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14 October 2014
In Pictures (image: camera lens)Religion & EthicsIn pictures

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Sand mandala

Monks, dressed in red tunics with close-cropped hair, lean over a circular design marked out in chalk on a black tabletop.  Their faces are inches from the surface.  Resting their hands on small cushions, they are pouring coloured sand through small metal tubes into the spaces marked by the chalk outline

Beginning the mandala
A mandala is a symbolic picture of the universe, used in Tibetan Buddhism and other faiths.

First, the design of the mandala is marked with chalk on a wooden platform. This meticulous process takes an entire day.

Then the monks use metal funnels called chak-pur to place millions of grains of dyed sand to make the elaborate patterns.

A wider shot shows five monks crowded around the mandala-in-progress, which is about two metres in diameter. They are kneeling on cushions placed around the tabletop, which is close to ground level

Purpose of a mandala
The mandala sand painting process begins with an opening ceremony, during which the lamas consecrate the site and call forth the forces of goodness. The monks chant and dance in resplendent dress.

The mandala's purpose is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones and to assist with healing.

Tsepak Rigzen explains how and why the mandala is created (3:24 mins)

A woman peeks over the shoulder of one of the monks.  They are working in a cordoned-off area inside Manchester Town Hall, attracting one or two spectators

Mandalas' place in Buddhism
According to Buddhist scripture, mandalas constructed from sand transmit positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them. They are believed to effect purification and healing.

Mandala sand painting was introduced by the Buddha himself and there are many different designs of mandala, each with different lessons to teach.

Polished bowls full of coloured sand are arranged on a colourful cloth by the edge of the mandala table

The sand
The sand used in this mandala, constructed at Manchester Town Hall in 2003, was actually ground marble from Southern India.

A mandala does not have to be made of sand: it can be a painting on a wall or scroll, or a visualisation in the mind of a very skilled adept.

Monks seated around the mandala, now working on the beginnings of the outer border

The monks
The mandala is constructed from the centre outwards.

The monks creating this mandala came to the UK from Drepung Loseling Monastery near Lhasa in Tibet. Sand mandalas are particularly used in Tibetan Buddhism.

A closer view of the chak-pur rod.  It is a metal tube about the length of the monk's forearm and the thickness of a pen, ridged along its side and tapered towards the end from which the sand is pouring.  The monk is scraping a smaller rod along the chak-pur to make the sand flow smoothly

The vibrations of the serrated chak-pur being grated with a metal rod cause the sand to flow like liquid.

A view of the mandala, now close to completion. The pattern contains squares and circles and is symmetrical in four directions.  The dominant colour is green, with red, blue and yellow sand and many details in black and white.  The middle section represents a building and green areas nearer the edge resemble gardens filled with trees and other designs

An imaginary palace
The mandala represents an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing an aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of a guiding principle.

The Tibetan mandala contains deities, with the principal deity in the centre of the pattern. The deities who reside in the palace embody philosophical views and serve as role models.

Sand pots on a cushion, with spare chak-pur and grating rods beside them

Other mandala materials
Other popular substances for the 'sand' are powdered flowers and herbs or grains. In ancient times, powdered precious and semiprecious gems were also used.

A monk is bending over the outer border, made from stripes of coloured sand, adding intricate detail in black sand

Finishing the mandala
This mandala took six days to complete. A monk adds final detail to the borders.

The monks are in full ceremonial dress now, wearing orange robes over their red tunics and orange and yellow crested headdresses. Tall Tibetan horn instruments are also visible.  One monk has begun destroying the mandala by scraping his knuckle in a radial direction through the sand

Destroying the mandala
Once the mandala is complete, it is ritually destroyed.

The monks ask for the deities' healing blessings during a ceremony. As they chant, one monk begins the destruction of the mandala by scraping a knuckle through the sand.

A quarter of the mandala has now gone. A monk is sweeping the sand up using a large paintbrush, working from the outside edge inwards

Sweeping the sand
Another monk uses a paintbrush to sweep the sand, slowly and carefully, from the perimeter to the middle of the mandala.

The destruction of the mandala is intended as a reminder of the impermanence of life.

All the monks help to scoop up the coloured sand, now swept into heaps of nondescript grey, using white plastic teaspoons

The sand is collected
The coloured sand, now reduced to heaps of nondescript grey, is carefully collected and swept into an urn.

The monks leave Manchester Town Hall in procession, still wearing their full regalia. They are singing and playing cymbals and drums

Taking the sand to the river
The monks proceed to a nearby river to scatter the sand.

This is a way of extending the healing powers to the whole world. It is seen as a gift to the mother earth to re-energise the environment and universe.

The monks are gathered on a small dock by the riverside, scattering the sand on the water. In the background are Manchester's buildings, including the cathedral

Scattering the sand
The sand is tipped into the flowing water of the River Irwell.

Blackfriars Bridge and Manchester Cathedral can be seen in the background.

A smiling monk crosses the River Irwell with a large, brightly-painted instrument that looks somewhat like a tambourine or drum, somewhat like a giant lollipop

Music and dance
Music, costume and dance form an important part of the ceremonies. The instruments used also have spiritual significance.

Tsepak Rigzen explains the significance of the music and dance (3:13 mins)

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