You might’ve seen brightly-colored pieces of rectangular fabric fluttering in the wind at a local Buddhist temple, festival, or some other occasion. Without knowing anything more about them, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were just there for decoration. The truth, however, goes much deeper, and the origins of prayer flags take us to the high Himalayas in the lands of modern-day Nepal, Tibet, India, Bhutan, and China. They are important to the people of these lands, who include them in their everyday environment.
Scholars believe that prayer flags originated with the traditional Bon religion. Bonpo – followers of Bon – used primary-colored plain flags in Tibet. With time, however, text and images made by woodblock printing were added to the flags.
In Nepal, sutras or teachings were written on cloth banners, which were then spread around the region and the world by Buddhist missionaries. The Indian monk Atisha is said to be responsible for introducing the practice of printing prayers on cloth flags to Tibet and Nepal. Nowadays, many different prayer flag styles can be seen throughout the region, although some traditional designs were probably lost in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution.
The two main types of prayer flags are known as the Lung-ta and Darchog styles. Lung-ta (meaning “Wind Horse” in Tibetan) flags are horizontal, while Darchog (which means “flagstaff”) are vertical. Lung-ta flags are usually hung between two points – one higher and the other lower, such as the top of a stupa and a rock, on a mountain pass, between the top of a monastery and a lower pole, and so on. This symbolizes the ascent of the Wind Horse – itself a symbol of the human soul – in its ascent to good fortune and enlightenment. Darchog style flags are attached vertically to a pole and usually placed on rooftops, cairns, and mountaintops.
Prayer flags come in sets of five, and each flag is a different color. From left to right, the order of the colors is: blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They symbolize five elements and the Five Pure Lights. Blue represents the sky and space, white – the air and wind. Red stands for fire, green – for water, and yellow symbolizes the earth. In Tibetan medicine, the harmonious balance of these lights or elements leads to good health, both physical and spiritual.
Despite the name and what many think when they hear it, prayer flags aren’t meant to carry prayers to gods. Instead, the wind blows the prayers and mantras written on them throughout the land, carrying goodwill and compassion to living beings. In this way, the prayer flags are considered to bring benefit and good fortune to all. As the ink and images fade from the cloth from years of exposure to the elements, the prayers are considered to become a permanent part of the world.
Tibetans and Nepalese also don’t take old prayer flags down – new ones are simply hung up beside the old, a tradition which symbolizes recognition of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and which welcomes life’s changes. Sometimes old prayer flags are burned to send their prayers and mantras into the sky. Prayer flags are sacred because of the symbols and mantras on them, and should be treated with respect. That means not placing them on the ground, sitting or standing on them, using them on clothing or otherwise disrespecting them.