Kalachakra mandala is a geometrical design created with coloured sand

The sacred symbolism of the Kalachakra mandala

The creation of the intricate Kalachakra Mandala, a visual metaphor for a perfect universe, is one of the Buddhism’s most distinctive and beautiful traditions

by Dolores O'Donoghue
Words Dolores O’Donoghue

Buddhism was brought from India to Tibet in the seventh century AD, and since then Tibetan Buddhists have developed rituals and spiritual practices unique to their culture such as the mathematically designed Kalachakra mandala.

Tibetan monks creating a Kalachakra mandala using coloured sand from small bowls
Gliding a piece of wood over the ridges of the chak-pur causes vibrations so the sand flows out in a controlled way

The ancient practice of Tibetan sandpainting creates a representation of the world in divine form, perfectly balanced and precisely designed, to reconsecrate the earth and heal its inhabitants. This use of artistic visualisation in ritual is one of the defining features of Tibetan Buddhism. The process involves laying tiny grains of coloured sand on to a geometrical blueprint. First, a high-ranking monk chooses the location and design for the mandala; then the site is blessed with music and chants. It can take several weeks to create a Kalachakra mandala and requires a team of monks who each take one section at a time, working from the inside out, some wearing a mask so that their breath does not disturb the sand as they work. The highly intricate and delicately adorned mandalas serve as tools for meditation.

In one hand the monks hold a ’chak-pur’, a conically shaped metal funnel with ridges that taper to a fine point at the end in order to dispense the sand with precision. With the other hand, they glide a piece of wood over the ridges on the chak-pur, thereby causing vibrations that help the sand to flow out in a controlled way. During the creation of the mandala, other monks chant and
pray, calling upon the deities residing in the design. Once the mandala is complete the monks ask for the deities’ blessings during a ceremony. This releases positive healing energies to those who view it, as well as to the surrounding environment.

The vibrant colours of the Kalachakra mandala

Buddhists believe in the impermanence of life and celebrate this eternal truth by destroying the mandala. This embodies the basic Buddhist doctrines of non-attachment to material possessions and the view that nothing – joy, sorrow, life itself – lasts forever. As the monks chant, one monk begins the destruction by scraping a knuckle through the sand. Another monk takes a paintbrush and slowly sweeps the sand from the perimeter to the centre. The coloured sand is eventually swept up into an urn and dispersed into flowing water, a way of extending the healing powers of the mandala to the whole world. It is seen as a gift to Mother Earth, a means to re-energise the environment and the universe.

More than a symbol, the ritual of the Kalachakra mandala is a living enactment of the Buddhist cycle of change and a demonstration of one of the most spiritually advanced of all Buddhist cultures. Traditionally practised in seclusion, this unique art form has only been seen publicly in recent decades.

  • ‘The sacred symbolism of the Kalachakra mandala’ is published in Anthology Volume 11. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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