Mandala, the transliteration from Sanskrit, means 'Circular Altar'. It represents a miniature imaginary universe in Buddhism and the assembly place of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It originates from the ancient earthen altar used in the cultivation of Esoteric Buddhism. The legend goes that a round or square earthen altar was built in the cultivation spot in case of invasion by devils. To strengthen the solemnity of the ceremony, many deities were also invited, whose images would be printed in the earth. Later Mandala began to be made and worshipped by the Esoteric Buddhists.
Mandalas have become an excellent form of artwork in Tibet at present. They generally replicate the original frame of the earthen altar, but the designs are very complicated and flamboyant. The center is the residence of a head deity surrounded by his subordinates in a circle. Their outer design is a square city with four gates, one on each side, symbolizing the Four Unlimited Hearts of Buddhism in its cultivation to deliver all mankind – Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity. The whole is enveloped by another circle on the outside. Animals and other mascots are often decorated inside, each holding their own residence. Sometimes some symbols of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas such as swords or Dharma Wheels, their true words or sculptures are also used to represent them.
The common kinds of Mandala we can see nowadays are colored drawings and metallic models either planar or tridimensional. The most popular is the Sand Mandala, which is made form silver sands usually ground from marble, gems and sometimes grist. They are dyed with five colors of blue, yellow, red, green and white before put to use. Congregating the 'Five Largest' in the universe, namely sky, earth, fire, wind and water, these colors are used to paint the deities in the five respective directions. In fact, the image of every deity has his own fixed specifications to fabricate. The work is performed by a group of specially trained lamas. It is believed that by building a Mandala they can accumulate many merits for themselves.
Besides, there are also many well-known metallic models in Tibet, such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Palkhor Monastery. Some followers even pile up plates to resemble the model of Mandala in Temples.