Two worlds meet in the centre of the universe

Dipesh Risal | April 19, 2017

The symbolism of “mandalas” is explored in this fictional, polyphonic reformulation of an actual historical meeting between the British Resident Brian Hodgson and the Nepali Vajrayana priest Amritananda (around CE 1823-24). The plot structure also permits the author to disclose a revelation about the word “mandala”: namely, that the entire world has been using the incorrect transliterated English form of the Sanskrit word maṇḍal. As is clearly shown in Hodgson’s own writing on the accompanying sketches, the more appropriate English form is “mandal” and not “mandala”. Hodgson was possibly the first Western diplomat-scholar to set his eyes on these tantric symbols, and he drew on the authority of the learned Amritananda. Hodgson himself seems to have reverted to “mandala” by 1857, and today this form is extremely prevalent and is in keeping with the similarly annoying (to the author) English transliterations like “Veda” for Ved, “Kasthamandapa” for Kāṣṭhamaṇḍap and the most blatantly incorrect “Krishnaa” for Kṛṣṇa. Given the widespread references to the term maṇḍal in the English language, perhaps we should rally around a more faithful transliteration: mandal.

A bonus to this story is the first-ever publication of the four magnificent mandal sketches commissioned (and in one case, possibly drawn) by Hodgson. These images were previously available only in partial sections buried deep within the British Library online collection.

May 8, 1824
The British Residency
Lain Khyeo, Kathmandu

Hodgson summoned all of his diplomatic gravitas, yet could not conceal his surprise. Before him stood Pandit Amritananda, who had actually managed to convey himself to the Residency drawing room, and that too solely on the strength of Hodgson’s simple invitation. Over the past few months, Hodgson had often hit an impasse in his sporadic attempts at identifying and collecting Bauddha material in the Nepal Valley. He knew this was partly due to language limitations but mostly due to the exhaustion of knowledge on the part of his local informants. But Amritananda’s name had always been forwarded at such times as the voice of authority and a possible source of clarification. Hodgson was therefore eager to acquaint himself with this mysterious priest who reportedly knew so much. Now, in his drawing room, he noted that Amritananda had the same humble, jovial countenance that he remembered of his best teachers at Haileybury College. But to matters at hand…

Thank you, Pandit Jyu, for accepting my invitation. It might come as a surprise to you that, in addition to my diplomatic duties at the Residency, I have recently been devoting considerable time to the exploration of the… how shall I put it… the history and nature of the Bauddha faith. In this regard, I have in my possession sketches of a few Bauddha mandals – I have been told that is the correct term – which I hope will shed light on the symbols and rituals of the Bauddha faith, a faith as yet entirely unknown in the Wester… er, in England.

The originals of some of these mandals are in the Khesa Chit, but the bulk are copied from originals located in Swogoombhoo Nath. They have mostly been copied by my gifted chitrakar, Rajman Singh. Some are, I am afraid, rather hastily drawn on site by myself, from originals that were only briefly exposed to me, at considerable personal risk to the Chief Lama, due to the sacred nature of the paintings. I requested your presence today in the hope that I could impose on you to describe the symbols and meaning contained within these fascinating designs?

Hodgson started spreading out four large drawings on a nearby table. He paused and looked up:

Am I correct in referring to these designs as “mandals”?

Amritananda noted with fascination this young man, perhaps not even twenty-five, speaking Parbatya with such ease. Yes, his sentences were long and convoluted. And he struggled at times with words. But his grasp of the language was impressive. Amritananda recalled in passing the amusing attempts by Captain Knox many years ago at broken Hindustani, an exercise which was in principle much easier for firangees. But to matters at hand…

Yes, mandal is the proper term for these diagrams. Mandals are prevalent in our guhya, Tantric practices, both within the Bauddha and the left-handed Śaiva faiths…

But before we proceed, one small matter, Rejident Saheb. I ask that you please not call me Pandit. I prefer the name Bandya… The word Pandit, while a precursor of Bandya, has been used… rather misused in the current Nepal Durbar and refers to a functionary priest who works for money.

Hodgson was immediately humbled. He bowed awkwardly:

I apologize profusely…

Amritananda smiled. What a strange, quaint person this Rejident was, impeccable manners, soft-spoken and so out of place in the cesspool of Kathmandu politics.

Do not worry yourself, Rejident Saheb. We are only establishing the preliminaries of how we will interact in the future. It is of no consequence.

Hodgson interrupted, barely able to hide his growing sense of excitement.

