Mandali is a new retreat centre located in the north of Italy that is opening early in 2017. Enjoying a beautiful mountaintop location above the town of Omegna on Lago d’Orta, the smallest of the Italian lakes, the centre can accommodate up to 60 people in a variety of rooms ranging from singles to ‘hermitage’ suites, all constructed in vernacular style along a ‘village street’. Facilities include a swimming pool, sauna and hot-tub, and a choice of spaces including the main temple building, which provides a hall and domed room above.
The 2 hectare grounds offer a variety of spaces for walks and contemplation, and the views over the lake are simply spectacular.
I was contacted by Mandali early in 2016 as they wanted to see if a location to sink a well could be found on the site to provide them with a water supply; they also wanted to construct a labyrinth as part of the facility. As I happened to be travelling to Bologna in March to attend the conference of the Italian Society of Dowsing and Radionics, it seemed a fortuitous meeting of circumstances, and I promptly postponed my return flight for a couple of days to arrange a trip to Mandali after the conference. Train travel times to and from Bologna meant that I only had a single afternoon on the site – not much time to dowse for a well and locate the site for a labyrinth, especially given that most of the area was a building site littered with stones, building materials and mounds of soil, but somehow I managed to dowse four likely borehole sites and pick the best spot for the labyrinth.
The spot I selected was not the area that Mandali had planned for the labyrinth, but one more on the northern edge of the site that they had earmarked for a secluded garden space. Their preferred spot was closer to the main temple building, but from a dowsing perspective it was not very energetic and did not have any good views of the surrounding landscape, which I felt was important if it was to incorporate any astronomical sightlines. It could have been made to work, but I felt sure there was a better location to be found.
As I wandered round the site, following my dowsing, my attention kept being drawn to a statue of the Madonna with child located just outside the northern boundary fence, which marked the start of a steep trail descending the hill towards the town of Omegna. This clearly had resonance for the Mandali community as the dome space in the main temple was called ‘Madonna’s dome’. On dowsing the area, I found a strong energy centre with blind spring (water dome), an energy ley running roughly east to west and one running from the Madonna statue. The spot also had good views to the surrounding mountains and the lake; perfect for including some sunrise or sunset alignments, which would be important components in energising the space and creating links with the local landscape. This was definitely the place! I quickly took some azimuths of likely sunrise and sunset positions with my compass and clinometer, backed up with a couple of useful theodolite phone apps that allow me to take a picture as well as recording the azimuth and elevation angles for further analysis and calculations back home.
When designing a labyrinth, I always try to become inspired by the Spirit of Place, and this was no exception. I had exchanged several emails with Cali and Wildrik, two of the 4 ‘keepers’ of Mandali, so had already established that they liked the Classical 7-circuit style and favoured an organic sort of construction using natural materials, and I had suggested that they might have enough smallish rocks left over from the building process to use for the walls, and use gravel or crushed slate for the paths. But what form should it take? A circular form was suggested by the shape of the space, and circles and arcs were a predominant theme throughout much of the Mandali layout, particularly in their logo comprising of several overlapping circles in a ‘flower of life’ form, so a concentric circular design would fit the space well. As it was likely that the labyrinth would be walked by several people at the same time, I was also leaning towards a ‘Baltic Wheel’-type layout where there is a quick exit route from the goal of the labyrinth. This allows easy processional walking of the labyrinth with a line of people without them having to fight past each other to walk back out. A larger goal area was also desirable as it would allow several people to gather in the centre of the labyrinth.
