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Tibetan Prayer Flags


Last modified: 2020-07-11 by ian macdonald
Keywords: tibet | thangka |
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Tibetan prayer flags and poles

Prayer flag image located by Corentin Chamboredon, 25 May 2020

I only know a very few serious sources about prayer flags:
Rahel Tsering, 2019. Labtse Construction and Differentiation in Rural Amdo (issue 37 of Revue d'Études Tibétaine)
Dollfus, Pascale, 2013. Cheval rouge, Nez jaune, Champ bleu et Esprit blanc. Voir, Nommer et Utiliser les couleurs au Ladakh, région tibétaine de l’Himalaya occidental. (it is about colours in Tibetan language but prayer flags are mentioned)
Paul, Katherine Anne, 2003. Words on the wind. A Study of Himalayan Prayer Flags (I couldn't find it so I don't know what this study says)

The first source says (p. 462) that in Tibet the structure of these long flags are called darchog (དར་ལྕོག་, dar lcog) :
"Prayer flags are frequently raised in Amdo in connection with architectural structures or prominent landscape features. Often they are positioned at the top of mountains, passes, or at specific landmarks such as gorges, bridges and the confluences of rivers. There are different designs of prayer flags. Sometimes the flags are fixed directly to a flagpole. Other designs fix the prayer flags to ropes and suspend them between two points, possibly also poles. These prayer flag structures are usually not understood as abodes of a specific deity. Instead, they are prayers for well-being and luck, and for a general honouring of all kinds of deities by both the people who hung the flag and those who pass by the landmark or architectural structure. In Amdo the prayer flags that are fixed to ropes and suspended between elevated points often display wind horse prints.

In addition, there is a quite popular structure in Amdo, called Victory Banner (rgyal mtshan rtse mo). It has prayer flags that are fixed to poles. Their prints often contain a long text, the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit text Āryadhvajagrakeyūranāmadhāraṇ, in Tibetan ’Phags pa rgyal mtshan rtse mo’i dpung rgyan. In contrast to the Flagpole-style of prayer flags, the Victory Banner-style consists of many flagpoles. Beside the flags with the specific text, other unprinted or windhorse flags can also be added. The flags and poles are then fixed together by ropes and are often supported by a wooden frame similar to those of the Labtse structure. Victory Bannersare often built next to a Labtse and are sometimes connected with them through a sheep wool rope (dmu thag). Sometimes a structure for veneration of a minor Zhidak, which is not considered as the natal deity (skyes lha) of a community, might not have an elaborated Labtse with arrow-spears, but rather a smaller Victory Banner structure."

The author gives a table to explains the differences in use and meaning between structures.
  Labtse Structure Prayer Flag Structures
Pole Arrow-spears as weapon for the deity. Flagpoles to which prayer flags are fastened or poles to which ropes with prayer flags are fastened
Flag No flags necessary, sometimes prayer flags or unicoloured flags are added. Prayer flags with prints. Different designs.
Fletching Wooden and coloured fletching. No fletching.
Targeted Group Exclusive for the community. Usually the village males. Inclusive to all who pass by.
Location Usually at a prominent, elevated places, highly visible but not easy accessible. At landmarks (passes, gorges, bridges etc.), next to roads, easy accessible.
Ritual Annual Labtse ritual, private offerings when required. Every time when passing by.
Purpose of ritual Maintaining a long-lasting relationship with the local deity to secure its goodwill for the family and community. Winning the goodwill of all kind of deities for the short travel period. To “air” continuous prayers.
Basement Often elaborate basement with an altar and offerings for the deity. No elaborate basement. Basement only to fix the pole.

Corentin Chamboredon, 25 May 2020

The giant Thangka

In the book "Sieben Jahre in Tibet" by Heinrich Harrer there are two photos showing the display of a huge flag at a mountain slope in Tibet.
The silk flag was displayed once a year by 60 monks. Unfortunately, it is impossible to see what the flag shows.
M. Schmöger, 21 October 2003

I have been told in Ladakh and Zanskar, two areas where Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion, that each monastery kept a huge flag rolled in a sacred room of the monastery, and displays it only in the most important religious festivals, usually once a year or even less. The prototype of such flags was kept in the biggest Tibetan monastery of China, whose name I cannot remember now, and was destroyed by the Red Guards after the invasion of Tibet. This act is still considered as one of the major sacrileges committed during the invasion.
Ivan Sache, 21 October 2003

It is a giant thangka (the usual transcription of the Tibetan word). Thangkas come in all sizes and are religious pictures on textiles, painted or appliquéd. They are hung on walls in private homes and in temples, and the large monasteries had or have giant ones for outdoor display, often on a specially built wall or screen in the hillside. Read more about them at:
Lars Roede, 22 October 2003

The word literally means "object to be unwound". The great thangkas are called "gos-sku". One of the biggest "gos-sku" dates back to the end of the 17th century and shows the Amitabha Buddha. It measures 55.80 x 46.81 and is kept in the Potala in Lhassa. (Source: Encyclopaedia Universalis, which has a detailed description of the stylistic evolution of the thangka through the ages).
Ivan Sache, 22 October 2003