Mandalas are spiritual and ritual symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism that represent the universe. It’s an ancient Sanskrit word that means “circle”, and mandalas are indeed primarily recognizable by their concentric circles and other geometric figures. In the most basic form, a mandala is a square containing a circle with several concentric circles or smaller squares within. The mandala is decorated with traditional iconography that includes geometric shapes and a multitude of ancient spiritual symbols.
In Tibetan Buddhism, mandalas are created with colored sand, a practice known as dul-tson-kyil-khor, which literally means "mandala of colored powders." Historically, the mandala was not created with natural, dyed sand, but granules of crushed colored stone. Sometimes this included precious and semi-precious gems. So, lapis lazuli would be used for the blues, rubies for the reds, and so forth. In modern times, plain white stones are ground down and dyed with opaque inks to achieve the same effect.
The creation of a sand mandala begins with an opening ceremony where monks chant mantras and play flutes, drums and cymbals. Then they get down to business. First, they carefully measure and draw the outlines of the mandala on a flat surface with chalk or pencil, assisted by straight-edged rulers and compasses. Once the floor plan is drawn, millions of grains of colored sand is painstakingly laid into place.
The sand granules are poured onto the mandala platform with a narrow metal funnel called a "chakpur" which is scraped by another metal rod to cause sufficient vibration for the grains of sand to trickle out of its end. Traditionally, four monks work together on a single mandala with each monk assigned to one quadrant of the mandala. With enormous amount of patience, the monks lay out the sand particles working from the center outwards. A sand mandalas can take several weeks to build, due to the large amount of work involved in laying down the sand in such intricate detail.
Despite the tremendous amount of hard work and time required to build sand mandalas, they have a very short life. Shortly after their completion, the monks deliberately destroy the mandala to symbolize that nothing lasts forever. The sand is swept and collected in a jar and then wrapped in silk and transported to a river where it is released back into nature.
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