I keep seeing a lot of Buddhist prayer flags hung on the bikes and back of cars, probably the owner of these vehicles wants to connote that they have been to Ladakh or some Buddhist place, but mostly it is Ladakh. Frankly, I have no problem with that, but whenever I used to see the prayer flags, I used to actually wonder if they actually know the meaning or are they doing justice to the flags by putting it up in their cars and bikes, etc. because I did not know. So this time around when I was visiting a monastery in Tawang, I decided to check with a local monk.
Apparently, there are two types of Buddhist flags, which I started noticing only after the monk mentioned. One is square or rectangle in shape, they are strung together horizontally with a thread. This type of prayer flag is known as ‘Lung Ta’, which literally means the ‘Wind Horse’ (Lung = wind & Ta = horse) These flags are hung between two objects in high places, like the top of mountain passes, top of temples, monasteries, etc.
If you notice carefully there is a specific pattern to these flags (I wonder how many of us who hang the flags have bothered to know this), there are five colours arranged from left to right starting with blue, white, red, green and yellow. Each colour symbolises one of the five elements. Blue stands for sky & space, white for air & wind, red for fire, green for water and yellow signifies earth. In the centre of the flag, there is a Ta (horse), and on the four corners, you will find Dragon, Tiger, Eagle and Snowlion. There are mantras written around ‘Ta’ which are from the dedicated to a particular deity. In addition to mantras, prayers for a long life of good fortune are often included for the person who mounts the flags.
The other type of flag which is not very common to us is known as Darchog (Flagstaff) These are usually sizeable single rectangle attached to a pole in a vertical format. Darchog is mostly planted in the ground, mountains, rooftops, etc.
Now unlike the common belief, the flags do not carry prayers to gods. Instead, the prayers and mantras are blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all places. It is believed that when the winds pass over the surface of the flags, the air is purified and sanctified by the mantras. These prayers are taken far and wide by ‘Lung Ta’ or the ‘Wind Horse’. As the images and the scriptures fade, it becomes a permanent part of the universe. New flags are tied next to the old ones to symbolise welcoming of life’s changes and acknowledgement that all beings are part of the higher plan. Also, it is said that the old prayer flags should not be kept on the ground or used on clothing, etc. It is best to burn the old prayer flags. Also, the best time to hang the flags is in the morning on a sunny day or a windy day.