Brief Guide to Tibetan Prayer Flags
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
A prayer flag is a piece of cloth that has mantras, prayers, and auspicious symbols on it. The spiritual energies and vibrations on this are activated when it makes contact with the wind, which carries the good vibrations with it, bestowing the blessing of happiness, health and good fortune on to all who are touched by it. Contrary to popular misconception, prayer flags are not meant to carry an individual’s prayers to the Gods. Instead, they are for the collective good of all sentient beings.
A symbol of peace, compassion and wisdom, prayer flags are traditionally tied in places with ample breeze or wind. The wonder of this spiritual device lies in its simplicity and the fact that it’s propelled by the natural energy of the wind, the very breath of nature. These are undoubtedly the most beautiful, selfless, silent, and secular sacred systems for collective wellbeing.
What are the different types of prayer flags?
There are two kinds of prayer flags. The first if the horizontal variety named Lung ta, derived from the Tibetan term “Wind Horse.” And the other is the vertical one called Darchor, that roughly translated means "to increase life, fortune, health and wealth to all sentient beings".
A Lung-ta is either square or rectangular in shape, and comes in sets of five or its multiples. They are joined together at the top with a string. These are usually red, green, blue, yellow, and white. You can see them in abundance in ridges, mountain passes, between trees, rocks and also on top of monasteries, stupas and temples, especially in Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and other parts of the Himalayas. These are often hung diagonally, from a higher to lower point.
Darchor, on the other hand, is mostly a large rectangular flag, that’s used individually. It’s attached vertically to a wooden pole, the height of which can range from about 3 to 60 feet. These are planted in the ground, and are either a single solid colour or have all 5 colours sewn together, horizontally, into one flag. Some of them have coloured streamers with special mantras, meant to turbo charge the power of the prayers written on the body of the flag.
Clusters of plain white Darchors can often be seen around monasteries and sacred sites. Others are planted in the mountains, landmark or memorial sites, at key locations in monasteries, and sometimes on the roofs of homes.
Prayers flags come in dozens of categories such as the Wind Horse for Good Fortune. Victorious Banners to overcome obstacles and problems. Health and Longevity Flags, Wish Fulfilling Flags and Praise to the 21 Taras and the Vast Luck Flag.
What do the colours of the prayer flag signify?
Prayer flags come in 5 key colours that symbolize the natural elements and basic energies in the psycho-cosmic world. Human bodies and everything else in the physical world are also composed of these five basic elements. On a spiritual level, these basic energies correspond with the 5 Buddhist Wisdoms. The balancing of these is believed to stimulate health, harmony, and enlightenment.
The Lung-ta has all 5 colours and is a reflection this comprehensive system. The colour order is always yellow, green, red, white and blue. In vertical displays, the yellow goes at the bottom and the blue at the top.
Darchor, usually being a single piece of cloth, is in one of these colours. From what I’ve seen across the Himalayan belt, these are particularly popular in white. Here’s a quick look at what each colour represents…
Blue: Sky and Space
White: Air and Wind
What is printed on prayer flags?
Prayer flags have spiritual mantras, texts, and symbols that are rooted in the most profound concepts of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. The symbol system of prayer flags is way too complex and nuanced to be explained here. But it's my attempt to condense it without losing the essence. Listed below are brief meaning of some of the more common symbols.
The Wind Horse or Lung-ta
The most commonly found symbol at the centre of a prayer flag is a Wind Horse, also called a Lung-ta. This symbolizes speed and transformation from bad to good fortune. This horse bears the 3 Flaming Jewels on its back. These signify the 3 pillars of Buddhism, which are Buddha, the Awakened or Enlightened One, Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha or the path to Enlightenment. And Sangha or Buddhist community or those who have attained enlightenment and help another person do the same.
The Eight Auspicious Symbols or Tashi Targye
These are the oldest group of symbols that originated in the Pali and Sanskrit orthodox texts on Indian Buddhism. They were later carried forward to Tibetan Buddhism. These are Right-coiled White Conch, Precious Parasol, Victory Banner, Golden Fish, Dharma Wheel, Auspicious Drawing, Vase of Treasure, and the Lotus Flower. Each one represents an auspicious quality that creates wellness, abundance, and good fortune. Although not part of this group, the Vajra is another frequently found symbol, and when on white, it represents a transcendent quality and the clarity of a diamond.
