Buddhist prayer flags carry positive vibrations and blessings with the breeze, for all
The joyous sight of scores of square or rectangular pieces of coloured cloth, strung across long horizontal strings and lofty poles, instantly speaks of a Buddhist presence. Keeping company along pilgrim trails, mountain passes and bridges, gracing stupas and monasteries in different parts of the country – specially in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Bylakuppe in Karnataka – as well as in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, they infuse a space with sanctity, colour and beauty.
Along with rows of glistening Buddhist prayer wheels, an organic pile of stones, rocks carved or painted with mantras, these colourful flags instantly soothe the spirit with their joyous spirit of fluttering unfettered in the breeze. And their presence speaks of centuries-old traditions, faith and symbolism bringing peace to devotees and pilgrims, and sending wishes of good fortune to all sentient beings.
STEEPED IN SYMBOLISM
Buddhist prayer flags are hoisted at sites open to the elements, where the breeze can blow over them carrying the sentiments they bear afar. The flags are composed of fabrics of five colours that are displayed in multiples of five in a particular sequence. The number and colours of the flags bear significance: the number five speaks of the five basic energies that manifest in the physical world, namely, earth, water, fire, air and space. Buddhism believes that the human body and all matter is composed of these five basic elements. The sets of five flags are a reflection of this fundamental belief as each colour bears a symbol: yellow symbolises earth, green-water, red-fire, white-air or clouds, and blue-space. And spanning earth to space, these flags are displayed in an order that reflects this world – yellow, green, red, white and blue, in vertical and horizontal displays.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
The origins of Buddhist prayer flags are traced to Tibet and the blending of two traditions; that of pre-Buddhist Bon shamanism (that existed in Tibet before Buddhism arrived in the seventh century AD) and Buddhism. The Bons worshipped the forces and elements of nature, and it is stated that Bon priests used cloth flags of primary colours to heal. These flags were believed to balance the five elements within a person as well as between a person and his/ her environment and thus usher in a state of well-being of mind, body and spirit.
A legend states that Indra, the Hindu God of the Heavens, requested the Buddha for guidance to overcome the asuras, who were troubling the gods. The Buddha gave Lord Indra the Victory Banner Sutra saying it should be repeated for success. Lord Indra subsequently won the battle. This sutra practised by Buddhists in India later made its way to Tibet, and came to be featured on flags, thus creating prayer flags to bring peace and success.
Over the time, the flags came to bear sacred symbols, mantras, sutras, invocations and prayers; these sentiments are expressed for the well-being of all sentient beings and not individual boons. Flags came to be hoisted on auspicious days, days of pilgrimage and travel, during festivals, weddings and special occasions. Incense may be lit before a flag is hoisted and prayers said while they are being hoisted.
SYMBOLS AND PRAYERS
An important motif on prayer flags is the wind horse carrying a wish-fulfilling jewel on its saddle, placed in the centre of the flag; it signifies blessings being carried swiftly across by the flag. At the four corners of a flag may be motifs of the Four Dignities- the garuda (fire), the dragon (water), the snow lion (earth) and tiger (wind/air) that represent the attributes of wisdom, power, fearlessness and confidence. Composite mythical creatures are created by fusing two animals regarded as rivals (lion and garuda), to symbolise harmony. Another important symbol is the vajra, the symbol of indestructibility and irresistible force.
There are eight auspicious Buddhist symbols – the right coiled white conch, lotus, dharma wheel, parasol, endless knot, pair of golden fish, victory banner and treasure vase that also feature on prayer flags. The eight precious possessions of a monarch that comprise the minister, queen, wish fulfilling jewel, vase, horse, general, golden wheel and elephant also feature on prayer flags. Then there are images of the Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava and various Bodhisattavas, mantras like ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ or ‘Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum’.
Other mantras are of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom; Tara, the goddess of compassion; and Vajrapani, the protector, the Bodhisattva of power; and praise to the 21 Taras, that is to Green Tara goddess and her twenty manifestations. Sutras or short texts based on discourses of the Buddha such as the Victory Sutra also feature on the flags.
Text: Brinda Gill