And I thank you for your kindness and openness. But to interject… You mentioned “guhya” just now, as in secret… hidden?


And the word Tantra… It has recently entered the vocabulary of scholars interested in Hindustan and Tibet. But a lot of ink has been wasted by our academics on the topic without so much as an understanding of its rudimentary significance. Perhaps a brief description of Tantra…

This time Amritananda interrupted Hodgson, but fluidly, as one would an old friend. Hodgson did not seem to mind.

Rejident Saheb, it would take me an hour to simply define Tantra, and a full day to explain the core essence of it. I ask that we leave that exercise for another day. The mandal on the other hand is more easily explained.

Amritananda cleared his throat as he did before expounding to a disciple, and continued:

The mandal represents a circular plan of the universe and the arrangement of appropriate deities upon the plan. The entire universe is subsumed and represented within the mandal, which is of course just the Sanskrit word for circle. The all-important centre represents a singularity that remains unmoved, inviolate, even as the entire mandal, the circle of the universe revolves around it. The centre, thus, is also a portal from the Here to the eternal inviolate Beyond. And by meditating on the various deities of this instrument, by focusing on the outward and the hidden symbolism of the deities and their arrangement within the mandal, a sādhak is drawn inexorably to the centre, and through the centre, is gradually led out of the Maya of the material world and is better primed to attain the Beyond.

Amritananda paused, hoping that the Rejident had picked up on his interpretation of the mandal’s centre, a revelation he had refined over many years of study. But he knew it was too much to ask of a novice firangee to understand this concept, no matter how well disposed he was towards spiritual matters. Indeed, the Rejident’s reaction made it clear that the significance of the mandal’s centre had gone entirely unnoticed.

Hodgson nodded respectfully, quietly appreciative of the succinct, satisfying definition he had just been given, obviously coming from someone wielding supreme command of the subject matter. He thought of his future prospects. There was so much to learn here, so much to dig into, process and communicate back to the scholars of Europe. The hinted-at connection between mandals and Tantra, the symbolism of deities involved… even a possible Śaiva connection… Hodgson collected his thoughts.

Ah thank you, Bandya Jyu, for that wonderful definition. I would very much like to explore these mandals in more depth with your assistance. For these designs… these instruments, are entirely unknown to the outside world and as such hold immense interest in the academic realm. In fact, I might not be remiss in stating that I am the first firangee to ever lay my eyes on them.

Amritananda looked up sharply, and noted that the Rejident was smiling at his own joke of using the pejorative Parbatya word for foreigners. At that moment, his regard for the self-effacing Rejident increased, and he resolved to help him in any way he could… within the limits set by his Dharma, of course. He walked over to the table, leafed through the mandals, and said with easy confidence:

While the overall purpose of mandals never change, various sects of the Bauddha faith have developed separate, well-defined iconographic plans for mandals containing specific configurations of the five Dhyani Buddhas, their female Shakti counterparts, the associated Bodhisattwas, Dharmapāls and minor deities. For example, this one here is the Kāl Chakra Mandal, or a diagram of the Wheel of Time, with its seven hundred and sixty-four deities. This mandal is associated with the anuttarayog school of Tantra.

This here is the Dharma Chakra Mandal, showing the Wheel of the Law. I can provide metrical verses in Sanskrit that describe the arrangement of all these deities. And further, I have in my possession a rather ancient painting that depicts all these deities in full colour. I can make it available to you for study.

Hodgson bowed his thanks, anxious not to break Amritananda’s descriptive discourse.

Here we have the Dharma Dhātu Mandal, which… umm… let’s just say  represents the different qualities and forms of Buddha, encompassing two hundred and eighty-four divinities. The Dharma Dhātu and the earlier Dharma Chakra Mandal are associated with the Kriyā Samucchaya School.

And this is the Yogambar Mandal with its fifty-seven deities.

Yogambar is the Tantric form of the Adi Buddha, and Gyān Dākini is his consort. The Gyān Dākini is in fact a very curious deity for us, as she is connected not only with with Macchindranath, but also is claimed by some to be the mother of Avalokiteswara…

Amritananda stopped, suddenly realizing that he might have delved too deep and lost his host. Sure enough, when he looked up, he found Hodgson staring at him, dumbstruck.

