Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags, History & Symbolism - Owlcation - Education
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Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags, History & Symbolism

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Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth.

Darchor-style prayer flags in Jiuzhaigou valley

Darchor-style prayer flags in Jiuzhaigou valley

What are prayer flags?

Tibetan prayer flags, found in many parts of the Himalayas, are an important part of the Buddhist culture in Tibet (now part of China) and parts of Nepal. These flags can be seen dotted throughout the mountainous regions of China, Nepal, Bhutan, and northern India. Prayer flags are of great importance to the people of these regions as well as mountain climbers.

Many climbers leave these flags at the summit of Mount Everest so the wind can spread prayers and mantras to all.

An interesting aspect of prayer flags is that they are not used in other branches of Buddhism. This is because of the possibility that the flags have their origins in Bön, a religion practiced in Tibet before the existence of Buddhism.

Prayer flags in the Annapurna region

Prayer flags in the Annapurna region

History of Prayer Flags

While prayer flags are used mostly in Tibetan Buddhism, they actually have their roots in India where sutras were written on cloth. The cloth on which these sutras were written were brought into Tibet around the year 1040, although Tibetan Buddhists had heard stories of the flags' existence for over 200 years.

When the flags were first created in India, the practice of printing on cloth was a fairly new idea. Because of this, when the flags were brought to Tibet, the Tibetan people were also taught how to print on cloth.

Sadly, after China took control of Tibet in 1950, the Tibetan people lost many freedoms and rights that they enjoyed when Tibet was an independent country. Since then, there has been a decay in the religion, identity, and culture of the Tibetan people.

Prayer flags are now highly discouraged by the Chinese government, but many still fly proudly over the Himalayan landscape. However, because of the changes that took place after Chinese control, many traditional prayer flag designs have been lost forever.

When to Hang Prayer Flags

It is important to be careful of the date when hanging prayer flags. According to Tibetan tradition, if the flags are put up on a "bad" astrological date or any other "bad" type of day, they may bring bad wishes for as long as they fly.

The best days to hang Tibetan prayer flags are sunny, yet windy days. On these days, the morning is the best time to hang flags. Each year, old prayer flags are replaced with new ones after the Tibetan new year.

Lungta prayer flags at Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Lungta prayer flags at Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Designs, Colors, and Meanings

There are two types of prayer flags: lungta and darchor. The lungta (meaning 'wind horse') flag is made up of multiple square or rectangular cloth pieces strung on a line. When flown, these flags are often strung in a diagonal line at monasteries, stupas, and rocks on mountain passes.

Darchor flags are generally made up of one large, rectangular cloth that is hung up on a pole along the longest edge of the flag. Darchor flags, resembling a banner, are said to carry wishes of longevity, fortune, health, and money on the wind.

Lungta flags often come in a string of five flags, one in each flag color. The colors are meant to represent the elements: blue representing the sky, white representing the wind, red representing fire, green representing water, and yellow representing the earth. All colors are used on a string in order to bring harmony through a balance of the five elements.

Contrary to popular belief, prayer flags do not carry prayers to gods, but rather are used to promote peace, strength, compassion, and wisdom. The wind is said to carry these messages from the flags to all people.

© 2011 Melanie

Comments

Elizabeth Loeb on March 26, 2019:

Is there a type of fabric they are made from traditionally?

( silk or Indian cotton)

Anonymous on November 30, 2018:

Very interesting topic. :)

Prajwol, NepaCrafts on November 10, 2018:

Thank you so much sharing about the prayer flags from the Himalaya. Great Article.

G on May 12, 2017:

Awesome article!

Allie on April 30, 2017:

My prayer flag was shredded in a storm last night and was ripped done on one side. How do I honor my flag?

Wesley Meacham from Wuhan, China on February 16, 2013:

Interesting article. I saw many of these flags up close in Yunnan province and also the western part of Sichuan province while I was there. I haven't noticed them in any other parts of China that I've been to. This makes sense though since thought provinces boarder Tibet. I'd been curious about them ever since but my Chinese companion who was with me at the time didn't know anything about them. Nor have any of my Chinese friends whom I've asked since then.

I had not known that they were "discouraged" although, honestly it doesn't seem like there is much in China that is discouraged that doesn't happen anyway. I have been told that there are a great many differences between the practices of the Tibetan Buddhists and those in other parts of China.

So far I've not been able to go to Tibet. Seems like every time I'm able to travel someone sets himself on fire and the PRC restricts access to foreigners. Last summer I was traveling with a Chinese friend and the travel agencies told us that we could not go together as part of the same tour group.

Again, interesting article. Voting up.

KenWu from Malaysia on October 25, 2012:

Awesome writeup! Those Tibetan Buddhism Temples that I have visited here over my place will have the flags hung up. I thought they are used as decorative item and now I know why.

itsmonkeyboy from London, UK on December 29, 2011:

Fantastic hub, and belated congratulations for your Hub of the Day! I have some buddhist prayer flags upstairs from some of my trips to Nepal. I didn't know about the right/wrong times to put them up though so thank you for letting me know, just in case I ever get around to putting them up!

Brittany Kennedy from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 29, 2011:

Congrats on getting the Hub of the Day! This one is well-deserved. I love the way you formatted this information and the pictures you included. Excellent job, Melbel! Keep up the great work!

