A spiritual and ritual symbol seen throughout Asian cultures, the mandala is a geometric design produced in many forms: on paper, cloth, with threads, wood, metal, stone or in a variety of other artistic modalities. Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as other religions and cultures use the mandala to signify different aspects of the universe, and the most basic form of the symbol consists of concentric circles arranged around a single point.
"The word mandala comes to us from the Sanskrit language and loosely translates as 'circle," says Jamie Locke, mandala hand carver, resident artist and founding member of the Red Barn Arts Collective in Indianapolis, Indiana. "Mandalas are central in Hinduism and Buddhism but can also be found in many cultures and religions around the world such as Native American, Jewish, Christian and Islamic art for example. Typically containing symbolic geometric designs, which can be simple, intricate or complex, the mandala is often used to teach about spirituality and one's place in the universe. Mandalas are believed to represent different aspects of the universe such as unity, wholeness, harmony and our relation to infinity."
According to experts like Stephen Meakin, owner and principal of United Kingdom-based The Mandala Company & The Academy of Geometric Arts, the symbols have deep roots dating back to ancient Nepal. "They are patterns originally created by Tibetan monks as ritualistic symbols made with colored rice powder, often depicting gateways and temples surrounding a principal deity," Meakin says. "It should be understood that these monks were keen to point out that they were expressing an inner reality and noble path and as such, the artist expression was of little importance beyond the symbolic."
While the mandala may have appeared as early as the first century B.C.E., it took hundreds of years for it to gain popularity in the West. "In 1938, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung visited an ornately decorated monastery near Darjeeling," Meakin says. "It was here that Lama Rimpoche Gomchen introduced him to the painted artwork as the 'khilkor' or 'mandala.' Jung was amazed by the artwork and recognized images and patterns that were repeated in not only the artwork of his patients, but also in the arts and architecture of the ancient world. Jung was well known for taking notes and now the word mandala has a much broader metaphysical meaning which he brought back to the West."
And while traditional mandalas consist of those signature concentric circles, modern mandalas often integrate a variety of geographic elements. "These days, the word 'mandala' is used to describe any 2D circular pattern or 3D form," Meakin says. "Everything from a gothic cathedral rose window to a child's painted flower pattern could be called a 'mandala' or perhaps 'mandala'-esque?"