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Mountain mandalas

Back in the UK for what seems to be another cool, greyish summer. Not before venturing up to McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala in the south-western reaches of Himalaya, to visit what may perhaps be the current world capital of the mandala, and to experience life lived in the vertical for a while. How radically different in subtle psychological ways, as well as the obvious physical ones, a life spent in locations where almost every step is either up or down must be.

There must be many souls on the planet even today who have never lived a day that was not imbued with the looming presence of the wilderness towering above them, blocking out the sky with a realm that seemed a home to gods and/or other mysterious beings. Their every waking hour has been coloured by this constant reminder of the relative puniness of humanity in the face of indomitable nature and those other invisible powers. Ever over their small affairs, their fragile perches/purchase upon the precipice, a brooding mass keeps watch, as much a part of their background awareness as the sun that rises and sets beyond it, or the ever-dancing clouds that furl and unfurl around it.

Such mountain dwellers may have no conception of a journey that is not balanced on a narrow ledge that clings to the shoulders of rocky giants for safety, or that strikes out across a knife-edge above the abyss. Never a step taken without some awareness, for the gulf yawns below the unwary. What must it be like to know only a world in which the way to the next village loops and zigzags and winds back and forth for interminable treacherous hours even when the destination remains tantalisingly visible just across the valley?

Those of us conditioned by life on the level can get away with so much more impatience, and careless haste in our actions, so much more arrogance about our place in the greater picture. The land seems ours for the taking, easily and quickly traversed, while our actions are unobserved by anything greater than ourselves.

Certainly, the fruit of Tibetan Buddhist tradition that is the mandala, much in evidence in McLeod Ganj today, requires exceptional levels of patience, steadfastness and humility of its makers. And undoubtedly, Tibetan Buddhist culture ripened among landscapes yet more challenging, far more rugged, far less lush and green than the beautiful forested hills above Dharamsala that inspired these reflections on the influence of the landscape.

Nonetheless, the many Tibetans who have found a home in the dramatically precipitous setting of McLeod Ganj, overlooked by a few rather junior snowy Himalayan peaks, perhaps feel at least an echo of the awesome if chilly magnificence of their mountainous homeland. Given the abominable and outrageous situation in Tibet these days, McLeod Ganj may also be the current world centre for mandala-making. Vast, elaborate and richly coloured painted mandalas adorn the walls of the chorten in the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in exile at one end of the Ganj. Here and in nearby monasteries, the monks sometimes create stunning sand mandalas, as well as much smaller designs made in butter.

Many of the shops selling Tibetan cultural artefacts that line the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj display small hand-painted renditions of traditional mandalas. These fabulously detailed works, and many more kept behind the scenes, are sold for a fraction of the price that the work involved in making them should surely be worth. Classes in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist art of mandala painting are also available.

Although these works, so closely bound up with the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are only very distant cousins of the mandalas in this website, they share some of the same symbolic underpinning and functional significance (see the About mandalas page) and certainly reflect a similar love of detail and decoration. Many of them represent an idealised temple in which every element has a precise symbolism, and most are based around four-way symmetry, as are Yggdrasil Hill, Fortress of Faith, The Dome of Home, Meditation in the marketplace, and, to some extent, Heavenly kharabaat and One night in spring in this website.

When working with a fully figurative design, particularly one featuring architecture, four-point symmetry allows for a more naturalistic-looking effect than higher symmetries can do. Sitting here in the UK surrounded by the original painted versions of the above-mentioned mandalas, it seems they – and many of the others, too – will forever be to some extent strangers in this land. Could it be that their distant roots in a culture grown in those dramatically austere mountainscapes keep them just a little exiled from the gently undulating lush leafiness of Surrey?

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