August 13, 2023
When you go to the Himalayas, one of the staples that you’ll see in the country is an endless array of Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the mountain breezes. Made from cloth, these bright flags are often strung up along mountain peaks and paths, or located at sacred, religious and historical sites. Not only do these flags have a huge amount of cultural significance and meaning, they also provide a beautiful splash of colour that’s stunning against the landscape.
In this blog, we’re going to delve into the history of Tibet, Nepal and the Himalayas, exploring how a Tibetan cultural phenomenon quickly became a staple all over the region and, most importantly, what prayer flags mean.
In Tibet, as part of ancient Tibetan Bön traditions, shamans used plain flags to perform healing rituals. This practice developed and was further influenced by the legends of the Gautama Buddha, where Buddha’s prayers were written on battle flags of deities like the devas as they warred against their adversaries, the asuras, a type of demi-god. Indian Buddhist Sutras are a likely influence for Tibetan prayer flags, as the Indian buddhist monk Atisha, who lived between 980–1054 CE, introduced the practice of printing on cloth flags to Nepal and Tibet.
By at least 1040 CE, prayer flags continued to evolve and had spread all over the Himalayas. Currently, there are many different types of prayer flags in Tibet, although due to China’s annexation and governmental discouragement of the practice during the Cultural Revolution, a number of traditional designs have died out.
One of the oldest religious sites, Swayambhu is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus alike. According to the Gopal Raj Vamshavali (Gopālarājavaṃśāvalī), a 14th-century hand-written manuscript of Nepal documenting Nepali history, it was founded by King Vrsadeva at the beginning of the seventh century. At the site, there is a damaged stone inscription that appears to confirm King Vrsadeva ordered work done in 640 CE. Although there is some historical stipulation that Emperor Ashoka, of the Mauryan Empire in India, visited the site in the third century BCE and built a temple that was later destroyed, thus indicating the religious roots of the area could date back even further.
Due to this history and mythology, many Hindu monarch followers have paid homage to the temple. This includes Pratap Malla, the eighth King of Kantipur, who constructed the eastern stairway for Swayambhu in the 17th century which is still used to this day.
Tibetan prayer flags come in five colours, each representing the elements, and they’re ordered in a fixed sequence to symbolise balance. When it comes to Tibetan prayer flags, the colours are always ordered blue, white, red, green and yellow. Each of these colours represents the five elements, sky, wind, fire, water and earth.
These flags feature icons and texts traditionally printed by way of woodblock. The prayer flag’s centre will depict the Lung-ta (strong horse), which has three jewels on its back representing Buddha as well as Buddhist teachings and community. The corners of the flag can include symbols depicting sacred animals such as the dragon, tiger, snow lion and garuda. For the rest of the flag, approximately 400 mantras and prayers are written onto the flag, often praying for wisdom, peace, compassion, life and good fortune.
It’s important to remember that these flags are not praying to a specific deity. Instead, it is believed that over time, as the prayer flags blow in the wind, the wind will carry the flag’s mantras and sacred icons across the land, spreading the prayers of goodwill, compassion and positive energy by way of existence and eventually become part of the fabric of the universe itself as the flags fade. This is why it’s important that when you tie your prayer flags you have wholly good intentions.
To commemorate the unique, Himalayan history of the Tibetan prayer flag, we as Sherpa Adventure Gear use imagery inspired by these prayer flags within the design of many of our clothing styles and accessories, adding a unique and meaningful gesture to our designs. Sherpa Adventure Gear proudly features the Tarcho Tee within our best-selling product range, breathing the life of the Himalayas into the very fabric of your supreme quality clothing with our beautiful, vibrant Tibetan prayer flag inspired design.