You have seen them many times in Kathmandu photos or Tibetan reports. They wave on ropes that hang from sacred places and pile up on hanging bridges in mountains like the Annapurnas. The new ones capture the attention of travellers with the bright colours of their fabrics, while the older ones fray, discolour and disintegrate in the wind without anyone seeming to care. They are omnipresent in northern India, Buthan or Nepal, but what are these colorful Buddhist flags?
Impressive Boudhanath Stupa with its prayer flags
Buddhist flags, what are they really?
They are called prayer flags and are in five colours: blue, white, red, green and yellow. As we have already dropped them, you can find them in different buildings in the places where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced: sacred places such as temples or stupas, in the highest mountain passes, in the peaks of the Himalayas or on shelves of souvenir shops.
The origin of prayer flags is said to lie in the flags used by Tibetans who practiced the Bon religion before Buddhism was introduced. Believers in this shamanic religion hung five-colored flags representing the natural elements with the intention that they would protect them. When Buddhism came to the area, flags were adopted incorporating prayers, mantras and symbols into the colors.
There are two types of Buddhist prayer flags: horizontal and vertical. The horizontal ones (and the ones we usually see) are called lung tha (windhorse), they are square and tied to a rope. The verticals are called Darchor, are rectangular and are placed on a mast. “Giving” means “to increase life, fortune, health and money” and “cho” means “all sentient beings”. In the following photo you can see the two types in the temple Sanga Choeling of Pelling, in Sikkim or in other temples of the zone.
Buddhists vs. Vertical Flags
They are always found in groups of five colours representing the five elements and the “Five Pure Lights”. The blue color represents the sky, the white symbolizes the water, the red is the fire, the green is the air and the yellow the earth.
The typical colored Buddhist flags
In the central part of the flag is drawn the wind horse (lung ta) which carries on its back three flaming jewels symbolizing Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The surrounding texts are mantras.
Detail of the prayer flag horse
They are usually very crowded, with the oldest and the newest being mixed without any kind of organization. In some streets of Thamel there are so many prayer flags, which cover the streets and you can barely see the sky.
Thamel Street filled with colorful Buddhist flags
Going around the classic Annapurnas circuit (you can see photos and read the diary here) you will find prayer flags in the temples and also in the vertiginous hanging bridges that there are to cross the rivers.
Prayer flags coming to MuktinathPrayer flags on a bridge in NepalFlags on a gompa on the way to Manang
The mountain passes are covered by prayer flags, sacred places where Buddhists believe they should ask permission from the gods and say out loud “gigi soso la gelow”. The next picture is of Thorong La Pass:
Above the Thorong La
And the next steps of Ganda La (4980m) and Kungmaru La (5258m), which are crossed in the trekking of the Markha Valley:
At the top of the Ganda LaAnd in the Kungmaru La
Stupas and castles are no less important, and for these they have their corresponding ration of Buddhist flags, such as the Shanti Stupa or the road leading to Tsemo Castle in Leh.
Climbing the Shanti StupaTsemo Castle Flags
It’s no wonder that when you see pictures of prayer flags, your mind is immediately transported to Nepal, northern India, Buthan or Tibet, or that, like us, you fall into temptation and end up buying a few in a souvenir shop or temple… And now have we convinced you to visit any of these destinations? 🙂