In an episode of the popular Netflix original, House of Cards, Tibetan monks are seen doing something very strange. They are making what seems to be a picture, but with colored dust that they seem to be scraping from chalk. The finished product late into the episode is rather beautiful, and very complex.
It’s something that even a painter would struggle to make, but the monks all worked on it together like they rehearsed it a thousand times. When it was done, they did another strange thing: they destroyed it. They collected the ‘sand’ and placed it into an urn-like container. We won’t speak of Tibetan sand painting, but there are similar aspects with the Navajo tribe.
Sand painting is thought to have originated in Southern Asia, and migrated over to the Pacific to the Americas thousands of years ago. This is seen in the way Tibetan and Buddhist monks, Australian Aborigines and Native Americans all practice sand painting in a similar way. However, experts are still not sure how, when and why Navajos began sand painting. The way they make these art forms are to them very spiritual, and they see the paintings themselves as living beings.
The Navajo use different rocks to achieve the different colors. For white, they use gypsum, yellow ochre, red by a mixture of charcoal and sandstone, and blue by a mixture of charcoal and gypsum. The colors achieved above are mixed some more to make even more complex colors such as brown and pink, and the Navajo learned how to add coloring agents such as cornmeal and pollen to achieve other colors.
As was said before, the Navajo make these paintings for sacred purposes only. As a matter of fact, they make these paintings so that a sick person can be healed. The medicine man will make paintings of the Holy People (Yeibicheii) and he will make some incantations so that the Yeibicheii will leave the painting and heal the patient.
These healing ceremonies can last days, and the patients will be asked to sit on the paintings in order for the spirits to have a proper channel to enter the person’s body. For each day, a brand new painting is made, as at the end of each day, the painting is destroyed.
The world only has some idea of how Navajo sand paintings are created, and they are somewhat of a mystery. It is considered blasphemous to have the sand paintings replicated, or to be shown just for show, which is why there are so few of them about. These paintings are done through memory, which represents the concentration of power. As a matter of fact, there are numerous paintings committed to a medicine doctor’s memory. The one he uses depends on the occasion and how sick the patient is.
At the end of each day, black lines which represent the power of the gods are placed over the painting. Corn pollen, which represents fertility is also placed all over the painting, and prayer feather wands are placed at different sections of the painting. When that is all done, it is destroyed.