored marble powder that is placed in mental bowls next to every monk. They spread the sand using a metal traditional tool called “Chak-pur.”
Specifically used to paint with sand, the chak-pur is held in one hand while the other hand rubs against it with a metal rod. This rubbing technique creates a vibration that allows the sand to flow.
Every Mandala they create is dedicated to a specific deity. They believe that Mandalas represent purification and healing. Also, the Mandala is said to transmit positive energy to those around it.
The Mandala they were working on needed around 30 hours of work. They start at 6:00 a.m. everyday and finish around 7:00 p.m. Once it is done, they keep it for seven days, untouched. During this week they offer dedications and prayers for the world.
After this week, they make a ritual ceremony and destroy the Mandala with a brush—sweeping away the sand from the edges up to the center of the Mandala as a symbol of impermanence.
I must say that finally getting to watch a sand Mandala being created was a dream come true. There is an ineffable energy that you can pick up on when seated with these monks. I felt like they transmitted to me the mindfulness they possess while working on the Mandala. Additionally, it is beautiful how they allowed me to help them—handing them the colored sand and talking to me as if I were one of them.
Like the monk told me, the building of Mandalas requires patience and a mutual understanding among the monks—two remarkable qualities that the world needs today, so we can live together in harmony.
May the photos bring you peace and mindfulness as much as it did to me.
Author: Elyane Youseff
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photos: courtesy of the author