Introduction to Mandalas

Mandalas are a vital element to understanding Buddhism and Asian art. Buddhism is a religion that focuses on reaching enlightenment and being one with the universe and cosmos. Mandalas serve as a portal to be used during meditation to help reach this state and assist the spiritual journey. Mandalas come in many forms and styles that stay similar and differ culturally. This chapter aims to create an understanding of mandalas and to explore their unique qualities and the various ways they are used.  

Mandalas are central to Buddhism and its path towards enlightenment. Buddhism was born in India around the 4th century, but it didn’t fully spread throughout Asia until a few centuries later. There are several branches of Buddhism such as Esoteric Buddhism, which is the current religion of Tibet. Mandalas have mainly been associated with Esoteric Buddhism which believed that enlightenment can be reached in one lifetime. This part of Buddhism is also connected with the Unexcelled Yoga tantra, which is the most advanced tantra. A tantra is, “a type of Buddhist teaching that emphasizes spiritual technology and contemplative arts rather than philosophy.” (Leidy and Thurman, p. 170). As a result of this spread of the Unexcelled Yoga tantra, palace-architecture style mandalas, wrathful deities, and other iconographic aspects that were related to this part of Buddhism also became common starting in the 12th and 13th centuries. During this time as well, artistic styles of India, Nepal, Kashmir, Central Asia, and China began to influence each other and especially Tibet. For example, in the 11th and 12th century Western Tibet’s artistic style became influenced by the Kashmiri tradition – a region in India, while the Eastern and Northern side of Tibet instead had been influenced from China since the 7th century. 

Mandalas are usually made as paintings, but they have also taken the form of buildings or created using other materials such as paper, fabric, sand, and butter. Mandalas are created using a geometric design, usually through circles and or squares, and have the main design or deity in the center. Due to their carefully geometrically designed shape, mandalas are seen as external and internal maps of and to the cosmos. Further, “…mandalas represent manifestations of a specific divinity in the cosmos and as the cosmos…they thereby assist progress toward enlightenment.” (Leidy and Thurman, p. 17). Mandalas are also oriented towards a vertical line or the axis mundi. Many mandalas have four directional gates to help support the portal design. These are also considered palace-architecture mandalas, for instance, “These ‘palace-architecture’ mandalas generally consist of an inner circle containing a principle deity (or deities), enclosed in a multilevel square palace with openings at the four cardinal directions. The palace is placed in a multitiered circle. Additional figures are generally found outside this large circle.” (Leidy and Thurman, p. 17). Mandalas are typically mainly made using red, blue, yellow, and greenish colors. Due to the spiritual purpose of mandalas, their ideal location is to be in the center of something that is in accordance with the axis mundi or on a wall/ceiling of a temple because of their resemblance to the heavens. 

Stupas (also known as a pagoda or chorten) are a physical form of mandalas that can look similar to a temple or even a small tower. Stupas are a pre-Buddhist tradition and were originally made for burial mounds of the graves of people in power – both religious and political figures. As stupa’s began to become part of Buddhism, they were seen as memorials to the Buddha, and its “hemispherical shape is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of the cosmos or of the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the cosmos.” (Leidy and Thurman, p. 18). In later traditions, the pole at the top of a stupa signified the axis mundi. Across Asia, many stupas came from or were inspired by the Indian and Kashmiri tradition. 

The images of this chapter were carefully chosen to highlight the typical characteristics of a mandala and also to show its other forms – physically and culturally. The first three examples show the well-known styles from Tibet and Nepal with a focus on the wrathful deity Chakrasamvara. In Buddhism, there are many examples of Chakrasamvara mandalas because, “it is considered the chief of all Mother tantras of the Unexcelled Yoga tantra class.” (Leidy and Thurman, p. 72). During the 14th and 15th centuries, depictions of Chakrasamvara in mandalas were more common than those showing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because of their importance in the Unexcelled Yoga tantra – Chakrasamvara is one of the first deities introduced to a Buddhist practitioner. The fourth example shows a mandala in the more physical form of a stupa from Tibet. The final example demonstrates how mandalas can change in a different cultural setting of Buddhism, with this tapestry being from China and more simply focusing on Mount Meru; the Buddhist center of the cosmos. 

The first example shown in this chapter is the Paramasukha Chakrasamvara Mandala from around the year 1100. This mandala was created using distemper on cloth, which also means it was likely hung up on a wall, and was created during the Thakuri period to early Malla period in Nepal. Typical to many mandalas, this painting is made up of four directional gates, geometric patterns using circles and squares, has many figures surrounding the central part of the mandala, and consists of red, yellow, blue and green coloring. This mandala is to be seen as the cosmic palace of the deities Chakrasamvara and Vajaravarahi, who is Chakrarasmvara’s semi-wrathful consort. Surrounding the couple are six lotus petals with a goddess placed on each one. Depictions of the 8 great burial grounds of India surround this. The purpose for this depiction is because, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “the cemeteries are appropriate places for meditation on Chakrasamvara and are emblematic of the various realms of existence.” The bottom of the mandala shows 5 forms of the Buddhist goddess Tara. Next to these deities are a tantric adept to the left and two donors to the right. 