Deborah Demander Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on December 28, 2011:

What an interesting hub. I never knew the history behind prayer flags. Thanks.

Namaste.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 28, 2011:

Thank you for the information. I didn't know about prayer flags before I read your hub, but the idea of distributing messages of peace and compassion to the world from a flag blowing in the wind sounds wonderful! Congratulations on hub of the day.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on December 28, 2011:

Congrats on Hub of the Day! This was very interesting, and I voted it UP, etc. Thanks for sharing this.

mljdgulley354 on December 28, 2011:

I also have never heard of prayer flags. This is really an awesome hub. Congratulations on hub of the day

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on December 28, 2011:

Woohoo! Beautiful hub and congrats on hub of the day! I love how you highlight the beauty of the Tibetan culture, too. :)

Cara from New York on December 28, 2011:

I have prayer flags but sadly I am not allowed to hang them outside. Someday I will. For now it is folded, neatly on my bookshelf. Lovely Hub.

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 28, 2011:

I had recently became aware of these ans I wondered about them, You have cleared that up. I think they are truly beautiful and to hear that they are symbolic makes them even more beautiful.

Congratulations on hub of the day.

Melanie (author) from Midwest, USA on December 28, 2011:

Thank you so much for all the thoughtful comments! It's really exciting to have another one of my hubs featured as the hub of the day!

Yes, Vinaya, this actually was made into a podcast about a month and a half ago. You can check it out here:

http://blog.hubpages.com/2011/11/the-meaning-behin...

It's so awesome that you remembered. :) I need to find a way to somehow embed it (either the actual podcast or the link to it) in this hub. :)

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 28, 2011:

I learned so much. This has made me want to do research on my own to find out even more. Thank you so much for sharing this interesting information.

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on December 28, 2011:

So interesting - I did a lot of research on Tibet for a college term paper. I didn't know about these flags - I bet they are beautiful! The idea doesn't surprise me because they are such peaceful people and they are more interested in living harmoniously together than keeping up with the Jones':) Fascinating subject and writing!

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on December 28, 2011:

Great Hub Mel! There is a (Cambodian) Buddhist Temple literally just up the street from where I live! I go there in the summertime for Khmer (Cambodian) New Year and they have the flags out. Awesome Hub! Congrats on the Hub of the Day!

JSMatthew~

Celtic Mist on December 28, 2011:

A most interesting article. I have seen prayer flags in a hilly region of Ireland and was unclear of their origin and use. Thank you so much.

Cocoa Fly Fishes from Wherever the fish are! on December 28, 2011:

Thank you so very much for honoring this special Tibetan practice with a well researched & well written hub, my dear! *wow*

You made my day a complete delight in sharing this hub.

Really, it should, indeed, be "Hub of the Day"! Good call, Hub Faeries! *wink*

Thank you. Buddhism is near & dear to my heart. I appreciate your hub entirely.

Namaste.

Warm regards...Cocoa Fly Fishes

Leanne1783 from Bradford, United Kingdom on December 28, 2011:

Very interesting hub, I have just come back from a visit to Nepal and India and found the culture fascinating. I saw the prayer flags everywhere they are very colourful and beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on December 28, 2011:

melbel,

What an interesting Hub, beautifully illustrated! I love reading about cultures and traditions other than my own. Thanks for publishing this.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on December 28, 2011:

If I'm not mistaken this hub was featured in a podcast. Cloth piece is very important aspect of Buddhism. Not only Buddhists make extensive use of prayer flags, but also have a tradition of offering khata, a silk stole, to the teacher. In Nepal when people want to honor someone, they offer khata.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on December 28, 2011:

I must confess, I have never heard of prayer flags before. I like that they are meant to "carry" peace, strength, wisdom and compassion to people. I bet the flags in the photo of the valley must look awesome on a sunny and windy day!

Marisa Hammond Olivares from Texas on December 28, 2011:

Very interesting melbel. Great info. I love the colors and symbolism for each as well as the message they carry.

Thank you for sharing and congratulations on the Hub of the Day!

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on December 28, 2011:

Congrats on Hub Of The Day Mel!! :)

The Writers Dog on December 28, 2011:

Thank you for a wonderful Hub. Not many Westerners understand prayer flags unless they are students of the Dharma. Voted up.

Rael Casalme from Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 28, 2011:

Very interesting information here. I actually believed those flags are used to carry prayers to gods. That is the usual, right?

Watching the flags sway back and forth by the dictates of the wind has somehow a relaxing effect to anyone. Oh, I want to sleep underneath it. :)

Thanks for clearing this up.

Melanie (author) from Midwest, USA on December 09, 2011:

Thank you both for the great comments!

@Simone - Aren't they beautiful? I learned about prayer flags at this Nepali store in my hometown. They have such beautiful things there and it's seriously a learning experience every time I stop in there.

@roc6 - That one is absolutely beautiful. I had some lung ta prayer flags as they're easier to hang. I would definitely like to hand some darchor flags, they're really pretty, too.

Rose from Cape Town, South Africa on November 21, 2011:

Very interesting, I have the wind horse one and the one with what looks like one of the deities on it.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 04, 2011:

I have ALWAYS wondered about this! What a great Hub. I'm so glad you wrote it! I already loved Tibetan prayer flags, but now I can truly appreciate them!