In September of 1996, three monks from the Seraje monastery in southern India—Losang Lungrig, Sand Mandala Master; Sonam Woser, Sand Mandala Artist; and Geshe Thubten Sonam—traveled to the Denver Art Museum to create this sand mandala. The Seraje monastery is primarily a center for education and religious training, and also operates a farm, dairy, printing press and crafts division. Monks with specialized talent are selected to receive further training in chanting, ritual dance, painting, and other activities. Monks who create sand mandalas must have advanced artistic skills, dexterity, and spiritual aptitude. They need to be able to visualize the design, with all of its many details, before construction of the mandala begins.
Monks start by drawing a simplified diagram and then begin applying the sand, starting at the center of the diagram and working out toward the edge. The sand is applied using a metal instrument to scrape grains out of a narrow metal funnel. A wooden scraper is used to make tiny adjustments and corrections. Traditionally, a mandala is dismantled after it has been completed, to serve as a reminder of the impermanence of all things. The mandala at the DAM has been preserved with special permission from the abbot of Seraje Monastery.
What Inspired It?
In Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala is a very powerful symbol. The process of making the mandala is a form of meditation and act of faith in itself. The slow, meticulous work that is required to create a mandala reinforces the Buddhist belief of emptying one’s mind and being in the present. A sand mandala becomes a visual symbol that is beautiful in its conception, composition, color, surface texture, imagery, and intricate details.
Mandalas depict the “homes” of certain deities, including their palaces and surrounding grounds. This particular mandala is meant to be inhabited by Hayagriva, the patron deity of the Seraje monastery. Hayagriva destroys passion and ignorance, the two obstacles on a human’s path to enlightenment. He has a red body, three faces, and a horse’s head protruding from the top of his center head. He is represented here by a written character that sits in the center triangle. This character is a Sanskrit syllable, referred to as a “seed syllable,” for it is said to be the “seed” of the deity.
Things to Look For
The mandala was made using various colors of marble sand, arranged to create an intricate and symbolic design. The monks used sand from 29 small bowls, each with a different color. These colors were also mixed in some areas. In areas where a lot of sand has been applied the sand forms small peaks.
The patron deity of Seraje is represented here by a written character called a “seed syllable.” The seed syllable sits on a lotus flower within the triangle at the center of the mandala.
Inside the innermost ring is a series of tiny skulls. These serve as reminders that life is transitory.
Within the border of the square there are four conch shells, one on each side. The conch shell symbolizes the voice of Buddha explaining the doctrine. Conch shells can be blown like a horn and are used to call people to worship.
The outer ring with the black background probably represents our world. In this area, there are skeletons suggesting burial grounds. Such scenes symbolize the impermanence of human existence
Each lesson plan includes high-quality image and information about the art.
Early Childhood (ages 3–5)
During the lesson children will explore shapes through whole-body movement and by trying to create them using funnels and sand or sugar. They will then apply what they have learned kinesthetically and cognitively by comparing the shapes they’ve made to those in the Hayagriva Sand Mandala.
Students will learn about the Hayagriva Sand Mandala and use their imaginations to write about its creation from the perspective of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. To help them with this task, students will also learn a little bit about the history and daily life of Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Students will examine the lives of Buddhist monks in Tibet with an introduction through the Hayagriva Sand Mandala. They will then write letters to “teach” the monks about their lives in the United States.
During this discovery lesson, students will explore the Hayagriva Sand Mandala and develop hypotheses on how it was made, for what purpose, and by whom. They will use a variety of tools to test their hypotheses. After their theory making and testing, students will watch the video on the creation of the Wheel of HealingMandala (made by monks from another Tibetan monastery) and compare their processes with those of the monks. The comparison may be done in a discussion format or by having students write creative or factual pieces about what they learned (or both).
During this lesson students begin by conducting a formal visual analysis of the Hayagriva Sand Mandala, followed by probing more deeply into the symbols and the religious significance of the mandala. Students will create symbols that reflect their private experiences and then research the daily life of a monk to understand better the symbols in the mandala. As a class, students will then develop communal symbols and incorporate them in a community line drawing. They will compare this experience to that of the monks after watching a video about the Wheel of HealingMandala (made by monks from another Tibetan monastery).
After viewing images and reading information about the Hayagriva Sand Mandala,students will brainstorm what their personal goals are, as well as obstacles that might challenge the attainment of those goals. Students will design ways to represent those goals and challenges symbolically, creating a permanent work of art on paper.
Have students create a classroom crest, or symbol to represent the class, that is constructed of 5 concentric circles. Divide the class into 5 teams. Each team will create a design/pattern that can be repeated over and over in order to fill their circle.
Make a temporary artwork using colored rice (use food coloring to die the rice ahead of time). Find a way to ceremonially destroy the artwork, while still respecting what it once was—put it in a jar and keep it in the classroom, or have the students find a special place outside to spread the rice around. Tibetan sand mandalas were dismantled as an example of the impermanence of all things.
The museum received special permission from the abbot of Seraje monastery to preserve this mandala, even though mandalas are typically dismantled as an important part of the ritual. Have students write a letter to the museum stating whether they think the mandala should have been preserved or dismantled, and why.
Find Out More
Wheel of Healing Mandala
In February 1994, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Ganden Jangtse Monastery in southern India constructed the "Wheel of Healing" sand mandala at the Denver Art Museum.
The Mandala of Compassion at Dartmouth
This timelapse video from Dartmouth University shows monks from the Namgyal Monastery and Institute of Buddhist Studies and the sand mandala they created at the Hood Museum of Art. After working on the mandala for three days, the monks then cleared the mandala (symbolizing the impermanence of life) and poured the sand into a pond, disseminating it into the world.
This website includes information, photographs and news about the Sera Jey (also called Sera or Serje) Monastery, a university for advanced Buddhist studies and practice in Southern India. The monks who created the Denver Art Museum’s preserved mandala came from this monastery.
For ages 9-12, this book explores Buddhism, with a glossary and resource guide.
This Website is generously funded by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, The Virginia Hill Charitable Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and the National Endowment for the Arts, Xcel Energy Foundation, the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation, and The Japan Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.