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Prayer Flags: Origin and Meaning - Himalayan Footsteps

In the Himalaya they are ubiquitous: Prayer flags! They adorn chortens, bridges, mani walls, hilltops, you can see them in the streets of big cities and in the remotest places in the mountains: fluttering in the wind, braving the weather.

Printed on them are buddhist mantras, sutras and prayers, traditionally by woodblock printing. These prayers are carried into the world by the wind and rain, bringing benefits and happiness to those touched by them.

Prayer flags come in five colours: Yellow, green red, white and blue, always in exactly this order and always in sets of multiples of 5. The colours represent the elements from which everything is made:

Blue – Space
White – Air
Red – Fire
Green – Water
Yellow – Earth
(in another interpretation the meanings of white and green are swapped)

By putting up prayer flags one can gain merits for the next life. The motivation why they are put up influences the strength of prayers and the virtue generated: putting them up merely to gain merits will, as an egocentric motivation, not generate much virtue. Putting them up for the benefit and happiness of all beings will give them a greater strength.

The origin of prayer flags dates back thousands of years, to the ancient Bön in Tibet, who used coloured pieces of cloth in healing ceremonies.