Hodgson was indeed quite overwhelmed with the torrent of information coming from this learned authority. He certainly caught the superficial meaning of most of the technical terms Amritananda used, thanks to his excellent grasp of Sanskrit, but the deeper, spiritual import completely eluded him. He thought of a polite way of framing his now more ambitious request:

Next year, I anticipate that my stay in Nepal will be extended for another term. My wish thereafter is to delve deeply into the Bauddha faith, in a formal, structured manner, with your help, and to procure more material… manuscripts, paintings, implements of worship… which will aid me in forming a picture, however rudimentary, and “from the outside” it may be, of the faith. And I will of course ensure you are… in terms of … a little something for your time and efforts…

Hodgson trailed off, skirting around an issue that was as sensitive for a British gentleman as it was for an honourable Kathmandu priest.

We can decide that later. But for now you must understand that the material you seek is deeply spiritual for my people. And ever since Prithvinarayan Shah’s days, my people have been forced to become intensely suspicious of outsiders, Parbatya or otherwise. But if you ask me personally, I am quite torn on deciding which danger is greater to the Bauddha faith: the “firangees” or the Parbatya. Your country has suppressed the whole of Hindustan, yes, but if your people are exposed to the profound beauty of the Buddha’s teaching through your efforts, perhaps it will somehow stop the continuous decline of the Dharma in our land. At the very least, a small fraction of our relics will survive the coming ages due to being outside the Valley and in the hands of…  “firangees” as you put it.

You said the Dharma is in continuous decline just now?

Indeed. About six or seven hundred years ago, our valley was an important hub of the Bauddha faith. Especially my town, then the Kingdom of Patan, was a thriving centre of learning on par with Nalanda. We exchanged scholars and priests… some of them my own ancestors… with the Pala empire to the south, and we sent teachers and valuable manuscripts to Tibet to spread Vajrayana practices. But since that time, there has been a slow yet definite decline in the popularity of the Bauddha faith in Patan and the rest of the Nepal valley, a decline made worse by our own late Malla kings who favored Śaiva tantric practices, and a decline certainly accelerated by the current Shah dynasty. Therefore, for the reasons I gave earlier, I can arrange for you some token material that will aid in your understanding of our faith. And on a personal front, if you are willing to learn, and to invest the time and discipline needed, I would be honoured to impart to you the fundamentals of the Bauddha faith, and especially of Vajrayana practices.

Hodgson was giddy at the prospect of finally initiating a serious study of the most obscure and tantalizing topic the Orient had presented him.

I would be eternally grateful for any such material as you can make available, and doubly so for any knowledge of the faith you can impart.

Then I invite you to Thaina Tole, where I have my house. We will visit Uku Baha… a premier Bauddha house of worship in Patan… it has a good collection of such material as you desire. In fact, this Baha also houses a precious manuscript named the Ashtasahashrika Pragyaparamita Sutra, which is more than 800 years old… the oldest Bauddha manuscript in all of Nepal that I know of. This valuable manuscript describes what it means to be a Bodhisattwa, and it contains lines of confounding complexity intended to show the illusory nature of the material world, of all perceptions, and indeed, of all thoughts! The manuscript is decorated with elegant miniature paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattwas and other deities as well as depictions of the chief Bauddha pilgrimage sites of the the surrounding countries, all within a magnificent four hundred and forty-five folios. But this, as you can imagine, is one of the priceless treasures of the Baha and is available only for a quick viewing. Come to think of it, our Baha is also host to treasures of a different sort: floating high above on the walls, carved out of wood at an unknown date by a master craftsman, there exist several Yakshis in the pose of bending boughs of trees. Of all the sculptures in the Nepal valley, these are my favourite, and I often gaze at their heavenly feminine forms as I pass the Baha in the course of my daily rituals.

Look at me, I am getting carried away…I will try to arrange a viewing of all this for you, although the presence of a … firangee… within the premises could be quite a scandal.

Quite overwhelmed, Hodson bowed his thanks once again.

I would say Jyesha Tritiya Badi…that is, next Saturday, is a good day… Our riotous Bunga Dyo Jatra will be in full swing then. We can visit Uku Baha during the day, then participate in the Jatra well into the night as Bunga Dyo is pulled in his chariot from Lagankhel to Jawalakhel.


All images are from the inventory of Hodgson’s private papers at the British Library, London (Eur Mss Hodgson), used with permission. The following works were consulted for historic details:

The Origins of Himalayan Studies: Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling, edited by David Waterhouse
The Prisoner of Kathmandu, by Charles Allen
Pandit Amritananda Shakya (Bandya), by Harihar Raj and Indu Joshi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *