Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags, History & Symbolism
Prayer flags, found in many parts of the Himalayas, are an important part of Tibetan (and Nepali) Buddhist culture. These flags can be seen dotted throughout the mountainous regions of Tibet (China), Nepal, Bhutan, and in parts of 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.
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.
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.