Paramasukha Chakrasamvara Mandala. Unknown creator. Distemper on cloth; 26 ½” x 19 ¾”. Nepal. 1100 CE; Thakuri – early Malla periods. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second mandala example shown in this chapter is the Mandala of Chakrasamvara. This mandala was created using pigments on cloth and is from Tibet between the 14th and 15th century. This mandala follows the palace-architecture style of being a geometric pattern, with four directional gates to the portal, and depicting wrathful deities. This mandala was painted using an assortment of reds, greens, blues, yellows, and some white. In the center of this mandala, there is Chakrasmavara. Surrounding him and his innermost circle are four other circles with each one containing 8 other deities. At the very top register, there are 14 deities, while at the very bottom register there are 12 deities placed next to one another. This mandala was likely hung up on the wall of a temple. 

Mandala of Chakrasamvara. Unknown creator. Pigments on Cloth; 26 ½” x 22” (estimated). Tibet. 14th-15th century. The Rubin Museum of Art. 

The third mandala example is the Four Chakrasamvara Mandalas of the Vajravali Cycle. This mandala was created in Tibet from the Ngor tradition of the Sakya order in the early to mid 15th century. This mandala is filled with rich reds and yellows and balanced with areas of green and flecks of blue. There are four mandalas arranged on this cloth, with each one having the deity Charkrsmarva in the center. In the background of each section there are intricate floral patterns and many ornaments. Surrounding the square and circular center of the mandalas are four directional gates to the spiritual portal. In the very center of this piece there are two lamas, which are highly honored spiritual mentors. The one on the left is possibly Buddhashri, an Indian pandit, while the one on the right is potentially Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, a Tibetan monk. Between and surrounding the mandalas are many other gods such as the gods Indra, Yama, and more. At the top and bottom of this piece, there are 16 other deities placed next to each other. Judging by the mandalas cloth material, it was once likely hung up on a wall for worship. 

Four Chakrasamvara Mandalas of the Vajravali Cycle. Unknown creator, made in Ngor Monastery. Colors on cloth; 32 ½” x 29”. Tibet; 15th century. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Stella Kramrisch Collection.

The fourth mandala example of this chapter takes a more three-dimensional form in the shape of a brass stupa from Tibet. This stupa was created sometime during the mid-15th century. The stupa takes a more triangular and cone shape. At the top of the stupa’s tower there are several emeralds that create a border around its base and another at the very top. The stupa’s structure, especially at the top of its tower, was designed to be in accordance with the axis mundi. This stupa was once used during Buddhist rituals and meditation to help further the practitioner’s path to enlightenment.

Stupa (Chorten). Unknown creator.Brass; sculpture; h 20”; w 7 ¼”; diam. 6 ⅞”. Tibet. Mid 15th Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fifth and final example of this chapter is a mandala called the Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru. This silk tapestry mandala is from China in the 14th century and would’ve likely been hung up on a wall. This mandala still follows the typical mandala style of showing blue, reddish, yellow, and green colors. Instead of a deity at the center of this mandala, there is the Buddhist center of the cosmos – Mount Meru. Here, Mount Meru is represented as a pyramid with a lotus on top, which is a symbol of purity in Buddhism. At the bottom of the mountain depiction, there is a sun and a moon, but in the form of a three-legged bird and a rabbit for the Chinese tradition. Surrounding the central square are landscape images that are a reference to the four continents of Indian mythology but are created according to the Chinese style. The floral patterns surrounding the main circle are a reference to Tibetan tradition.

Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru. Unknown creator. Silk tapestry (kesi); 33” x 33”. China. 14th century; Yuan dynasty (1271-1386). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The characteristics that define Asian art are its great connections to religion, the many cultural influences, and its unique intrinsic qualities and details. In many Asian artworks there are deities and other icons depicted, and the art’s purpose isn’t meant to be art – it is meant to be a religious expression and to further the religious practices at hand. There are cross cultural connections that flow effortlessly throughout Asia and in the art because each area/country is influenced by another. Each artwork is embellished uniquely in its own way. This is seen throughout Asian art but also especially mandalas because of its focus on religion, multi cultural and historical influences, and the elaborate designs of each one.

Citations and Reading List: – Chapter 2, Fisher – Chapter 3, Fisher – 2/16 presentation 

Leidy, Denise Patry, and Thurman Robert A.F. Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. London: Thames & Hudson in association with Asia Society Galleries and Tibet House, 1997. 

“Mandala of Chakrasamvara.” Project Himalayan Art. Accessed May 4, 2023. 

“Four Chakrasamvara Mandalas of the Vajravali Cycle.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. Accessed May 4, 2023. 

“Chakrasamvara Mandala: Nepal: Thakuri–Early Malla Periods.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed May 4, 2023. 

“Stupa: Tibet.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed May 4, 2023. 

“Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru: China: Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed May 4, 2023.

Author: Sylvia Richards-Peranich

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