History and Meaning of Tibetan Prayer Flags

Tibetan prayer flags have quite a long history in Nepal, Tibet, and surrounding areas.

It’s believed in ancient times that Nepalese Buddhist suttas (religious texts) were transmitted onto these flags and then flown away in the wind, in hopes to spread the wisdom and sentiments contained within. This tradition eventually traveled to Tibet, where the flags were visually modified, but continued to hold a similar purpose.

I’ve been seeing nowadays people hanging prayer flags on their bikes as decorations, particularly on the handle-bars.

A lot of people who hang these flags on their bike don’t really know what they mean. For them, it’s just another decoration to make their bike stand out.

Well, you should know that the flags are not just fancy accessories. They have deeper meanings, from the colors to the words printed on them.

A prayer flag is basically a colorful rectangular cloth. The flags are often found strung on mountains, especially the ridges and the high peaks of the Himalayas. The flags are used by locals to bless the rugged countryside they stand on but there are other purposes too.

The prayer flags simply carry our prayers. The prayers are carried by the wind so that they can be answered. This article is designed to give you an introductory guide on these Tibetan prayer flags, what they mean, and things to keep in mind before hanging them.

Types of Flags

Flags are generally divided into two broad categories – vertical and horizontal. The same applies to Tibetan prayer flags.

There are two major categories:

  • Dar-Ding – The Dar-dings are hoisted horizontally and they have very long strings. They are typically hoisted between trees or pillars. Five colored flags are used in sequence. The first color is yellow followed by green, red, white, and blue.
  • Darchen – These are narrow flags and they are hoisted vertically on a normal flagpole.

What Do the Colors Represent?

The origin of these prayer flags goes back centuries.

The first flags were used in ancient India during the Shamanistic Bon traditions of Pre-Buddhist Tibetans.

The colors on the Dar-ding horizontal flags are not just there for decoration.

Each color has its own meaning.

Here’s a breakdown of what these colors mean:

  • Blue – Sky or space
  • White – Clouds and the air
  • Red – Fire
  • Green – Water
  • Yellow – Earth

The Bonpo priests who used these flags since ancient times believe that these colors represent the elements that make up the Earth. Balancing them brings harmony to the environment. Traditional Tibetan medicine also postulates that health and well-being are achieved by balancing these five elements. The colors may at times be used to represent directions too. Blue represents North, White means South, Red for East, Green for West, and Yellow for Center. The colors will be arranged form left to right when the flags are hoisted.

“Om Mani Padme Hu” and Its Deep Meaning

These words “Om Mani Padme Hum” are also very common on Tibetan Prayer Flags but they too have their own deep meaning.

Here’s what each of the words means:

  • Om – This is the sacred syllable
  • Mani – Jewel
  • Padme – The lotus
  • Hum – The spirit of enlightenment

The Tibetans believe though that there’s no one particular interpretation of this mantra. It’s designed to represent an array of desirable values including diligence, patience, ethics, compassion, wisdom etc. It’s believed that reciting this phrase during a meditation session may, in fact, help you cure jealousy, pride, greed, aggression, and ignorance.

Tibetan Prayer Flags Must Never Be Still

There’s a reason why Tibetan Prayer Flags are put high on the roof or on mountain peaks. They must always flutter to the wind. It’s believed that as the flags flutter, they emit spiritual vibrations as the wind carries the prayers on them.

Tibetan Prayer Flags Must Never Touch the Ground

The Tibetan prayer flags are considered pure and they should never come into contact with the ground. They should also be kept in a very clean environment. The flags are filled with images of gods and goddesses. They carry sacred phrases too and as such, they should be highly respected. If the flag comes into contact with the ground for any reason then that’s interpreted as disrespect to the flag. As you hung the flags outside your home or on the roof, make sure that the pole is high enough from the ground.

When Should You Hoist the Flags?

The Tibetans fly the prayer flags until the colors on them start to fade. This is an auspicious moment. It’s believed that as the flags fade the prayers they carried have been taken away by the wind.

The Tibetan Prayer Flags can be hoisted on any day of the week. However, it needs to be an auspicious occasion. The Tibetan Almanac recommends days when the stars are arranged in an auspicious way. Special occasions too may necessitate the hosting of the flags. The Tibetan New Year is one of these occasions.

The prayer flags can also be hoisted during marriages or when someone is ill to aid in their recovery. Some people may also fly the flags to ward off bad omens as they travel. This could explain why some tippers are hanging the flags on their bikes. Perhaps they believe the flags can protect them from misfortunes on the road.

The Prayers, Symbols, and Mantras of Tibetan Buddhist Flags

The Tibetan Buddhist flags have symbols inscribed on them. They may also have mantras and prayers. The traditional flags normally have the figure of Lung Ta. This is the powerful wind horse that carries the three flaming jewels. The figure of Lung Ta is located at the center. It represents speed and good fate. The three jewels on the flags represent the three basic aspects of Buddhism. They include Dharma, Buddha, and Sangha. Flags with the figure of Lung Ta are normally hoisted in order to inspire good fortunes for the people who are flying them and their loved ones.

Well, that’s all you need to know about Tibetan Prayer Flags. Although they may seem at first as simple decorations, there are many deep meanings to these flags that date back hundreds of years.

This article was last revised on 02/28/2020.

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