Buddhist Art Marks Transient Nature of Life

As a new exhibition of Buddhist art opened Friday morning at Wat Ounalom, four Indian monks were already hard at work on an elaborate mandala—perhaps the art form that best reflects Buddhist teaching about the impermanence of life.

By the time the exhibition closes Tuesday night, the monks will have created a multicolored 1.5-square-meter design out of sand. Then they will hold a ceremony to obliterate it.

Buddhist monks from northeastern India design a sand mandala at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh on Friday. (Siv Channa)
Buddhist monks from northeastern India design a sand mandala at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh on Friday. (Siv Channa)

At 8 a.m. Friday, three monks were sitting around a square, flat wooden frame, armed with small funnels and scrapers they were using to produce white sand granules for the mandala. Next to them were small bowls of colored sand in more than 12 shades.

A forth monk nearby was planning the intricate design on a scrap of paper. They worked steadily but without undue haste or tension.

The Buddhist exhibition is part of the Festival of India organized by the Indian Embassy in cooperation with the Cambodian Ministry of Cults and Religion, and which also includes Indian classical dance performances featuring episodes from the epic tale Ramanaya.

The free performances are taking place Saturday in Siem Reap City and Monday through Wednesday in Phnom Penh.

The exhibition at Wat Ounalom, which consists of sculptures and large illustrated panels featuring sites in India associated with the Buddha, opened to the public Friday to coincide with Meak Bochea Day.

“This holy day commemorates the day the Buddha assembled his disciples to let them know that in exactly three months, he would no longer be of this earth,” as he would leave this human plane and attain nirvana, said ethnologist Ang Choulean.

People in the countryside and older Cambodians tend to observe this holy day and go to their pagodas to mark it, he said. But since Meak Bochea falls on Valentine’s Day this year, young people are not focusing on the religious celebration, he added.

The monks taking part in the exhibition come from Arunachal Pradesh state in northeastern India, where a Himalayan Buddhist tradition similar to Tibetan Buddhism prevails.

Those designing the sand mandala are from the Central Institute of Himalayan Cultural Studies.

The monks are chanting in the morning and at the end of each day at the exhibition to demonstrate their unique chanting technique, which produces multiple pitches simultaneously.

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