The roots of this design can be traced back to many origins. References to the design can be found in the Indian and Indo-European culture, and dates back way before that. There are quite a few variations to the design, each signifying the same thing in different forms. The design symbolises creation and the cycle of life.
It is believed that this design is a part of the Hindu religion and also later became a part of the Buddhist religion and was adopted in a different form of presentation. Not going into the religious significance, the etymological description could be a container of essence, a symbol of the universe.
The geometric design is pretty intriguing, interesting and meaningful. The geometry of the design is very symmetric, invariably with a circle at the centre, surrounded by a square or rectangular perimeter with four gates or openings on the four sides. The central circle symbolises the seed of life, the essence. The encapsulating square symbolises the bounds of physical world, with the four gates on four sides.
The mandala can be of any size, from something as small as half of a page to something as big as an entire room. This design was initially used to decorate temples and places of worship and prayer. It was believed to have a sanctifying effect. Later, it was adopted as one of the popular symbols of Buddhist art.
As per the rules, only Buddhist monks are allowed to draw this design, although that is not followed everywhere. However, the design drawn by the monks are more accurate, meaningful and beautiful. Years of training, great dedication and concentration goes behind drawing these. More often than not four monks, along with four assistants, draw the four quadrants of the design.
The drawing begins at the outermost periphery, slowly building towards the centre. The drawing is commonly accompanied by chants or hums of significance. The monks draw the outlines of the design, and the assistants fill up the outlines with colours.
The amazing fact about monks making the designs is that they make it completely from their memory. They have to memorize every little detail of the design in order to draw it correctly. Also, even though four monks draw the four quadrants of the design simultaneously, it is absolutely symmetric and identical. All these can be achieved only with years of technical artistic training and practice.
The variations and their significance
The design is formed by drawing concentric circles enclosed in squares. Each of the circle has its own deity, and symbolises a particular trait. The enclosing square has four gates. The perfect shape of the square symbolises that the space of wisdom has no imperfections or aberrations. The four gates symbolise the four thoughts that are boundless, namely, loving kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. The design is often filled with decorative figures and items like bells and garlands.
The two broad categories of deities that one can find in these mandala are peaceful deities and wrathful deities, symbolising exactly what the name suggests. Additionally, sexual imagery can also be found in these designs. The significance of all these intricacies is to show the peaceful coexistence and the beginning of life, the true essence of life.
Even each of the different colours used in these designs – white, red, green, blue and yellow, each have a different significance, a different meaning.
The mandala is as much an artistic masterpiece as it is a religious symbol. With time it has come out of temples and into pictures and paintings and grabbed an international audience with its exotic beauty and symbolic nature.