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Buddhist prayer flags

Last modified: 2013-11-16 by rob raeside
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Prayer flags seen in Ladakh

In a visit to Ladakh and Zanskar, northern India, Ivan Sache observed the use of prayer flags by Buddhists.  He wrote:

A good description of prayer 'tools' in Tibetan Buddhism can be found in Alexandra David-Neel's famous book 'Voyage d'une Parisienne Lhassa' (1972). David-Neel was the first Western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa in 1924 and spent several years in Himalayan areas. She died in 1970, aged 101. Her books, and especially her interpretation of Buddhism, are controversial and she was accused of forgery and exaggeration in the description of her travels. Anyway, her descriptions of the Tibetan peoples and villages are still a lively and accurate description of what I have seen in Ladakh.

'The Tibetans enjoy decorating bridges, roads and other noticeable areas of their country with poetical, religious or philosophical writings. Some travellers deemed this tradition ridiculous: I cannot understand them. A few lines of subtle poetry, a wise thought carved on a picturesque rock, the picture of a meditating Buddha, painted in a cave or even waving in the wind at a crossroad, a simple paper ribbon charged with the ancient sanskrit mandala 'Sarva mangalan' (Joy for all), seem
to me infinitely better than poster advertising for ham or wines which 'decorate' the roads of the Western countries.'

In Zanskar, prayer flags are the most common of these religious decorations. They are usually made of small rectangles of coloured fabrics strung like pearls on a long string, which is horizontally attached between two rocks, two poles... The flags are usually charged with Buddhist mantras written in Tibetan characters, the most famous in Tibetan areas being 'Om Mani Padme Hum', litt. 'O Jewel born from the pollen-heart of lotus flower' (The deep interpretation of the mantra, as given for example by the current Dalai-Lama is much more complicated). Prayer flags are traditionally placed on the tops of the high passes of the areas, and pilgrims used to add a new string of them when successfully reaching the pass. Trekkers have maintained the tradition, as well as shouting 'Lha gyalo! Da thamtche pam' (The gods won, the demons were defeated) when reaching the pass, and we followed it when crossing the Shingo-La pass (c. 5,000 m a.s.l.), marking the exit of Zanskar. Prayer flags are also placed on any kind of place of interest, such as chortens (or stupa), those beautiful small 'towers' which should always be walked round clockwise (remember what happened to Captain Haddock in Tibet for having forgotten the rule :-), bridges, roofs of houses or even bare ground. Prayer flags seem not to be removed when getting old and torn, and probably 'dissolve' during the harsh winters. The wind shall act as the carrier of the prayers written on the flags and releases them by flapping the flags. Such a string of flags is placed between two high poles in important places, such as the entrance of a monastery or a pass with a road. Ladakhis and Zanskarpas remove their hat or cap when walking or riding under such a flag string.

Very beautiful colour pictures of Zanskar and Ladakh can be seen on Per and Elisabeth's Lwdin's website, on which they present pictures from their treks in the Alps and Himalayas, at: Prayer flags (including Elisabeth attaching a string of them) can be seen for example on three pages, here, here and here. More elaborate prayer flags can be seen in monasteries and in cities. In the main yard of monastery is erected a huge wooden pole, to which is fastened a vertical narrow prayer flag. The Lwdins' site has a picture of the largest monastery in Ladakh, Hemis, with the vertical flag.

[Buddhist prayer flag]       [Buddhist prayer flag]       [Buddhist prayer flag]     

 [Buddhist prayer flag]      [Buddhist prayer flag]  all images by Ivan Sache

The roofs of the wealthy houses in cities are decorated with reduced-size versions of this flag. I could observe them from my hotel window and have drawn a group of five such flags placed on the roof of the house located on the other side of the street. It was the first afternoon in Leh and order was given to rest and adapt to elevation (3,500 m a.s.l.), so I had all my time to check the flags. The flags were more or less square, with a border of a different colour from the main field, and three small tails in the floating edge (such tails are also present in the huge vertical flags). According to our local guide, the tails should help the flag to fly and the prayers to be released. The symbolic of the colour is as follows:
- green: vegetation
- blue: sky
- white: clouds
- yellow: earth
- red: wind.
These were the flags I spotted but several variants of the same pattern can be seen everywhere in Ladakhi cities. Flags on roofs should protect the house from demons, thunder etc.

Ivan Sache, 30 August 2001

Prayer flags are block-printed on very thin colored cloth, unhemmed, and hung in strings to blow in the wind (and in the Himalayas, there's a lot of wind!). The belief of the Tibetan Buddhists is that as the flags are shredded by the wind, the prayers dissipate and rise to heaven. 
Bill Dunning, 8 March 2003

These flags are indeed very unusual if we stick to the canons of western vexillology. They don't follow strictly models, are not regulated by any law and everybody can use them.

Moreover, it is not required to change them when they are torn or faded away. The use regarding this matter is rather opposite: you must not remove a prayer flag and you just add your own new flags amongst the older ones. Those flags are particularly common in the Himalayan passes and the Tibetan tradition asks every traveler to add a new string with flags when the pass has been successfully reached. The ritual word to be said is: "Lho gyalo! D tamche pham", that is "The gods have won, the demons have been defeated".

Ivan Sache, 9 March 2003

Gratitude flags

The TV program "Faut pas rever" (France3) told the story of a "bhopa", a healer, living in a small village of Rajasthan. The "bhopa" was once bitten by a cobra but survived. Following this event, he was considered as a "bhopa" and lives in a small house close to a temple dedicated to the Hindu snake god. The roof of the temple is crowned with several flags, which are gratitude flags. Everytime the "bhopa" heals someone or an animal, the healed person or the animal owner must show his gratitude by bringing a flag. These rectangular flags are clearly homemade and seem to show extensive variations around a basic pattern. Most of them are horizontally divided in several brightly coloured stripes. Charges such as zigzags, symbols or letters are often added to the stripes.

I don't know if this use is specific of Rajasthan. I have seen myself Hindu temples in other Indian states (Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh), in which only red or saffron triangular flags, often charged with letters or a swastika, were placed inside the temple or hoisted over it. However, I have not seen forests of striped flags on the temple roofs.

Ivan Sache, 30 May 2003