Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon tradition. They can be found strung along trails and peaks throughout the Himalayas are used to bless the surrounding countryside, promoting peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. It is believed that as the wind passes over the flags the special prayers and mantras are spread all over the world on the wings of the wind bringing good will and compassion to all beings. Upon seeing prayer flags one is reminded to pray for the welfare of all people.
Prayer flags are made in five colors with each of the colors corresponding to the five elements and the Five Pure Lights. They are arranged in a specific order; blue, white, red, green, and yellow and should never be separated or rearranged. The color blue is symbolic of sky and space, white symbolizes the element of air, red represents the element of fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow represents earth. When these elements are in balance, according to Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are achieved.
Traditionally the symbols and mantras on the flags added with an ancient technique called wood blocking, also known as block printing, in which the images are hand carved onto a block of wood. The ink, or dye is then rolled onto the wood and pressed onto the cloth. The most common prayer flag is that of the Lungta or wind horse, a mythical creature from pre-Buddhist times that combines the speed of the wind and the strength of the horse to carry prayers from earth to the heavens, with three flaming jewels upon its back. The ‘ta’ is a symbol of swiftness, transforming bad fortune and ill will into that of good fortune and blessings. The three jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The multitude of mantras surrounding the central image are a collection of mantras for great Bodhisattvas including Guru Rinpoche, Chenrezig, and Manjushri along with prayers for good fortune and long life. Often found in the corners of the flag are the Four Dignities: the dragon representing gentle power, the garuda representing wisdom, the tiger representing confidence, and the snow lion representing fearless joy.
The images of the flags fade due to exposure to the elements and new ones are often hung alongside the old, as a metaphor to cycle of life - fading and being replaced anew. Because the symbols and mantras on the prayer flags are sacred, they are treated with respect and not placed on the ground or used inappropriately. If old flags are removed, they are burned and not thrown in the garbage. It is tradition to add or replace flags on Losar, the Tibetan New Year and renew one’s aspirations for peace and prosperity for all beings.