There are various other groups of symbols that also find their way on to prayer flags, although less frequently. These are some of the more often seen ones:
-- The Union of Opposites that are mythological beings, formed from rival pairs of animals, created to symbolize harmony.
-- The Seven Precious Possessions of a Monarch collectively symbolize secular power.
-- Deities and Enlightened Beings are depictions of the deities comprising Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. And Enlightened Beings like Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, and Milarepa.
-- The Four Dignities is a group of four powerful, though mostly mythical animals. These are The Dragon, Snowlion, Garuda and Tiger. These represent principles of confidence, wisdom and compassion into daily life, and are placed on each corner of a flag, either as symbols or in words.
Traditional mantras surround the central symbol. These are one of the hundreds of traditional mantras, recited by any one of the three Bodhisattvas or Gurus – Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. And Manjusri, known for transcendent wisdom.
In addition to mantras, prayers for a long life of good fortune are often included for the person who mounts the flags. These range from a single seed syllable like OM, and can extend to long hundred-syllable mantras. The oldest and most popular Buddhist mantra on the flags is Om Mani Padme Hum.
Is there a practical or philosophical message behind prayer flags?
The prayers and blessings sent out and dispersed by prayer flags become a permanent and eternal part of our universal consciousness. But the flags themselves slowly fade, tear, and surrender to the elements of nature. Just like all sentient beings, they too are mortal. Much like life itself is a continual cycle, where the old is replaced by the new, Buddhists regularly mount new flags alongside the old, as a sign of renewing their hopes. This is a way of graciously accepting the ongoing cycle of life, and embracing life with all its changes, ups and downs, good, and bad.
What is the history of prayer flags?
It is believed that centuries ago, Indians wrote their scriptures on cloth banners that were carried to other parts of the continent as prayer flags. Others argue that prayer flags originated at the time of Gautama Buddha, between 6th to 4th century B.C. and that his litanies and teachings were used by divine beings in their battle against the demigods. A battle of Good verses Evil. Later, Buddhist monks in India were seen carrying such banners as a way to announce their commitment to non-violence.
Around 800 A.D. Buddhism arrived in Tibet. Over time, prayer flags were introduced and as traditions of Tibetan Buddhism deepened, so did the form and content of the prayer flags. Although there is no documented proof, there is a theory that says that prayer flags existed in Tibet prior to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet, and were part of the ancient Bon tradition. Bonpo Shamans, in their healing rituals supposedly used coloured cloths that corresponded with different elements. These colours represented earth, water, fire, air, and space – elements that were considered the essence of our physical and spiritual bodies, as well as everything around us. Properly arranging them around a ailing person was said to harmonise the elements, and help restore balance and well being.
The Bonpo Shamans were also known to use colored flags to appease the local gods and spirits, that were believed to rule mountains, lakes, rain and the like. Regular rituals and offerings were their way of beseeching their blessings and avoiding their wrath.
It’s hard to know when sacred symbols actually made their way on to the prayer flags. Bonpos had an oral tradition of transmitting knowledge, so it’s unlikely they wrote any prayers or mantras on the flags. However, some symbols on Buddhist prayer flags certainly seem to have Bonpo origins, opening the possibility that they may have painted symbols on their prayer flags.
How are prayer flags made?
Prayers flags were originally hand painted and since they were done one piece at a time, one had to commission them well in advance, at a pretty fancy price. Around the 15 A.D. Wood Blocks or Block Printing as we now know it, was developed in China. This made it possible to reproduce scores of identical prints at a much faster pace, and a cheaper price. It also made it possible to preserve traditional designs, which could now be passed on to future generations.
This method of printing is still used in the printing of prayer flags, though newer techniques are slowly killing this tradition. Screen Printing and photographically etched Zinc Blocks produce finer details than the Wood Blocks, and their demand is rising. Even natural fabrics are now being replaced by synthetic and silk, and it’s sad to see the beautiful balance created by the ecological wisdom of the ancients, destroyed in such a way. If you are buying Prayer Flags, I urge you to buy the traditionally produced ones. After all, the whole point of these flags is to spread good fortune and wellbeing to all – so why exclude our planet?
