The hoisting of flags to ensure good fortune is one of the many
customs within the nomadic communities of Tibet that have changed very
little for several thousand years. However, the meaning of this ritual
has gradually evolved from being of militaristic to religious
     That the original use of flags in Tibet was militaristic is
illustrated by the term Ru-dar or banner. Ru refers to gathering of
nomads before moving on together to fresh pastures and thus, in an
archaic sense this assembly referred to a kind of army. The banners
(ru-dar) found in ancient literature were military flags. The flying of
flags began to acquire religious significance in the Bon tradition and
it may be observed that the actual design of the flags also gradually
changed. In the corners of some of these flags were images of a tiger,
a snow lion, a garuda, and a dragon, and in the center was a horse,
around which was written a Bon mantra and a line which read, "May the
horse of good fortune run fast and increase the power of life,
influence, fortune, wealth, health, and so forth."
     This writing of mantras on cloth to produce a flag of religious
significance can be traced to the immaculate g.Yung-drung-gtsang-ma-
zhang-zhung, a collection of Bonpo teachings, which say that when a
mantra is wrapped in five colored silk and placed high in the
mountains, it will provide whoever sees it with the good fortune to
become enlightened. If you attach a mantra wrapped in this way to the
top of a victory banner and pray to it, worship it, and make precious
offerings to it, then, according to tradition, you will accomplish all
your goals. The meaning of this Bon mantra needs further investigation.
     The protective power of mantras is illustrated by the following
story. When Buddha was in the Thirty-third realm of the gods, seated on
a flat stone, as white as his clothes, Indra, king of the Gods, came
and prostrated before him. Indra explained that he and the gods of the
Thirty-third realm had suffered a great defeat at the hands of
Vemchitra, the king of the anti-gods, and he asked Buddha what he
should do. Buddha told him to memorize the mantra contained in the
prayer Ornament at the Crest of the Victory Banner. Buddha explained
that he had received this mantra from the Tathagata known as
Irrepressible and had himself taught it to many disciples. He said that
since the time that he learned the mantra he could not remember even a
moment when he felt fear or terror, so he told Indra to carry this
mantra into battle to ensure victory.
     Great masters have written ritual texts praising the Dra-lha, a
deity who helps in overcoming obstacles and enemies, and the hoisting
of Dra-lha flags is meant to cause the Dharma to flourish and to
promote the welfare of all sentient beings, especially those who engage
in these rituals. in an old Dra-lha story, the gods were enjoying the
fruits of the wish-fulfilling tree, which grew in the valley of Mt.
Meru. As the tree was rooted in the realm of the anti-gods, they
claimed that the fruit was also theirs, and a battle ensued. Indra went
to Vajrapani and asked him for assistance. Vajrapani told Indra to
invite the brothers of Dra-lha and to ask for their help. Nine weapons
and nine deities then appeared from the great ocean. Through the
worship of these deities Indra was able to defeat the anti-gods and
achieve victory.
     There are many types of Tibetan flags, for example the dar-ding, a
long string of flags flown horizontally between trees or buildings, and
the dar-chen, a narrow flag which is flown from a pole.
     Tibetan prayer flags can be of any of these 5 colors, blue, white,
red, green, and yellow, which symbolize the sky, clouds, fire, water,
and earth respectively. If we relate these colors to the physical
elements then the blue symbolizes water, green symbolizes wood, red
fire, and white iron. There is also a tradition of flying flags which
represent the elements of your own body.
     Flags are flown on auspicious days such as Sunday, Monday,
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and when the stars are in auspicious
arrangements according to Tibetan almanac.
     Flags are flown by families from all economic backgrounds, and
they are flown on such important occasions as the third day of the
Tibetan new year, marriages, and official functions. Flags are also
hoisted in the event of interferences, or illness, in order to avert
further misfortunes.
     In some parts of Tibet, during the wedding ceremony, the guests
gather on the roof of the grooms house and preform a ritual in which
the bride touches the prayer flags. These flags are then hoisted on the
building housing the protectors near the site for making incense
offerings, and from that moment the bride becomes a member of her new
family. After the first year of marriage the bride returns to her home
and again preforms the same ceremony and in so doing she separates
herself from her original family.
     Flags are used as protection against harm when traveling. Before
passengers enter a boat to cross a river, they preform a ceremony in
which flags are attached to the horse shaped figurehead at the bow of
the boat. Prayers are said and incense and grain are offered to the
gods. In this way they insure safe passage across the river.
     Originally, flag ceremonies were intended to provide benefit in
this life, but as they gradually became more imbued with religious
meaning, they came to be associated with benefit in future lives and
the achievement of spiritual as opposed to material success. Although
the actual ceremonies and rituals have changed very little, the
significance or content of the rituals has gradually evolved a
spiritual element through a mixture of Bon and Buddhist symbolism.
(transcribed from "ME-LONG, The Newsletter of the Council for Religious
and Cultural Affairs of H.H. the Dalai Lama, No. 7, December 1990)