Tibetan prayer flags are colourful cotton cloth squares in white, blue, yellow, green, and red. Woodblocks are sometimes still used to decorate the prayer flags with images, mantras, and prayers.
Usually at the centre of a prayer flag, there is an image of the Wind Horse which bears the Three Jewels of Buddhism. On the four corners of the flag could be images of Garuda, Dragon, Tiger, and Snow Lion which are the four sacred animals representing the four virtues of wisdom, power, confidence, and fearless joy.
Prayer flags are attached to cords and hung up so they may flutter in the wind. The movement is believed to “activate the power of the mantras and bestow protection and merit.” The flags are commonly known in Tibet as “Dar Cho”: Dar meaning to increase in life, fortune, health and wealth, and Cho meaning all sentient beings.
Prayers include ‘Om Tara tu Tara ture soha’ which is a request for speedy compassion from Tara and ‘Om ha hung vajra guru padme sidi hung’ a strengthening prayer.
There are two kinds of prayer flags, the horizontal ones called Lungta in Tibetan and the vertical ones called Darchor.
Horizontal prayer flags are squares connected at the top edges with a long thread. The less used vertical prayer flags are usually single squares or groups of squares sewn on poles which are planted in the ground or on rooftops.
Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown upward as offerings to their deities and will bring benefits to the one who hangs them, his neighbourhood, and all people throughout the world. However, if the flags are hung on the wrong astrological dates, they will bring only negative results. The longer it hangs, the greater the obstacles.
The best time to put up new prayer flags are in the mornings on sunny, windy days.
Sets of five coloured flags should be put in the order: yellow, green, red, white, blue from left to right. The colours represent the five Buddha families and the five elements. Blue represents Akshobhya Buddha and space, white represents Ratna Sambhava Buddha and water, red represents Amitabha Buddha and fire, green represents Amoghasiddhi Buddha, air and wind, and yellow represents Vairocana Buddha and earth. Prayer flags can be traced back to the ancient “Bön” religion of Tibet where shamanistic Bonpo priests used primary colored plain flags in healing ceremonies. According to Eastern medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements.
Old prayer flags are replaced with new ones annually on the Tibetan New Year.
Because the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.
When the Chinese took over Tibet they destroyed almost everything having to do with Tibetan culture and religion. Prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. Many traditional designs have been lost forever since the turmoil of China’s cultural revolution.
Most of the traditional prayer flags today are made in Nepal and India by Tibetan refugees or by Nepali Buddhists.