Story, Magic, Puppets and Death: Mandarava

"Although my brother’s death was part of my personal story, it had a universal dimension to it"


Mandarava - storyteller, artist, puppeteer and Dharma practitioner talks to Maitrisiddhi about her creative journey and her upcoming Taraloka retreat, 'Stories of Wisdom, Stories of Life'  Header image: Machig Labdron by Amitajyoti



Maitrisiddhi: Lovely to see you, Mandarava! You’ve become well-known for use of stories, imagination and a creative immersive way in to Dharma practice. How did all that start?


Mandarava: Well, I’ve always been interested in creative expression, and I was drawn to theatre as well as the visual arts. But I was quite a shy person, so it took me a while to find my way with telling stories. I then got interested in the idea of making puppets. I realised I could use them to communicate through.

Handless Maiden retreat at Taraloka  2017

Above:  Puppets from 'Handless Maiden' retreat at Taraloka in 2017 


Then my brother became terminally ill. I was very involved with him through until his death. Some time after he died I wanted to tell his story, and my story in relationship to his. It helped me with my grief. So I made a little puppet of him, and others in my family. They were themselves, but they were also mythic characters. The whole thing gave me an ongoing connection with my brother: I could still somehow be in relationship to him, where ever he was, through this figure I had made. It was poignant and beautiful.

My mother and brother, both having now passed away off out at sea in a boat together

Above: My mother and brother, both having now passed away, off out at sea in a boat together 


The family puppets began as an installation which people came to see. I could see people wanting to engage with them. I began to move my brother-puppet a bit, he would look around at the audience. I could see how moving they were finding it. Someone’s young daughter even wanted to feed my mum-puppet. So,I realised how powerful this medium was. Although my brother’s death was part of my personal story, it had a universal dimension to it. It wasn’t just about my family. Anyone could relate to these themes of love, loss and grief. So, it unfolded organically.


That’s what’s most important for me is finding ways to connect with other people through a deep level of resonance. Whether it's with puppets or stories or rituals. I also love creating meaningful rituals. All of us share these universal human experiences and it feels important to me to come together, tune in to each other and share our humanity.


Myself in 2002 at my brothers grave with the puppet of him I had recently made

Above: Myself in 2002, at my brother's grave with the puppet of him I had recently made


For me, also, puppets connect me back to the origins of when people first made dolls. ‘Doll’ comes from the word ‘idol’ – modellings of gods, or figures that really meant something. Like we have Buddha images or rupas … you have a human form that you can build a relationship with, that really means something to you. And you can somehow communicate to others through that little figure. I remember also wanting the rupas to come to life like puppets and communicate with me.


I also began discovering myths and fairy stories. Often they have those universal themes that everyone can relate to. It might be initiation from innocence to maturity. Or having to leave home or let things go – a ‘going forth’. Then the character has to go through an ordeal or overcome obstacles to reach a place of wisdom. Often they have that sort of arc… frequently there’s an underworld passage and a coming out into a place of resolution or insight. So working with stories started with my family’s own story, and then unfolded out of that.

Above: Vajrayogini puppet and Padmasambhava sharing a shrine


Maitrisiddhi: What’s it like on retreats when you bring these stories to life?


Mandarava: People love a story! There’s a certain atmosphere that comes when you tell a story. Then you create the visual aspect as well – and there you are -you’re all in it together! What can happen is a sort of an enchantment. People often recall childhood times when the world seemed magical.


Maitrisiddhi: I remember on one of your retreats you’d turned the whole Taraloka shrine room into a forest. It was full of trees, and we were seated in a forest, hearing the story happen around us.


Mandarava: I love creating those sorts of worlds. People become really caught by the story, immersed in it. On ‘Stories of Wisdom, Stories of Life’ the retreat we’re running in August, we’re exploring something a bit different: the stories of three great Buddhist women practitioners - Mandarava (my namesake), Nangsa Obum, and Machig Labdron.

Alayasri, Sinhachandra and Mandarava

Above:  Alayasri, Sinhachandra and Mandarava setting up the shrine room at Taraloka


Maitrisiddhi: Mandarava’s one of the consorts of Padmasambhava, the great Dharma magician and yogin? She was a queen?


Mandarava: A princess, and a serious spiritual practitioner in her own right. She was born with auspicious signs and wanted to follow the Buddhist path, but her father wanted her to be a traditional princess, and she had many suitors. It’s a typical fairy story in a way! But she stays strong and true to her heart. In the end her father tries to compromise, and lets her practise as long as she stays safe in the palace. But then Padmasambhava turns up, and she runs away with him to follow the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).


Maitrisiddhi: I bet her father was not impressed at that!


Mandarava: No, he was not impressed. She gets thrown into a dungeon. It’s such a mythic story of overcoming obstacles. Then there’s Nangsa Obum - a Tibetan practitioner who has a jealous sister-in-law– she too has many obstacles to overcome – at one point she even comes back from the dead….


Maitrisiddhi: Even Cinderella doesn’t do that!

Machig Labdron painted by Amitajyoti

Above: Machig Ladron, painted by Amitajyoti


Mandarava: Then we’ll look at Machig Labdron too, a major female Tibetan figure and originator of the Chӧd practices and rituals. She has a large following, of men as well, which is very unusual for a woman in that traditional culture. She offers herself up to a massive cauldron the size of a universe. Her body turns to nectar, and she feeds all beings, including demons, by letting go of self-attachment. They’re all really surprised at first…. ‘why is she feeding us!’ Then all her demons transform into allies, and help her in her practice. Such an amazing all-encompassing story of transformation of body, speech and mind.


Maitrisiddhi: Machig Labdron’s story too has that fairytale quality…. fairy stories also blur the boundaries between life and death. You do get characters who go into the underworld, who enter death, and come out again, transformed.


Mandarava: Yes it’s the myth of the Bodhisattva Ideal, (becoming enlightened for the sake of all beings), the myth of Avalokitesvara…. and it’s an impossible myth. But the spirit of it is what’s important. It’s not realistic, but if you give yourself to it, surrender into that, it’s very powerful, and your being opens up. Not in a ‘I’ve got no boundaries and I’m not going to protect myself’ kind of way, but in the way of seeing what is ultimately fulfilling for us and what is ultimately of benefit to this suffering world.


‘Stories of Wisdom, Stories of Life’ is running 16 – 23 August 2024, led by Mandarava, Sinhacandra and Alayasri. It's open to all Triratna Regulars.