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Lost Treasures of Tibet

Classroom Activity

To create a mandala-style piece of art.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Designing a Mandala" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • paper
  • colored pencils
  1. Anthropologists and sociologists study cultural art and religion partly because they reflect other aspects of a society. One of the religious and artistic expressions important to Buddhists in Lo Monthang is the mandala. The circle represents the cosmos and is used as a guide to meditation. Tell students they will be creating their own mandala, and that, like a traditional mandala, it should have symbolic meaning of their own choosing.

  2. Provide a copy of the "Designing a Mandala" student handout to each student. Review with students the meaning of some of the components represented in the Chenrezig mandala shown on their student handouts.

  3. Have students create their mandalas. Tell them that symmetry is an essential quality of mandalas, with each mandala built on a series of concentric circles. Ask them to consider and choose angles and geometric shapes that will create symmetry in their mandalas.

  4. After students have determined some shapes, have them create their symbol systems. As they do so, have students think about what is important to them, including people, places, objects, and beliefs. Have students create a chart describing what each symbol means, including colors and their meanings.

  5. Once the mandalas are created, have students write short poems or essays explaining what their mandalas symbolize. Then organize the class into four groups. Have each group display its mandala pictures together in one area, putting a number on each picture. Then have members put letters on their descriptions of the mandalas and display the descriptions with the drawings (but not matched up).

  6. Once all groups are done, assign groups to different stations. Have each group member first look at each mandala and try to interpret its meaning and then read the descriptions and match them up with the corresponding mandalas.

  7. Conclude by discussing the different ideas that students' mandalas symbolize. How close were students' original interpretations of each others' mandalas to the actual descriptions?

  8. As an extension, have students compare their mandalas to real ones. For photos of Tibetan mandalas, visit the Himalayan Art Web site at:

Activity Answer

Tibetan monks may spend weeks creating an intricate sand mandala, only to destroy it within seconds to symbolize the spirit of impermanence and non-attachment to the material world—that everything is in the process of passing away and returning. Sand mandalas are usually gathered in a jar, blessed, and poured into a river or stream where the water disperses the healing energies of the sand.

Each mandala is designed to invite people to greater awareness of various aspects of Buddhist teachings and desirable qualities, such as compassion, wisdom, or strength. Some of the colors used in a Chenrezig mandala, which represents compassion, include white, green, blue, yellow, and red. A mandala usually contains three levels: The outermost level represents the world in its divine form, the inner level depicts a map toward enlightenment, and a secret level represents the perfect balance between body and mind. Every aspect of a mandala has meaning, from the shapes and symbols chosen to the colors used.

Students' mandalas may show a great variety of forms, symbols, and colors—they should reflect some consciousness of the use of shapes and of symbols with meaning to the student artist. There is no right way to design or interpret a mandala.

Links and Books


Jackson, David, and Janice Jackson. Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1984.
Describes the sacred art of Tibetan scroll painting, from composition to application.


Day, Nicholas. "The World in a Grain of Sand." Washington Post, August 5, 1998, page C1.
Describes the process that Tibetan monks use to build and destroy a five-foot mandala made of millions of grains of crushed, vegetable-dyed marble sand.

Shacochis, Bob. "Kingdoms in the Air." Outside, October 2002, page 158.
Describes the Mustang region, including life in Lo Monthang.

Web Sites

NOVA's Web Site—Lost Treasures of Tibet
Provides program-related articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources.

The Mandala Project
Invites the submission of mandalas to an online gallery and discusses the importance of the mandala in different religious traditions.

A New Ceiling for the Roof of the World
Discusses the restoration of the 15th-century Thubchen Gompa monastery in Mustang.

The Mandala of Chenrezig
Presents Webster University's Mandala of Chenrezig and includes information about the Buddhist religion and a link to the World Wide Web Virtual Library for Buddhist studies Web sites.


The "Designing a Mandala" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards and Standards for School Mathematics.

Grades 5-8

Math: Geometry

Mathematics Standard 12:

Grades 9-12

Math: Geometry

Mathematics Standard 12:

Teacher's Guide
Lost Treasures of Tibet

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