Prayer flags are an integral part of Sikkimese life. Whether you are religious or not, you cannot escape them. They are everywhere. From the novelty of seeing them everywhere, they have become a part of my daily life now. There is something so meditative about them fluttering in the wind. They are all over the roofs of buildings and one look out of my apartment or office, I am lost in the repetitive trance like movement of theirs. Big and small, the more elaborate ones or the simple ones bearing the sacred chant of Padmasambhava, they are hard to miss.
Prayer flags are an aspect of Tibetan Buddhism carried over from the Bon traditions predating Buddhism in the area. They were tied in the peaks and ridges of the high Himalayas to bless the countryside and were also used in healing rituals.
There are two types of flags, horizontal ones called the Lung Ta and vertical ones called Darchor.
Lung Ta are of square or rectangular shape and are stringed together by their top edges and hung diagonally from a high point to a lower one. They are traditionally hung in high places like mountain passes, mountains, stupas, monastries, etc.
Darchor are large rectangles attached to a staff or pole by their linear edge. They are commonly found on the ground, mountains, rooftops, water bodies and now beside roads in the mountains.
The flags come in sets of five colours. The flags are arranged in a specific order, blue, white, red, green and yellow. The five colours represent the five elements and the five pure lights. Blue symbolises the sky and space, white, the air and wind, red, fire, green, water and yellow, the earth.
At the centre of the flag, there is a Lung ta (powerful or strong horse) with three flaming jewels on its back. The Ta symbolises speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels represent the three aspects of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Around this central symbology, are versions of about 400 mantras, each dedicated to a particular deity. On the four corners are images of four powerful animals, the dragon, the Garuda, the tiger and the snowlion.
Traditionally, the flags are not meant to be prayers for the Gods. Instead, the belief is that the wind will spread the mantras everywhere, spreading peace, compassion, strength and wisdom.
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, Tibetans 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 acknowledgement that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.