Cristian Violatti
published on 07 September 2013
Send to Google Classroom:
Tibetan Mandala, Sera Monastery (by Kosi Gramatikoff, Public Domain)

The word mandala is a Sanskrit term that means “circle” or “discoid object”. A mandala can be defined in two ways: externally as a schematic visual representation of the universe and internally as a guide for several psychophysical practices that take place in many Asian traditions, including meditation.

Mandalas are objects of devotion in Tantric Hindu and in Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana Buddhism) and they are also used in Jainism. They can be painted on paper, wood, stone, cloth or even on a wall. In some traditions, they can be reproduced in ephemeral material such as butter or coloured sand. In some traditons like Tibetan Buddhism, the role of mandalas is so strong that it could become an architectural structure and even whole temples may be built as giant mandalas.

The methods used in creating mandalas are very precise and merged with different rituals including the chantings of sacred formulas. Mandalas may be based on or include a variety of geometric shapes using patterns that have evolved from different symbols.

Remove Ads


In the centre of the mandala lies the palace, which has four gates oriented to the four quarters of the world.

Symbology of Mandalas

Sometimes mandalas are associated with a symbolic palace. In the centre of the mandala lies the palace, which has four gates oriented to the four quarters of the world and is located within several layers of circles that form a protective barrier around it. Each layer symbolizes a quality (e.g. purity, devotion) that one must obtain before accessing the palace. Depending on the tradition it belongs to, inside the palace the mandala has symbols associated with different deities or cultural symbols such as a thunderbolt (symbol of the male), a bell (symbol of the female), a wheel (symbol of the Buddhist Eightfold Path) or a diamond (symbol of a clear mind) among others.

On other occasions, mandalas can represent a particular deity or even a group of deities (which could number a few or even thousands). In these cases the deity or main deity is placed at the centre of the mandala, while other deities are placed around the central image. The main deity is considered the generative force of the mandala and the secondary deities are seen as manifestations of the power of the core image.

Tibetan Star Mandala
Tibetan Star Mandala
by Poke2001 (CC BY-SA)

Uses of Mandalas

In the many traditions where mandalas are used, there are different rites where the practitioner, at least metaphorically, establishes a dialogue with the symbol or deity at the core of the mandala by moving progressively from the outside towards the centre. Once within the centre, the practitioner connects with the central symbol or deity and he or she is able to perceive all manifestations as part of a single underlying whole and gets closer to the goal of enlightenment or perfect understanding.

Remove Ads


The Vajrayana Buddhist school (Tantric Buddhism), has a very complex set of rituals. In order to help the disciples to gain enlightenment, they use a wide range of physical disciplines and tools including mandalas. This school believes that achieving enlightenment by traditional methods requires a very long time, even many lifetimes, while the methods used in Vajrayana can deliver the same result in just a single lifetime.

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
Remove Ads



We want people all over the world to learn about history. Help us and translate this definition into another language!

About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian is a public speaker and independent author with a strong passion for the human past. Inspired by the rich lessons of history, Cristian's goal is to stimulate ideas and to spark the intellectual curiosity of his audience.

Support Our
Non-Profit Organization

Ancient History Encyclopedia Foundation is a non-profit organization. For only $5 per month you can become a member and support our mission to engage people with cultural heritage and to improve history education worldwide.

Become a Member  

Recommended Books


Cite This Work

APA Style

Violatti, C. (2013, September 07). Mandala. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Violatti, Cristian. "Mandala." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 07, 2013.

MLA Style

Violatti, Cristian. "Mandala." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Sep 2013. Web. 19 Sep 2020.

Remove Ads


Remove Ads


Powered by Mailchimp


Our latest articles delivered to your inbox, once a week:

Are you a...?

Remove Ads


Our Videos

You can also follow us on Youtube!