Who designs prayer flags?
Irrespective of how or who made the prayer flags, they could not tamper with the sanctity of the designs. Buddhist Masters carefully drew out these designs, and much consideration was given to the placement of each element. Experimentation in these matters has been considered sacrilegious.
Did the Chinese occupation of Tibet have any bearing on prayer flags?
When the Chinese invaded Tibet, they ruthlessly destroyed much of Tibetan culture. Being Communist and anti religion, they came down heavily on religion, monasteries and anything to do with spirituality and religious practices, including the custom of prayer flags. They only allowed a trickle to remain alive, just enough to showcase to the world.
Monasteries and cultural workshops were plundered and destroyed. There are several accounts of Chinese soldiers using ancient instruments, art, scriptures, and Wood Blocks to build fires. By doing so, they literally reduced thousands of years of tradition, sacred literature, history, and iconography to cinders.
Many Tibetans who fled tried to carry whatever they could of their heritage. But Wood Blocks were heavy and the refugees had to escape on foot, escaping Chinese bullets, traversing snow peaks and rough weather, making it hard for them to carry such weight on them. But the Tibetan refugees and a few Nepali Buddhists kept alive whatever they could salvage of the tradition. They set up small units that manufactured prayer flags in Nepal and India. These units mostly continue to use Wood Blocks on cotton, and employ the indigenous population.
Is there are certain way to hang and handle Prayer Flags?
Prayer flags are scared devices and must be treated with respect and managed with special care. Here are some points you may want to keep in mind:
Carry and store them with care
Do not soil them
Do not keep them on the bare floor or with food, shoes, brooms, or in toilets
Do not hang them indoors, in shafts or in stuffy places with no breeze. This violates the basic premise behind prayer flags and will not activate or spread their energies
Prayers flags are not meant to be used as napkins or coasters
Please do not stitch them on to clothes or be used as articles of clothing
Flags normally have a life of a few months to a few years, depending on their quality and where they are hung. Once they succumb to the elements, you should burn or bury them, after replacing them with new flags.
Is there an auspicious time to hang prayer flags?
Although prayer flags can be hung at anytime of the year, during the hours of natural light, there are a few days that are considered especially auspicious. These are:
The first day of a full moon
The tenth day of the lunar month
The tenth day following a new moon
The twenty-fifth day of the lunar month
Are Prayer Flags Only For Buddhists?
Although Prayer Flags are rooted in Buddhist traditions, they reflect one of the most secular spiritual traditions, and are for the good of all sentient beings. You can be from any faith. You can be an atheist or an agnost, as long as you feel for the well being of others with whom you share the planet, feel free to offer prayer flags to this world.
Where can I buy Prayer Flags?
Prayer flags are available in various places in the North and North East India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. You can still find a few in Tibet but they are not that freely available. However not everyone can travel to these places to pick their flags and so, thanks to the internet, there are numerous sites that sell these.
Many of them are selling flags printed on polyester, nylon and other synthetic blends, and claim they are doing so for better printing quality. Personally, just like the Tibetans, Spitians, Ladakhis, Bhutanese and various other Himalayan people, I am a great fan of the simple cotton Prayer Flags. They are nice and gauzy and allow the wind to pass through them easily. These are mostly made by indigenous communities or at small cottage industries, using natural fabrics, and are therefore more in sync with nature, sustainability, and spirituality.
A word of caution when buying your Prayer Flags online -- compare a few sites before ordering. Much of the price difference is not owing to the quality but the story spun around it. For example, some people charge a premium as they claim to print their flags at ‘strong energy field days’ like eclipses. Quite a difficult fact to ascertain!
Lastly, there are many whimsical versions of flags that are being sold as prayer flags. Some just have an image of Buddha, others have individual alphabets that combine to make words like Peace, Love, Happiness etc. Please be aware that these are not what prayers flags are really meant to be. Buy them for their whimsy if you like, but not for the power and blessing they carry.
Bless and stay blessed!
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