Shortly after noon Saturday, a series of guttural chants near the entrance of the Lawrence Arts Center tested the endurance of eight South Indian monks while catching the ear of any patrons passing through the front door unaware of the proceedings.
The monks, touring the United States by way of the Drepung Gomang monastery, were taking part in a ceremony to initiate a three-day, ceremonial construction of a world peace sand mandala, a 2,500-year-old tradition that will take three days to finish.
“This is their short one,” said Kansas City Tour Coordinator Kevin Mullin before the ceremony. Many mandalas — which serve as spiritual and ritual symbols in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism — can take upward of five days to build.
As the monks consecrated the blue board on which the mandala would be built, more than two dozen spectators gathered round. After about a half hour, monks strapped on blue surgical masks and began mapping out the design using a black marker and protractor, the masks providing a crucial barrier between, say, a sneeze and disaster: the intricate design, on which they planned to work until 8 p.m., would be entirely composed of colored grains of sand.
In their second visit to Lawrence after a similar ceremony last year at the Spencer Museum of Art, the Drepung Gomang monks planned to return to work from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday before concluding with another ceremony Monday. After spending three days funneling the sands through brass, horn-shaped tools called “chak-purs,” all that they create will be erased come Monday afternoon.
Patrons will be able to collect a small portion of the sand before a processional embarks toward the Kaw, where the consecrated sand will travel as far as it the river will take it.
“We have one purpose,” said Geshe Lobsang Tseten before getting to work today. "We are sharing our culture with the American people. Sharing cultures means how we will create more peace … and better family and a better world.”
The thinking goes, Tseten said, that the mandala will represent multiple religious symbols for a modern era in which many cultures commingle.
“Some people really misunderstand each other,” he said. “Through more respect we can slowly, slowly become more peaceful.”
As the ceremony got underway, several observers began capturing the sight (and sound) of it using their cellphones. A few others snapped photos and shot video with larger cameras. And then there was second-year Kansas University student Carin Gavin, taking care to sketch the monks as they tended to their project.
Gavin, who grew up around Washington, D.C., and graduated high school in California, attended last year’s mandala ceremony, documenting it each day in one of her notebooks.
“I like the way they gesture and the shapes they make when the hunch over,” she said. “The mandala process is incredible. Their hands are just so trained.”
During brief respite, the contents of Gavin’s open notebook snagged a monk's attention.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he said. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”