SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Interpreting Visual Expressions of the Mandala

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

The mandala is one of the most intriguing artistic expressions of Asian art, in part also due to its contemporary interpretation. Of multivalent symbolism and working on different levels of religious practice, mandalas occur in almost uncountable forms, formats and functions. This course introduces and discusses the mandala, its variations, meanings and usage in the history of Buddhist art and architecture of Asia, with a main focus on South Asia and Tibet. Particular emphasis is given to the historical, cultural, and religious context of diverse visual expressions of the mandala.

The course will introduce the development of the concept of the mandala, discuss the elements that comprise a mandala depiction, evaluate its relationship to ritual practice, and consider its connection to imaginations of the cosmos. Different forms of the mandala depiction, mandala sets, and the usage of mandalic concepts in architecture will also be considered. Examples discussed include the twin mandalas in esoteric Buddhism of Japan, instructional drawings from the library cave in Dunhuang, Borobodur, and Vajravālī sets in Tibetan Buddism. In addition, the course explores select contemporaneous expressions of the mandala and their sources, as well as theoretical and methodological issues pertaining to the evaluation of the mandala.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Reproduce concentrated knowledge on a crucial theme of Asian art and its South Asian derivation.
  • Describe the mandala in its diverse visual manifestations and its variations over time and local.
  • Relate manifestations of the mandala within the wider nexus of the development of Buddhism and Buddhist art.
  • Assess and communicate the sources pertaining to the mandala, its manifestations, the current state of research, and open research questions.
  • Evaluate scholarly positions critically, and to articulate and justify ones own position within that debate.
  • Demonstrate critical awareness of visual evidence as a source for the study of historical developments, cultural interrelationships, and religious practice


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words critical book review (worth 30%)
  • One 2 000 words essay (worth 70%)

Suggested reading

  • Brauen, Martin (1997), The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism, (London: Serindia Publications).
  • Brauen, Martin (2009), Mandala, Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism, (Stuttgart, New York: Arnoldsche, Rubin Museum of Art).
  • Bühnemann, Gudrun (ed.) (2003), Maṇḍalas and yantras in the Hindu traditions, Leiden ; Boston: Brill) xvii, 303, [16] of plates.
  • Davidson, Ronald M. (2002), Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a social history of the Tantric movement, (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • ten Grotenhuis, Elizabeth (1999), Japanese Mandalas. Representations of Sacred Geography, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press).
  • Huntington, John C. and Dina Bangdel (2003), The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, (Chicago: Serindia & Columbus Museum of Art).
  • Malandra, Geri Hockfield (1993), Unfolding a Maṇḍala. The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora, (New York: State University of New York Press).
  • Snellgrove, David L. (1987), Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan successors, (London: Serindia).
  • Tucci, Giuseppe (1961), The Theory and Practice of the Mandala, (London: Rider & Company).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules