The Himalayas – Sanskrit for ‘abode of snow’ – have been widely climbed by many of our motivational speakers – Sir Chris Bonington, Kenton Cool, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Leo Houlding, Dr Niall McCann, Ian Parnell, Stephen Venables, Karen Darke, Dave Bunting. They’re home to perhaps the most famous mountain of them all, Everest. Climbers and mountaineers have been drawn to the challenges presented by the three parallel ranges since 1921.
The list of those who have traversed the treacherous slopes and/or have reached the peak, represents a ‘who’s who’ of mountaineering elite; it’s probably fair to say that Mount Everest has dominated a chapter in climbing greatness for nearly a century. Since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay summited Everest in 1953, approximately 4000 people have climbed its slopes, and those same slopes have claimed in the region of 200 lives.
Beyond the awe inspiring surroundings of the Himalayas, there’s something else that’s become synonymous with the terrain, something equally charged with beauty and presence – the Tibetan Prayer Flags. These small emblems of Buddhist religion, dominate the landscape with vibrant colour, against an otherwise stark, but nonetheless breath-taking backdrop. The colourful rectangles of cloth can often be found strung along mountain ridges and peaks, moving with the wind – sometimes waving gently, sometime raging; a dance of shadow and light. But what do they mean?
They are used to bless and harmonize the surrounding environment. Prayer flags come in five colours – blue for the sky, white for air/wind, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Each flag is woodblock-printed with a Buddhist prayer, mantra and symbol, each of which is thought to produce a ‘spiritual vibration’, activated and carried by the wind across the countryside. Himalayans believe that any being touched by the wind - the breath of nature - is uplifted and made a little happier, as the blessings, good will and compassion embodied by the text and symbols spread across the land.
The Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar Cho; Dar means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. Cho means all sentient beings. The centre of the flag often depicts a Lung-ta (the wind horse) - a symbol of speed and transformation of bad fortune to good, bearing three jewels on its back that represent the Buddha, Buddhist teachings and the Buddhist community. The Four Dignities (four sacred animals) – dragon, garuda, tiger and snow lion – can appear in the corners. Covering the rest of the flag are versions of the 400 or so mantras (powerful ritual utterances) and prayers for the life and fortune of the person tying the flag. Eventually as the prints fade, the prayers become part of the universe, and the prayer flags are renewed.
If you should ever visit the Himalayas, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to examine these beautiful flags in detail. When you do, treat them with respect but don’t be afraid to linger. Their brightness may become one of your most vivid memories.