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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Culture #10: Prayer Flags

Nepal - Kathmandu - Boudhanath Stupa

Prayer flags are one of my favourite religious observances and a sight I’ve come to cherish and love in the Tibetan and Nepali world. Strung from every place, structure or object of height or significance, their 5-coloured squares of fabric are always fluttering in the wind. Big, small, vertical poles (Darchor) or long, sweeping strands (Lung Ta), alone or by the hundred, no scene in the Himalayan and Tibetan world is complete without them. The 5 colours are: blue, white, red, green and yellow, always in that order (left to right), the blue symbolizes sky, the white wind, the red fire, the green water and the yellow earth.

Nepal - Flags on a rooftopI love them for several reasons. Romantically and piously, I love the idea of prayers floating off the fabric in the wind to God (Buddha) and their deities. It is a supremely simple idea. The many mantras and prayers written on the fabric are blown upwards and promote peace, prosperity and wisdom to all who the wind reaches. As the images and flags themselves deteriorate with the elements, they become permanent part of the universe and are renewed by the Tibetans by hanging new ones alongside the old.

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - Translucent flagsThey also tickle my practical side for their supreme efficiency: Buddhism, without a doubt, has the greatest concentration of prayers per person than any other religion. How do we get even more prayers to the gods with our monks already reciting mantras and clicking of prayer beads 24-7? Simple, get the wind to do the work for us! (And enterprising as they are, they’ve also hooked up prayer wheels to streams for continuous water-driven prayers! What genius!). It does help that Nepal and particularly Tibet are very windy places.

Hundred of flags in TibetBut I think I love them most for their aesthetic beauty. On stupas and Chorten, their fluttering colour contrasts beautifully with the clean, simple lines and clean, white surface of the monuments. Placed on bridges, passes, peaks and even special trees, their human element contrasts, but somehow pleasantly, with the striking, but often stark landscape they are set in. Whether in front of barren, alpine valleys, gleaming white peaks or lush green forest, their translucent colour catches the sun and the eye, complimenting the scene. They would welcome you into town. They would welcome you to the monasteries. They would let you know you’d reached the top of the pass or peak.

Nepal - Prayer flag pole in front of Lhotse and EverestPerhaps because of their simplicity and colour, it is not like a “Kilroy was here” graffiti scrawl or the discovery of a candy bar wrapper on a pristine beach, but rather a more subtle sign that, yes, humans were here and they found this place to be special and beautiful and went to the trouble of leaving an offering for it. You too can share this spot.

Although I am not about to turn Buddhist, I wanted a strand ever since being in Tibet last year and regretting not coming back with one. So this time I made sure to pick one up and now have it strung across 2 walls of my room. My room needed some colour. I turn the ever-present ceiling fan back on and they flutter satisfactory. It is not a mountaintop of course – any prayers freed are likely trapped swirling around my room like the moth that struggled chaotically about last night, but I hope, like the moth, eventually that some make it out of the windows and are taken up by the warm breeze.
Nepal - Summit prayer flags on Gokyo Ri in front of 8000m Cho Oyu

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