I also wanted to have some sort of stone marking the node point in the labyrinth (the central point where the lines cross); this not only acts as a focal point, it helps to ground any detrimental earth energies that otherwise might escape[i]. It would also emphasise the alignment of the labyrinth, which I had determined was to be towards the Madonna statue, so that when you entered the goal you would be facing the statue. The breakthrough came when I had the idea that it would be nice to incorporate the Mandali logo into the design somehow. I felt that it would lend itself to being engraved on a flat stone, possibly an old mill stone if one could be found, then I could place the standing stone into its central hole. However, it seemed that even a small mill stone would take up too much room at the node. But it would make a good ‘prayer stone’ marking the mouth of the labyrinth (a spot to pause before and after walking, a place to contemplate the walk to come or ponder the insights gained afterwards). On paper, I played around with this idea for a while, but even a modestly-sized mill stone would be too large for the available space outside the labyrinth area, there simply wasn’t enough room. But then I realised that by ‘opening up’ the basic labyrinth pattern to accommodate the millstone within its circumference, I could create something both novel and unique. I asked the Mandali team to keep a lookout for a suitable old millstone that might fit the bill. The size was fairly crucial – if it was too large or too small it would require introducing some ugly compromises to the layout to make it work.
It didn’t take long for the Mandali building team to come back to me with pictures of two old mill stones that they had found. The largest of these was just over two metres in diameter, which was the perfect size. Arrangements were made to purchase the stone and have it transported to the site. However engraving it with the Mandali logo was deemed too expensive, mainly because of the additional transport costs involved to get it to a machine engraving facility, so for the moment this has been deferred and it is hoped that they can find a local stonemason who can carve it by hand on site.
With the millstone secured, I could finalise the design and do the required calculations to produce a construction diagram of the labyrinth using a CAD package. This was not strictly necessary but it was a great help in visualising the final design and made it a lot easier when it came to the actual build as every angle and dimension was predetermined.
The ‘open plan’ entrance to the labyrinth that the millstone created had an interesting effect on how the labyrinth was approached. Depending on which side you walked round, you either first came across the normal entrance path of the labyrinth, or the ‘shortcut’ from the goal. This created a sort of energetic symmetry within the labyrinth that makes it a very versatile design to work with. I made the centre the same diameter as the millstone to emphasise this, which left the paths a little over half a metre wide, a good width for walking.
The labyrinth build took place over the course of six days at Mandali in early November 2016. The centre had already hosted a mini-retreat as a ‘soft start’ before the official opening in Spring 2017, so were anxious to get the labyrinth finished before winter set in. Fortunately the temperature at that time of year wasn’t too cold during the day, even with the 850m altitude of Mandali. Ground preparation had already taken place according to my instructions, giving us a level circular area of the requisite 10m diameter and finished with gravel fines to work with.
I spent the first day on site checking my previous dowsing findings, measuring the space, and calculating azimuths to the surrounding mountains for sunrise and sunset alignments. Interestingly, many of these corresponded with prominent skyline features. I was particularly pleased with my calculated equinox sunset alignment, which (taking the elevated horizon into account) turned out to be a direct sightline to the tower of the local church!
Once thoroughly attuned to the space, the next step was to mark out the design. Having the exact dimensions and angles in my CAD drawing, this was a pretty straightforward exercise in geometry and measurement. I had made an experimental mark-up on a local Scottish beach a week or so before our trip to make sure I knew how to do it, and with the aid of some garden canes and string, it wasn’t too long before the design was scratched out on the surface.
We were fortunate in that the local builders who were working on Mandali had their yard only a hundred metres or so outside the complex, and soon a digger-load of cobbles for building the walls appeared on the site and we got down to work. I kept some of the larger stones for use as ‘outliers’ to mark the solar alignments, and the rest were dug slightly into the surface using smaller stones as packers. The Mandali team of Antonello, Marco and Andreas soon got the idea and joined in, ferrying stones to us and using picks to excavate channels for us to place the cobbles.
The next day, the team arrived with two diggers, the large one that had been bringing stones in, and a smaller one that they used to excavate the hole where the millstone was to go. This presented some translational difficulties with my exceedingly rusty Italian, but by means of much pointing and gesticulating, they soon had a large hole dug and levelled at the required depth, and then the big digger, equipped with a couple of lifting forks, gently lowered the mill stone into place. The energy of the labyrinth, which had been a little ‘jangly’, instantly felt much more settled. My dowsing confirmed that the stone was exerting a strong grounding influence exactly as planned, so much so that I would no longer need to install a standing stone.
