April 11, 2013

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Prayer Flags, Part 1

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

Prayer Flags, Part 1

A prayer flag is a printed image on paper or cloth intended to be thrown into the wind or fixed wherever the wind blows. The flags often contain images of animals, deities, or auspicious inscriptions. Prayer flags are common in the popular cultures of both Buddhist and Bon religions. The origins of Tibetan prayer flags are attributed to the Bon religion, but are likely an adaptation from an earlier Chinese culture that was based in the Xining region of Qinghai province in western China.

Chinese prints were made from carved woodblocks and typically depicted a single figure of an animal per print. The early Bon prayer flags, also printed from woodblocks, depicted five animals per print: a horse (known as the "wind horse") at the center, and in the four corners of the flag, bird, dragon, lion, and tiger, without any inscriptions or special words. The special group of five animals are thought to relate to five early clan families of the Tibetan plateau.

The Buddhists of India had no such prayer flag tradition, but they did have prayer banners containing short sutras or long dharani formulas. In Tibet, the new Buddhists used the indigenous system of the five basic animals and then added their own sacred texts. Later Buddhists would substitute popular figures or deities for the wind horse in the middle of the flag, yet keep the four animals in the corners. Over the years, an endless varieties of prayer flags developed with both Buddhist and Bon religious designs. Popular deities adorned an endless number of specially designed flags.

Traditional wind horse prayer flags must include the five animals, with the horse at the center, though the four supporting animals might be represented in written word rather than image. Traditionally, it's thought that it is the horse that rides the wind and carries the auspicious wishes and prayers to the world. Although the most traditional prayer flags adhere to orthodox styles, there are actually very few overarching rules. This has encouraged a tremendous amount of creativity and variation in style.

Look out for Part 2 on the blog next Thursday.


Prayer Flag 1. Himalayan Region, 1960. Bon lineage. Ground mineral pigment on paper. Private collection.

Prayer Flag 2. Himalayan Region, 1800–1899. Buddhist lineage. Private collection.

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littleblue's picture

Throughout his book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar, Lodro Rinzler, explains their links to the four paths of Tibetan Buddhism and uses the 'four dignities' as metaphors for how how to live and practice. A great easy read for anyone interested in the meaning behind the symbols:

“In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, we have our own group of Super Friends. These are four mythical and nonmythical animals that represent different aspects of our training in wisdom and compassion. Individually they are the tiger, snow lion, garuda (part bird, part man), and dragon, and together they are known as the four dignities of Shambhala.”