Flags of the mountain- Tibetan prayer flags
There must have been atleast one instance when you saw a string of colourful flags with symbols on it and wondered if it had any meaning behind it or if it was just an accessory that people sported to look cool. These colouful flags of the mountain, which are called the Tibetan Prayer flag, are usually seen in the northern part of India especially the Himalayas. They have now become ubiquitous in the other parts of the country as well, most commonly seen on the handlebars of bikes, in people’s cars, backpacks and even stuck on the wall of their house sometimes. So where did this flag originate from and is there a symbolic meaning to it? That’s what I’m about to tell you, Suresh.
There are multiple origins to its credit and it’s difficult to pinpoint which is the most accurate one but basically there existed ancient Bön traditions in Tibet, where shamans used plain flags in healing ceremonies, and then Buddhism was mixed with the Bon tradition, where sacred mantras and iconographies were painted onto the Bon’s flags and legends of the Buddha’s prayers were written on battle flags. This is the origin of the Tibetan prayer flags: a synthesis of the Bon’s elemental flags and the Indian Buddhist’s dharma.
The most common type of Tibetan prayer flag is called Lung-ta, which literally means “Horse of Wind”. It derives its name from the wind horse at the center of the flag which represents good fortune, the uplifting life force energies and opportunities that make things go well.
The outside corners of the flag are always guarded by the four great animals and they represent the qualities and attitudes that are developed on the spiritual path to enlightenment- Garuda (wisdom), Dragon (gentle power) Snow Lion (fearless joy), and the Tiger (confidence).
The texts on the flags differ; they are either a collection of various mantras or a short sutra. Tibetan Medicine believes that the entire universe is composed of five great elements- earth, water, fire, air and space. These elements correspond to the five colours seen in the Tibetan flags- Blue for the sky, White for air or wind, Red for fire, Green for water and yellow for earth.
Wandering pilgrims carry strings of flags with them to adorn the sacred sites that they visit and also as protection against harm when traveling. That is why also many Sherpa’s before climbing the Himalayas, put some flags, burn some incense and sing some mantras. Himalayans believe that when the wind blows the flags, it spreads the blessings, goodwill and compassion embodied in the images and writings across the land. So with this new-found knowledge, the next time you see the Tibetan prayer flag somewhere, you can tell (whoever would listen) what these flags of the mountains stand for and show everyone what a nerd you are. Cheers!