In Orange is the New Black, when Piper first arrives in prison, Yogi Jones approaches her and asks if she’s ever heard of a mandala. When Piper says she has, they are “those round Buddhist art things,” Yogi Jones elaborates:
The Tibetan monks make them out of dark sand laid out into big beautiful designs. And when they’re done, after days or weeks of work, they wipe them away…try to look at your experience here as a mandala, Chapman.
Touring a Mandala Painters’ School in Ancient Bhaktapur
Tibetan culture is quite alive in Nepal, including mandala paintings. While some mandalas are indeed made of sand and wipe away when they’re finished, others are preserved on canvass. Along the streets of Pokhara, many shops sell paintings of mandalas, called ‘thangka.’ They range in size, quality, & price. The most expensive are large and incredibly detailed, painted by masters. The cheaper versions are made by lesser trained painters who quickly copy off of one of higher quality.
The day after our trek, we visit ancient Bhaktapur and we tour a school for mandala painters. A teacher at the school brings us through a building full of painters in training, focusing hard on their canvases, and he brings us to an upstairs room. It’s full of rolled up mandalas, which he unrolls for us and allows us to look with a magnified glass at the intricate details. On the wall is a large Mandala that takes up the entire wall.
He explains that the largest and most detailed paintings actually take months to years of full 8-hour days of painting. For the smallest detailing, artists use paintbrushes with a single hair on them.
The paintings are not only beautiful, but hold significance for Buddhists, who use the mandalas as a tools for practicing tantric meditation. Bart and I purchase a beautiful mandala painting at the school for approximately $250. It currently hangs in our living room. As we were informed, the black portion at the edge of the circle faces the floor. Hanging it the other way is bad karma, we’re informed.
A Living Medieval Museum
In addition to the mandala school, Bhaktapur, a living museum of what the Kathmandu Valley looked like in the medieval times, is home to pagoda-style Buddhist temples and ancient buildings. Many of the buildings were destroyed during a recent earthquake. There are carvers working to restore the structures, and they let me take a turn with the chisel. After giving it a whirl, I’m amazed at their precision in carving such intricate patterns into the wood.
We pass pottery drying in the sun and eventually, a man working on a potter’s wheel. He’s impressed when Bart asks for a turn and creates a good-quality pot on the spot.
Hey Hey, We’re the Monkeys
We also tour Swayambhunah Stupa, also known as the monkey temple. The experience has forever changed my opinion of monkeys, which turn out to be deplorable creatures. When I see one masturbate in public and splooge into a bush, Bart catches my reaction on camera.
Some of the monkeys are cool, though, and the views from the temple are beautiful and adorned with Nepalese prayer flags. Prayer wheels are everywhere, which people turn clockwise as they walk past.
A woman beckons to us and anoints us with a red and yellow urnas on our foreheads. A language barrier gets in the way, and we don’t have the right amount of money to pay her. We give her what we have, but it’s short. I feel guilty, but appreciate the experience.