A Little About Prayer Flags In Bhutan

In October and November of this year we will be returning to Bhutan to lead two, 13-day kayaking adventures.  In addition to paddling on Himalayan rivers we’ll take time out to visit monasteries and temples, hike the countryside and learn more about the culture of these gentle, gracious and fun loving people. Between now and our fall departure we’ll have regular postings featuring images and short stories about our past travels there. You can learn more about our trips by boofing over to our website or contact us directly.

Prayer_flags_Bhutan_riverIn Oct

You’ll find these colorful panels of fabric slung across rivers, posted outside of dzongs and temples, in front of houses, at the top of mountain passes and in meadows. They can be a single color vertically tied to a tall pole, or a series of five individual colored panels joined together horizontally by a string. Their shape, color and positioning all have meaning.
We westerners are probably most familiar with the string of five individual flags colored blue, white, red, green and yellow. Mary and I have a string of them over our porch as a reminder of our time spent in Bhutan. Each color represents an element; water, sky, fire, wood and earth. These are printed using wooden-block printing techniques. The print is a series of blessing which Buddhist believe are carried by the wind across the land and into bodies of water to further spread their benefit to all sentient beings.

On ridge clearings you will sometimes see a cluster of vertical poles with long white flags lashed to them.  These are erected to honor a deceased family member in order to guide them to the next life.  When possible there will be as many as 108 of these vertical flags, a number of significance in the Buddhist religion.  Atop these poles is a small wooden disk that represents the lotus blossom. From the disk extends the blade of a wooden dagger, signifying that the Buddhist teachings slice through ignorance and lead the way to enlightenment.

Outside of monasteries, temples, dzongs and other important structures you will find the tallest of the flags.  They are often white with red, blue, yellow and green colored ribbons sewn to them.  The pole is topped by a metal or fabric parasol that is known as the victory banner. This too signifies Buddhisms triumph over ignorance and harmful behaviors.

Most times an astrologer will determine the exact date for placement of the flags. He may also give instructions for the direction, location and color. The lightweight and loose weave of the fabric assures that they will soon begin to erode under the force of the elements, reminding us of the impermanence of all things.

 Buddhist or not, sitting on a mountain pass with the sound of the wind rippling across the surface of the flags, or seeing the play of light on the translucent fabric will pull you into the moment in a present and meditative way. This slideshow is just a teaser.

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Photos and content ©DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking all rights reserved.

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