Prayer Flags in Bhutan

Whilst visiting Bhutan you are never far away from the fluttering sight of prayer flags. Whether they are high up on hillsides, on bridges over rivers or standing close to buildings and near religious sites, they add a distinctive character to the landscape. To see a great splash of coloured flags over a mountain pass will give you a sense of relief that you have achieved the summit, which may also be the spirit behind those who put them there. These splashes of colour add to the already stunning scenery to be seen along any of the roads of Bhutan.

There are many strands of the ancient Buddhist belief, and likewise many are the reasons for the flags. Some believe that the emblems originated in ancient India, and were used as battle flags, bearing mantras and prayers.

bhutanese-prayer-flagsThe tradition then migrated to Tibet, from whence it passed into Bhutan, which has a very strong Buddhist culture.The flags are made of loosely-woven cotton. In days gone by, the cotton was produced on the lowlands, the mantras and prayers were carved onto woodblocks by skilled woodcutters, and the ink was produced by using soot and other ingredients. Thus it was a labour of love producing the flags and then hoisting them in remote places.The flags fluttering convey to the gods the message, and when the strands of cotton fly off they take the message with them. Flags over rivers and streams cast a shadow over the water, and so the message gets carried downstream. Those setting out on travel or a new venture will often be the ones who place these flags.

Most flags seen are multi-coloured, with the colours representing: Blue – space, White – air, Red – fire, Green – water, and Yellow – earth. They are traditionally fastened to wooden poles vertically or sewn on to ropes horizontally. Vertical flagpoles are fastened with a dagger on the tip, signifying the god of wisdom and knowledge. A wheel 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 the compassionate. Clusters of vertical pales dressed in only white prayer flags are seen. In fact, the auspicious number of poles is 108. These are erected 45 days after the death of someone, to guide and protect the soul on its way into the next life.

Whatever the connections or interpretations, the sight of fluttering flags becomes just one part of a visual experience that is Bhutan.