Hands-On Learning

World History Crafts

High in the Himalaya mountains, Tibet became an independent kingdom in the seventh century, when the great king Songtsen Gampo defeated the armies of nearby China under the Tang dynasty. As his empire grew along the trading route known as the Silk Road, the king was introduced to Tibet’s southern neighbor, India. Liking what he saw, Songtsen Gampo borrowed the Indian system of writing, laws and its religion, Buddhism, for his own country. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in India and started a faith based on peace and right action. Although Tibet already had a religion of nature worship called Bon, King Songtsen Gampo hoped that Buddhism’s nonviolent teachings would help bring stability to his government. The two faiths began to mingle and make themselves felt in every aspect of Tibetan life. One of the results of this process was the beautiful art of sand mandalas.
Spectacularly colored and circular in shape, mandalas, or kyilkhors, are used in sacred Buddhist ceremonies and meditation. They can be made of sand, crushed flower petals or jewels, or even sculpted out of yak butter (a unique Tibetan art form!). Every line, shape and color has meaning: a blue thunderbolt symbolizes compassion, a peach stands for the sense of taste, and a flowing silk scarf represents touch. Following the symbols inward from the edge of the circle to its center, Buddhists find within the mandala the seed of inner enlightenment.

It can take three years for a monk to memorize the different mandalas, learn about meaning of their symbols, and master the technical skill needed to create them. Up to eight feet in diameter or larger, a mandala can take several weeks to complete. Grain by grain the sand is poured onto the design base using a pair of thin metal funnels called chakpus. Holding one sand-filled chakpu in position, the monk rasps its mate across the top, creating vibrations which can be adjusted to shake the sand out in a stream or a trickle. When finished, the mandala is ceremoniously swept up and deposited into the nearest body of flowing water — a reflection of the fact that nothing in life is permanent. In the 1950s, China took control of Tibet, and the country’s spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee. Happily, the thousands of Tibetans now living in exile in India are preserving the art, religion and culture of their ancient land.

Making a sand mandala takes patience and a steady hand, but the results are worth it. And unlike real sand mandalas, our small-scale version is permanent, ready to be displayed on a shelf or hung on a wall. You can use actual mandalas as your inspiration or create your own design. Try to keep in mind the symmetry, interlocking patterns, and contrasting colors Tibetan monks use to express the Buddhist philosophy of wisdom, compassion and peace.


– Colored sand (a multi-pack containing small bags of several colors, enough for 6-8 mandalas, costs only a few dollars)
– White glue
– Paper plates, one for each color sand and one for the glue
– Narrow, pointed paint brushes
– Heavy cardboard or wooden base
– Plastic straw, cut on the diagonal at one end to make a scoop

Directions: Using a sharp pencil, draw a circle about 6 inches across and sketch in the lines of your design. Don’t make the spaces you need to fill too small, but try to make your design interesting and lively. Flowers, trees, and other shapes from nature as well as geometric shapes are all traditional. Look at some Tibetan art to see how these objects are stylized (see below). And don’t worry too much about the lines – they’ll all be covered up by the sand.

When your drawing’s done, work as the monks do from the center outward. Pour some glue onto a plate and dip a small paint brush into the glue, wiping off any drips. Carefully brush an even layer of glue into the space you want to fill, spreading it around to reach all the corners. You may do more than one space at a time if they’re the same color. Pour some sand onto a plate and scoop a bit of sand into your straw chakpu. Tap the straw to dribble sand onto the glued section. Let dry a minute, then tilt, blow or brush away stray grains of sand. Continue until your entire mandala is covered.


Dover Books publishes several big ($3.95) and small ($1.50) books of mandala designs by artist Marty Noble. Enlarge the designs on a copier or adapt and simplify as needed. (Available through www.doverpublications.com .)

The Minnesota Institute of Art brought in Tibetan monks in 1991 to create a permanent sand mandala. Go to http://www.artsmia.org/arts-of-asia/tibet/ to see how the piece came to be built and preserved. You can even click on a picture of the mandala for an explanation of all its symbols.

© 2005, Kathy Ceceri