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Bhutanese prayer flags

For centuries, prayer flags have been part of Bhutanese people’s tradition, symbolising the reality and pervasiveness of their belief.

Generally, in Bhutan, prayer flags are hoisted for happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and merit and to offer karmic merit to all sentient beings. After one dies, the benefits of offering prayer flags is believed to guide the soul of the dead away from the netherworld and to prevent it from being reborn in the three lower realms (Nge Song Sum, animals, pret and life in hell) of the six life cycles: Lha (god), Lha Min (demi God), humans, animals, pret, and life in hell, according to a Buddhist scholar, Dasho Lam Sanga.

Prayer flags are raised outside homes, hung on bridges, hilltops, and places of spiritual importance. According to the scholar, there are generally three types of printed prayer flags : Lungdhar or Chudhar, Lhadhar and Mani or Baza Guru dhar which are inscribed with auspicious symbols, invocations, prayers, Ngas (mantras), prints of Buddhist protectors and enlightened beings.

“Basically, prayer flags bring good luck and merit to all sentient beings and not only to the one who raises the flags,” said Dasho Lam Sanga. “However, if you look at the deeper aspect, each prayer flag in itself has a world of significance.”

Lungdhar or Lung Ta, meaning, “Wind Horse” and Chudar (flags over water bodies) are raised or hung on the advice of an astrologer to dispel misfortune, or on the onset of a long journey, and more recently while starting a new venture. Prayer flags must be hoisted on the correct astrological date and time or it will attract obstacles as long as the prayer flags last.

Lhadhar is also a form of Lungdhar, but is much taller and larger. Usually a Gyeltshen (victory sign) caps the top.

The Lhadhar, according to Lam Kezang Chopel of the Trashiyangtse Rigney School, is hoisted as a landmark near dzongs and lhakhangs. “When you see this flag, it is a sign that you have come near a dzong or lhakhang. It is a sign for you to be formally ready,” he said.

Gyeltshen Tsemo mantras are printed on the Lhadhar. It was also raised by dzongpons and rich and powerful families in the past to bring success in their undertakings and to drive away the evil fate and obstacles in life.

Five visual expressions are used in the Lhadhar each with a symbolism. The Flying Horse symbolizes an accomplishment of positive works.  Garuda, Bja Chung, eating snake is meant to frighten-away evil wills and intentions. The Dragon symbolizes the removal of different threats from the sky like the thunderbolts and the spread of the dharma. The Tiger symbolizes success in each step of life without any hurdles, and the Lion, a front-runner in each step of life.

According to the Mani Ka-Bum, (the authorship of which is attributed to Avalokitesvara) there are immense benefits in hoisting prayer flags. “When the wind blows, it carries the prayers on the flags blessing all beings. It can be compared with the engine of a train which pulls along numerous carriages,” said Dasho Lam Sanga.

According to scholars, prayer flags benefit in four different ways: through sight (Thondroel), sound (Thoedroel) of the fluttering flags, thought (Dendroel) and touch (Regdroel).

“The benefits are however not immediate, it is spread over various cycles of life,” said Dasho Lam Sanga.

Prayer flags are traditionally fastened to wooden poles vertically or sewn on to ropes horizontally (in case of chudhar). Yellow, green, red, white and blue colours are used in Lungdhar, depending on the element (fire, water, wood and earth) one belongs to.

Vertical flagpoles are fastened with a Reldi or dagger, on the tip, signifying Jampelyang (god of wisdom and knowledge).  A wheel or Khorlo at the base of the dagger signifies the continuous rotation of the wheel of dharma. The flagpole, which is made smooth and white by removing the bark signifies Chenrigzee (Avaloktisvera), the compassionate. The base of the pole is usually kept thicker and stronger signifying Chagna Dorji, (Thunderbolt).

Prayer flags are hung outdoors, in high places, overlooking towns, rivers and where people usually gather, for a very special reason, said Dasho Lam Sanga. “By doing so, it gives the wind the opportunity to move them and activate the blessings. The wind is considered an expression of mind and mental energy which activates them,” he added. When the shadow of the prayer flag falls on streams and rivers, it is carried to larger water bodies like seas and oceans and benefits the marine fauna.

According to the former Lam Neten of the Trashigang rabdey, Lam Thubten, prayer flags should be treated with respect because of the sacred symbols and mantras on the prints and should not be disturbed until the sun, wind and rain fade them or wear the flags out over time.

“After a sacrament ceremony (rabney) is done over the flags, it is believed that the body of Chenrigzee melts and dissolves in to the prayer flags. The sin of tampering with prayer flags or felling a flag pole is equivalent to that of committing a major crime,” he said. “It is like spoiling a pot of medicine, which is vital for the needy. Even stamping on the shadow of the prayer flag is a sin.”