Throughout the build, the weather had been holding up well with generally sunny days, albeit a little chilly. The ground was pretty hard first thing in the morning, but by 9am or so it was soft enough to carry on working. However, on Day 4 we awoke to a blizzard outside the windows, with visibility of only a couple of metres. The ground at the labyrinth was frozen rock solid under a light covering of snow so there was nothing to do but wait until it had thawed out a little. Fortunately the snow passed quickly, and we were back at work by 10am, well wrapped up against the cold.
Some last-minute concerns had been expressed regarding my preferred walking surface of crushed slate. It was felt that this would be too noisy and hazardous to walk on barefoot as it might cut people. Having used this before and having seen several other labyrinths using it, I knew this was not the case. Slate is quieter than gravel to walk on and is a more stable surface. It is also a very frangible stone and even the sharpest edge is more likely to crumble than actually cut flesh – a point I demonstrated convincingly by laying out a short path of crushed slate and stomping up and down on it with bare feet, followed by repeated attempts to cut my wrists with the edge of a broken piece! Needless to say, the demonstration was effective and some slate ordered. Slate is not that common in this area where most roofs are red terracotta tiles, but the Mandali accommodation buildings had been roofed with a lovely blue slate, so using the same slate on the labyrinth made a nice connection.
Enthused by the arrival of the slate in the afternoon, everyone on the team threw themselves into the build – although the fact that it was Friday afternoon and the locals didn’t want to work on the weekend might have had something to do with it. Shovels and rakes appeared, and barrow-loads of slate were ferried in and distributed around the labyrinth, so that by sunset we were suddenly looking at a completed labyrinth! All that remained was to tidy up the site and for me to do some energetic tuning up over the next couple of days to get ready for the opening ceremony.
The opening of the labyrinth was planned for Sunday night, as it was the night of the full ‘supermoon’, with the moon being at its closest approach to Earth. As geomancer and designer of the labyrinth, it was appropriate for me to conduct the ceremony. This was a specially significant ceremony for Mandali as they had not officially opened yet, so it was a great bonding opportunity for them to invite the families of all the workers on the site to attend.
Wrapped up well against the cold night air, we huddled round the fire pit where I gave a general overview of labyrinths and talked about the significance of the supermoon – ably translated by Valentina, one of the Mandali staff – and opened the circle by passing round a Quaich of fine malt whisky (Mandali is alcohol-free so this took some negotiation). Then we processed up to the labyrinth where I called the directions and opened the space for walking, leading the group hand-in-hand in a spiral dance into the labyrinth and then out. It felt both timeless and eternal, as though we were reaching across time to the ancestors by walking this ancient symbol that resonates so strongly with our subconscious. But it was too cold to do much ruminating on such profundities, and soon we all headed back to the centre for some warming soup and cups of tea.
On our last two mornings at Mandali, we went on a couple of exploratory walks of the area, the first time that we had ventured out of the compound. The first was to the hill behind the village, which turned out to be an ancient multivallate triple-bank-and-ditch hillfort (or possibly a henge?), atop which we found a medieval Christian cross, from which three strong energy leys radiated. Dowsing the direction of the leys, I found that two of them ran to other crosses on distant hilltops, just visible through the trees; while the third one seemed to run in the general direction of Mandali. The next day, we ventured down the very steep zig-zag path towards the lake, somewhat reminiscent of a pilgrim’s route with shrines at every turn. Half-way down this path we found a lovely small chapel dedicated to St. Mary.
I must emphasise that didn’t know the area at all and was completely unaware of both of those sacred sites before we walked to them. Yet when I returned home and plotted their GPS coordinates into Google Earth (recorded with Dowsing Mapper) , I was thrilled to discover that a line drawn between the two ran exactly through the centre of the labyrinth, and furthermore it corresponded to the energy ley that I had dowsed months before. A pretty impressive confirmation of my dowsing, I hope you’ll agree. Sometimes “upstairs” knows what to do better than you do yourself!
[i] See http://geomancygroup.org/sacred-space/labyrinths/stronachie/ for more on this.
The Mandali labyrinth is listed on the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator; however Mandali is a private retreat centre and access to the labyrinth is by permission only (unless you happen to be on a retreat there, of course).