Past the Ionic columns at the entrance to the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the din of the crowd of visitors encircling the Tibetan sand mandala competed with the Indian classical music coming from the gallery. Nestled among the banyan trees along the waterfront, the museum has brought art to Tampa from the Orient with the Sacred India, Sacred Tibet exhibition.
Presenting diverse forms of artwork from India and Tibet, the exhibit captures the concept of variety, showcasing Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, paintings and sand mandalas ranging from the 10th to the early 20th centuries.
The sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja, meaning “the king of dance,” is a statuesque piece. Standing solitarily in the center of the Cannova Gallery, the piece depicts the four-armed Shiva in his dancing posture, performing the divine dance of creation and destruction.
Shiva represents the rhythmic movement of the entire cosmos, dancing in a circle of flames and lifting one of his legs off the ground, the other pinning down a demon that symbolizes human ignorance. Shiva’s upper right hand holds a small drum – called Damaru in Sanskrit – that
symbolizes the sound of creation. The upper left hand holds a fire – or Agni – signifying destruction. His second right hand is poised in the Abhaya mudra, displaying fearlessness and protection from evil for those who are righteous. The second left hand points toward the raised foot, which signifies upliftment and salvation.
As Nataraja, Shiva performs the classical Tandava dance. The surrounding flames symbolize the universe and his usually matted tresses are shown to loosen during the dance and crash into the heavenly bodies, shattering them.
Tibetan Sand Manadala
The Great Hall of the museum houses a beautiful sand mandala, created by the visiting Tibetan monks. A Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the sand mandala symbolizes the transitory, ephemeral nature of things. The mandala is created meticulously over a period of days then systematically destroyed in the end.
The monks begin by drawing a geometric pattern on a wooden board. Sand granules dyed with various vibrant colors are then used to create the mandala. Upon chanting the daily prayers, a team of monks works together, creating one section of the design at a time while working outward from the center.
One of the most intriguing aspects of sand mandalas is the technique used to create them. A small, metallic funnel with ridges is filled with the sand. Another piece of metal, flattened at the tip, is made to run along the ridges of the funnel. This friction creates vibrations in the funnel, causing the sand to flow out with pinpoint precision.
“The monks Drupon Thinley, Ningpo Rinpoche and Lama Konchog Gyaltshen have come down here from a monastery in Baltimore specifically do to this sand mandala of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion,” said Richard Weissman of the Ratnashri Sangha of Tampa Bay. “Lama Drupon left Tibet to escape persecution from the Chinese and walked across the Himalayas to India where he was trained.”
At first glance the sand mandala looks like an elaborate geometrical pattern to which the colored sand particles impart various hues. The design is a 2-D pictorial representation of the 3-D house of Chenrezig, as if being viewed from the top.
The monks commenced the mandala Nov. 20 and completed it Nov. 25. The day it was finished, the mandala was destroyed. The monks use an instrument called a Vajra to scrape the sand. They then release the collected sand in the bay.
“This is done to remind us of the truth of impermanence, just like the impermanence of our body. Vajra Master Drupon will destroy the mandala and release the sand into Tampa Bay, returning it back into nature,” said Weissman, explaining the ceremonial nature of the destruction of the mandala. “This dissolution, this dispersed sand causes the blessings to spread out to the Tampa Bay region and thereafter to the whole world.”
Anne Shamas, docent for the MFA, explained the lighting in the sculpture display housed in the Stenquist Gallery of the museum:
“The lights in this part of the gallery are kept very dim because the artwork is very susceptible to light,” she said. “The paintings on woven silk need to be protected from the incident light.”
To augment the Eastern ambience of the museum, young dancers from the Nritya Dance Academy performed the Bharatanatyam, a form of classical Indian dance. Artists seated in the Sculpture Garden decorated visitors’ hands with Indian Henna tattoos while they listened to presentations illustrating the various facets of Hinduism and Buddhism.