10 things you should know about Prayer Flags

Regardless of where you hike in the Himalaya you are bound to come across a ridge or rocky pass festooned in a rainbow of colour, as though a giant hand adorned the snowy peaks with splashes of bright red, yellow, blue, green and white. These are known as Prayer flags and are not simply pretty adornments. They have a very significant meaning and are grounded in Buddhist tradition.

The history of the flags is varied; some maintain that they date to the Bon of Tibetan Buddhism who used very bright coloured cloth in their religious ceremonies. Others claim that they date to pre-Bhuddhist traditions, when flags were used in shamanistic healing ceremonies to appease the local spirits.

In Tibetan they are known as Dar Cho: dar meaning to increase life, fortune and health, and cho meaning all sentient beings.

The meaning of the colours

Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five colours each representing an aspect of our universe. The blue symbolizes the sky; red is for fire and the sun, and green for water. Yellow represents earth and white, is for the air and the wind. They normally appear in the order of blue, white, red, green and then yellow, repeated along a string.

The relevance of the Five

All flags come with each of the five colours repeated. In addition to the meaning of the colour, they also represent each aspect of our world in terms of North, South, East, West and the Center of the universe. This means that each flag is intimately connected with the other, and should never be cut up and used individually. It is about keeping the world in perfect balance and harmony.

The written texts

Apart from the colour, each flag has specific texts printed on it in the form of mantras, sutras or prayers.

Mantras are essentially sacred words often repeated over and over again in meditation. It comes from two separate words, “man,” which means mind, and “tra,” which means transport or channel. Combined it refers to messages conveyed through the mind. The most popular mantra is that of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum;’ the most ubiquitous mantra. Directly translated it means, “the jewel is in the lotus,” however it  has many associated meaning.. Apart from prayer flags it is often found carved onto rocks, Mani walls and on prayer wheels.  Each syllable represents a colour, each an emotion and each an essence of perfection.

Sutra is the sankrit for string, and reflects the quintessence that the verses and texts in sutras are strung together.

Finally, prayers are a form of directed communication with the Bhudda and the universe, to the essence of human good. They are like vows or invocations.

Putting this together, the most commonly imprinted inscriptions on prayer flags are Sutras and Mantras.

The symbols

The wind horse is a symbol of the human soul, and embodies well-being or good fortune. This is a pivotal symbol, and on prayer flags it often appears in the company of the four animals of the cardinal directions. These are the dragon, which represents power; the garuda (a wise eagle-like bird) which represents wisdom, the tiger representing confidence and the snow lion, displaying fearlessness.

Where should they be hung?

Given the content of the flags, their sacred design and their representation, they should be treated with respect. Thus they should not be left to lie on the ground where they can be trampled. Instead they should be hung with the purity of intention they deserve and this means outside or wherever a the breeze will catch them. They are often hung near religious sites like temples and holy places, mountain tops and monasteries. This means that if you happen to come along any lying on the ground in the Himalaya, a true act of respect would be to lift them off the ground.

How should they be hung?

Simply adding a few prayer flags to a large flurry of them on a mountain top in the Himalaya or even in the garden of your own home without giving any thought to their meaning, defies the purpose of the flag. They should be hung with the intention of universal happiness, and good fortune for all.

Devotees believe that windy days and sunny mornings are the most auspicious times to put up new flags, as are holy days.

The importance of the wind

With the wind horse symbolic on most flags, the wind is an integral part of the flags. As the powerful energy of the wind blows, prayers and intentions are carried across the universe to all sentient beings. Thus it is not the flags that carry the prayers, but the wind.

The importance of the sun

As the sun rises each day and reflects its light on the flags they slowly fade and along with the wind that carries the prayers, the fabric starts to fray. Just as humans grow old and wither and slowly fade away, so too do prayer flags, often leaving a tattering of old faded and frayed fabric. Which leads us to the question of what do with an old frayed and withered flag?

Taking the flags down.

Removing the flags at the end of their life should be done with the same respect as the day they were first hung. Old prayer flags should be carefully removed so that they do not touch the ground and then carefully burned so that the smoke from the fire carries the last of their blessings to heaven. 

Giving or receiving flags

Being given a set of flags is often considered more auspicious than buying them yourself and often serves as a wonderful gift to a person who understands or wishes to learn about the essence of the flags.

The flags are imbued with words of love, kindness, respect; invoking patience, wisdom and compassion, purity of the mind, body and soul. They represent the true essence of our mankind and the cycle of life and death; youth and fragility. They are the prayers and the wind carries them into the universe.

Debra Bouwer

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