If you ever get a chance to wander the streets of Dharamshala, India — the residence of the Dalai Lama — or Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu, then you'll almost certainly come across at least a few iconic Tibetan prayer flags floating on the breeze. You even may have encountered them somewhere in your daily life.
But just what are these colorful flags fluttering in the wind and what do they signify to the Tibetan people? As we will see, Tibetan prayer flags can symbolize many different things and have a rich, complex history with roots in both Buddhist and ancient Indigenous religious practices.
"The printing and hanging of prayer flags is a Tibetan practice, given the many mountain passes where prayer flags are typically hung," emails Donald S. Lopez Jr., a distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan and author of the book "Religions of Tibet in Practice."
What Are Tibetan Prayer Flags?
Tibetan prayer flags are colorful square pieces of cloth that are tied together and hung up on poles or from rooftops so they will flutter in the breeze.
"Such flags generally symbolize a person's (individual) blessing, the promotion of luck and offerings and praise to the local deities," Dawa Tsering, director of the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamshala, says in an email.
Prayer flags often contain religious texts or mantras written in Tibetan, so they serve as a vehicle to convey religious blessings through the wind.
"The wind blows the prayer flag, so that the power of the text on the prayer flag will follow," Tsering says.
Where and When Do You Hang Tibetan Prayer Flags?
They're often hung from high places like mountaintops where they won't be trampled, or near religious sites like temples, holy lakes or monasteries.
"In other words, hang them in a 'high, clean, holy' place," says Tsering, adding, "You can hang them at any time. If you choose a good and holy day, the effect may be better."
On auspicious days or holidays like the Tibetan New Year, people will sometimes hang prayer flags around their home, which for nomadic Tibetans is typically a large tent.
"I'm from a nomad family. Behind our tent, we always hang the prayer flag," says Rinchen Tashi, deputy director for Chinese outreach at the International Campaign for Tibet.
What's Depicted on Tibetan Prayer Flags?
Prayer flags are sometimes referred to as "windhorse flags" or "lunta" — which can also be written as "lungta." "Lun" is Tibetan for "wind" and "ta" refers to "horse." Many lunta will contain a symbol of the windhorse in the middle of the flag along with a religious text or prayer known as the windhorse mantra.
"Nowadays, prayer flags and windhorse flags, which represent two different meanings, have been mixed in use, generally with patterns of horses and other animals, as well as Buddhist scriptures," Tsering says.
The windhorse is often surrounded by four other animals that appear in the corners of the flag, such as tigers, lions, a mythical bird known as "garuda" — "khyung" in Tibetan — and dragons. However, other kinds of prayer flags contain representations of Buddha statues or depictions of domestic animals like sheep or yak.
There are many different versions of prayer flags that come in different sizes. For example, while we may be most familiar with prayer flags hung horizontally, there's also a certain kind of vertical Tibetan prayer flag known as "darchok."
Some prayer flags may not contain symbols of the windhorse and instead contain small printed versions of long religious texts that can be "up to several hundred pages" according to Tashi.
Are Tibetan Prayer Flags Connected To Buddhism?
Prayer flags carry religious messages and prayers directly stemming from Tibetan Buddhism. According to Lopez, some prayer flags may contain prayers to different versions of Tārā, who is a goddess known for her power to save devotees from dangers.
However, prayer flags — specifically the lunta — have a long history in the Bon religion, which predates the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. The Bon religion in Tibet refers to the Indigenous spiritual practices of the Bon people, which include shamanism.
"Strictly speaking, prayer flags are not exactly the same as lunta," Tsering says. "The prayer flag is a Buddhist term, but the 'windhorse flag' lunta existed before traditional Tibetan Buddhism."
According to Tashi, the five typical colors of modern prayer flags stem from the Bon religion and its worship of different elements of nature. The five colors are: blue, white, red, green and yellow.
"Color, in ancient times, is generally considered to be the worship of the gods," Tsering adds, stating that the five colors represent the elements of sky (blue), air (white), fire (red), water (green) and earth (yellow).
Are Tibetan Prayer Flags Political?
"Prayer flags themselves really don't carry any political agenda," Tashi says.
But as a prominent symbol of Tibetan culture and religion, prayer flags have come under fire from the Chinese government in recent years, due to China's policies of Tibetan cultural suppression — known as the "Sinicization of Tibet," the process by which the Tibetan people are brought under the influence of Chinese culture.
"The Chinese government will take down the prayer flags because this is the belief of the Tibetans, and the Chinese government hopes to 'sinicize' the Tibetans," Tsering says.
Can Anyone Hang a Prayer Flag?
You'll find prayer flags not only in Tibet, but in any country where there's a significant Tibetan population ranging from Nepal to the U.S.
But Tashi says it's also becoming common for non-Tibetans to purchase and display prayer flags, which he thinks is fine.
"Anyone who thinks prayer flags will help them in a religious sense, or just anything you like in the aesthetic sense can be hung or displayed, as long as the prayer flags are not desecrated, trampled on or insulted," Tsering says.
According to Tsering, prayer flags must meet the conditions of being "high," "clean" and "holy" so printing a prayer flag on shoes or shorts, for example, would be inappropriate, but hanging prayer flags high up in or around homes should be fine.
Lopez adds, "These days, people in the West hang them on their own houses or inside their houses, both for their blessings and as a sign of solidarity with the Tibetan cause."