Until relatively recently, if you were not a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the chances of seeing a sand mandala were slim. In 1988, almost three decades after Chinese troops marched into Tibet, the Dalai Lama broke with tradition and sent four monks to make a sand mandala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as part of an effort to raise awareness about the culture, religion and plight of Tibet.
In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing some aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of some guiding principle. Various scriptural texts dictate the shapes, forms, and colors of the mandala. There are many different mandalas, each with different lessons to teach and blessings to confer. In the mandala, the outer circle usually symbolises wisdom. The principal deity is housed in the center.
The monks always begin by drawing the axes in the four cardinal directions using chalked string that has been blessed. With large wooden compasses, small metal calipers, and lots of rulers and pencils, they then create an explosion of radiating spokes, overlapping circles, concentric squares and parallel lines. Just when the confusion seems overwhelming, a monk wipes away the excess chalk guides, and an elegant blueprint of the mandala emerges.
Sand mandalas are made from millions of grains of powdered, colored marble. The monks used a cone-shaped metal funnel, or chak-pur, to pour the sand. Running a metal rod on the chak-pur’s grated surface created vibrations that caused the sand to flow like liquid.
To Tibetan Buddhists sweeping up the sand destroying the mandala symbolizes the impermanence of existence. Pouring the sand into water dispersed the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world.
You can watch a video of construction and destruction of sand mandala: