A mandala on First Night

Tonight: For the annual New Year's Eve celebration in Annapolis, nine Tibetan monks create sand art that symbolizes balance and harmony.

December 31, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Forget about luggage-laden guests, bellhops and martini-sipping barflies. This week at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, the main attraction was slightly out of the ordinary - a group of nine Tibetan monks and more than a million grains of sand.

The monks, who traveled from a monastery in India to Annapolis last week, took up temporary residence at the hotel to craft a complex piece of art made out of colorful specks of sand.

Circling a small table in the conference room, the burgundy-robed monks hunkered over an intricate design made of sand called a mandala - a 2,000- year-old Tibetan symbol of balance and harmony in the world. It's so detailed and delicate, it seems even a slight breeze could sweep it away.

Using silver tools the shape of small flutes, the monks tapped on the tools' grooved edges to slowly release the sand onto the table, producing a shrill sound similar to a chorus of cicadas.

Early this evening - after four days of continuous work - the monks will complete the mandala. They will then dedicate it to Annapolis as part of First Night, the city's annual New Year's Eve celebration, and spread what they believe is its healing power in an unusual ceremony just before midnight.

Geshe Lobsang, director of the Atlanta-based Mystical Arts of Tibet, said the monks hope the mandala will bring peace in a post-9/11 world.

"Many people in this community, and everywhere, are still struggling to find security," he said. "The monks feel great about offering this symbol of healing."

Hailing from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, the monks are specially trained in the craft of mandala, having memorized the many different design possibilities - all of which represent harmony. They were invited to Annapolis by Lobsang, who will arrange for them to create mandalas at festivals in other cities over the next 11 months.

For Annapolis, the monks have made a mandala inspired by the Buddha Akshobhya that symbolizes unshakable resolve in a time of crisis.

"Our hope is to invoke the blessing of this particular Buddha to calm any possible disturbances or violence," said Lobsang.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Lobsang has helped coordinate visits from several groups of monks from the monastery who travel from India to make mandalas for arts festivals across the country.

13th First Night

The dedication of the mandala is just one of the many highlights of the 13th annual Annapolis First Night celebration, a day of art, music, dance and theatrical performances all over the city.

"We've had so many people call and ask us what not to miss, but it's too hard for me to say because everything will be spectacular," said Jennifer Krammes, executive director of First Night. "Those who attend will end up wishing they could be in more than one place at one time."

From courtrooms to the City Dock, 28 venues will offer activities and performances. This year, the event kicks off at a new venue, the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. The hall will be the host to First Act, a three-hour celebration for children offering face painting, storytelling, music and juggling.

In addition to the mandala, other First Night highlights include the Burdetsky family circus, a duo formerly of the Moscow Circus who juggle and train poodles to dance; Los Quetzales, a Mexican dance ensemble dressed in traditional costume; Gayle Danley, a slam poet who combines her readings with music; and a re-enactment of a lively conversation between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte about the Louisiana Purchase.

Krammes said that despite security concerns, First Night organizers expect a turnout of more than 25,000 this year, almost double last year's attendance.

To keep crowds safe in the wake of the recently elevated terror alert, Annapolis police are working with state police to step up security at all First Night venues. The city will increase its police presence at the event to 50 officers from the 30 on duty last year. In addition, the state will provide an undisclosed number of plainclothes officers.

"We've bumped up our security this year because of concerns," Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said at a news conference yesterday. "Wherever there are crowds there is a risk, so we've taken a lot of additional measures to keep safe."

First Night will culminate in a half-hour fireworks display in the skies over Annapolis harbor at midnight. But before attendees ring in the New Year, the Tibetan monks invite all guests to partake in the dismantling of their elaborate work of art.

Ceremonial procession

In a ceremony designed to symbolize the impermanence of life, the nine monks will scrape up the sand of their mandala and, with a collection of the colored grains, take part in the ceremonial procession to the City Dock.

There, they will give half the grains to First Night attendees as a blessing for personal health and happiness.

As for the rest of the sand, the monks will scatter it into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, where they believe it will spread peace, harmony and happiness.

"Once the monks are done with the mandala, their purpose is complete," said Lobsang. "Letting it go is a symbol of sending the divine wisdom back into the world."

First Night

Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight.

Event-day cost: $20 for adults; $10 for children 6 to 12; children younger than age 6 are admitted free.

Bring: a photo identification for admittance to events at some performance venues.

Parking: Parking is $6 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Free shuttle buses will run from the stadium, with the last bus leaving at 11 p.m. The last bus from Lawyers Mall to the stadium departs at 12:45 a.m. Parking at the City Dock will be prohibited. All metered spots will be open for those who arrive early.

Closure: Main Street will close to vehicles at 4:30 p.m.

Information: www. firstnight annapolis.org or CloseCall America First Nightline at 410- 268-8553.

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