You can find prayer flags anywhere in the Himalayas, especially in Bhutan and Tibet, yet my main experiences of them came from visiting Nepal.
Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. People of the Himalayas believe their prayers will be blown by the wind to spread goodwill and compassion into the environment In this case, prayer flags bring benefit to everybody. As wind passes over the surface of the flags, which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified spiritually.
I can remember visiting many sites in Kathmandu in Nepal and Paro in Bhutan on my travels and seeing these amazing prayer flags, but nowhere more so than at the Boudnath Stupa in the Nepali capital. The sheer white stupa of Boudnath is shrouded in these colourful flags that flap wildly in the winds whipped in from the Himalayas. Sometimes, when you ascend the stupa, you have to walk underneath lines of these flags and it’s something great to experience. Under the prayer wheels, however, I don’t think I touched any of the prayer flags. In fact, because the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used as clothing! Another incredible place I have visited is the Taktsang Monastery, where the prayer flags are also very prominent and are forever swaying in the Bhutanese winds.
Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five: one in each of five colours. The five colours are arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and yellow. The five colours represent the five elements and the Five Pure Lights: blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. It is reported that health and harmony are produced through the balance of these five elementary colours.
Some sets of prayer flags are vertical and are erected by being tied to a bamboos shoot. These types of flags are known as “Lung Ta”, whereas the regular ‘washing line’ type prayer flags are known as Dar Cho in the Tibetan language. Regardless of their style and appearance, it is the vivid colours that strike you first when you enter areas of worship and remembrance.
The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, the people of the Himalayas renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life’s changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.
I would love to decorate my garden with some prayer flags. It would make a good alternative to the long line of shorts and socks that have just come out the washing machine!