Prayer flags, if hoisted near a house, should follow strict direction, according to the principal of the Dodeda Buddhist School. “The flags should not be hoisted in the eastern and western side of the house because if the shadow of the flag falls on the house, it will render the house inauspicious and misfortune will befall on the occupants,” Sangay Dorji said.

“Since the prayer flags have to be fluttered, they should be hoisted always on the south from where the wind blows.”

One common belief while passing by the prayer flags is that one should keep the flags to the right. It is believed that prayer flags embody the Ku, Sung and Thu, (speech, body and mind) of the saints and circumambulating a prayer flag earns merit in the same way like when we circumambulate a Choeten, lhakhang or a dzong. When the prayer flag print fades, it should be properly disposed or burned. Tearing down the printed cloth or contaminating it is a sin.

Mani or Guru prayer flags, usually hoisted after a death, can also be raised before one’s death. This, according to Dasho Lam Sanga, is even better since it will add merit to the living soul. “The spirit of the dead will observe how relatives perform the ceremonies for it, if you fail to earn enough merits, it will anger it. Anger is a sin and it will directly take the dead to the realms of the lesser beings.” While the tradition of hoisting a prayer flag is similar all over Bhutan, the number of flags vary. According to Lam Kezang Chopel, the benefit or merit is same whether you hoist one flag or a 100 flags. “The general feeling though, is that the more you hoist, the greater the merit.”

Village elders point out that hoisting prayer flags has become a much easier deal today with ready made prints available in shops as well as the reldi and khorlo, sold in pairs by handicraft shops.

“Years ago, prayer flags were printed in Bhutan from wooden blocks and slates. Soot was the main ink which was mixed with roasted wheat, hide and other preservatives for permanence and protection from insects,” said Lam Kezang Chopel.

According to a Dzongkha expert, Lopon Choeki Dhendup, cloth was rare and imported from India in the old days so only the well-to-do could afford to erect prayer flags. “In fact the status of a family was even judged by the number of prayer flags raised.”

While no one doubts the importance and significance of prayer flags, forestry officials say the practice is killing the forest.

For instance, five of the 10 geogs under Thimphu dzongkhag felled about 2,700 blue pine trees to be used as flagpoles in 2002 alone. This figure does not include the large number of trees felled by the Thimphu urban population.

“Although, felling is done following silviculture (management of forest trees), a lot of young generations are lost,” said the dzongkhag deputy range officer, Geley Wangchuk. “There is pressure.”

“From the technical aspect, it is disturbing the ecology of the forest,” an environmentalist from the national environment commission (NEC) said. “Because of the appropriate size, young healthy trees are usually felled to make flag poles. But this has a bad impact from the ecological point of view.”

Prayer flags in Bhutan, according to a lecturer at the institute of language and culture studies (ILCS), Ugyen Tenzin, represents not only our culture, but the aspects of an enlightened mind and imparts a feeling of harmony and brings to mind the precious teachings of Buddha.

“Prayers, whether counted on beads, printed on flags, or inscribed on stones, all have a unifying power, express positive intentions for happiness, enlightenment and protection of all beings, a symbol of Buddhism. They are indispensable at least in the Bhutanese context.”

Tracing the roots

Some sources trace the origin of prayer flags to Tibet where the followers of Bonism practiced the ritual.

According to the principal, Dodeda school, Lopen Sangay Dorji, Bonism was practiced in Tibet before the advent of Buddhism.  “What is known today as a prayer flag could be a blend of Buddhism and Bonism,” he said. “Sacred prayers and iconographies were inscribed on the Bon flags which were hung without prayers.”
According to a scholar from the centre of Bhutan studies, CBS, prayer flags came to Bhutan as a part of some cultural and religious export from Tibet.

“To hoist one prayer flag was very difficult,” recalls Jigme Gyeltshen, an old hermit from Ramjar, Trashiyangtse. While many believe that materials for prayer flags were traded across the border in India, Jigme recalls how his parents wove cotton grown in lower Trashiyangtse to print prayers.

“Skilled wood block carvers, usually monks or lamas, carve prayer flag blocks as a spiritual practice, but most of the time neighbors were invited to recite prayers instead of hoisting flags,” he added.

“Prayer flags were few, the process of printing was not only rare and time consuming, but also expensive. Most villagers used printing blocks borrowed or hired from dzongs and lhakhangs,” Lam Kezang Chopel said. “Today this blocks are not more than a show piece.”

Hoisting a prayer flag has become relatively easier today according to many observers. With the availability of ready made print materials, hoisting a prayer flag is not a problem anymore.

Prayer flags on poles, on trees, and on bridges is a common sight everywhere in Bhutan today symbolizing the ever flourishing Buddhism and ever growing faith of the people.

Source: Ugen Penjore, Kuensel Issue 2003.

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