Of Prayer Flags and Bridges

Chimi Lhakhang - 1
Taken in the village close to fertility temple Chimi Lhakang. A typical example of Bhutan’s bridge of well wishes.

How high and how far do you want your prayers to be carried?

For the Buddhists in Bhutan, prayer flags is symbolic of blessings and prayers of compassion, peace, protection, strength and all things good. They are often planted high on tall poles or tall trees so that the winds may lift them high to spread their well wishes as far as possible.

Colourful prayer flags in the form of rectangular pieces of cotton in blue, white, red, green and yellow representing the five  elements of space, air, fire, water and earth inscribed with prayers and mantras in Sanskrit have become a big part of Bhutan’s landscape, elegantly dotting its lush green mountain ranges and rich earth in colour. 

The tradition of prayer flags here is taken seriously. You plant them in long lines or in cords on auspicious days and in places of spiritual importance like monasteries, temples and stupas, with mountains, valleys and rivers as clear favourites. It is believed that as prayer flags flutter in the wind, the spiritual vibrations they create are activated and blown along with them. 

What might not be so obvious is the belief that as the shadows of prayer flags fall on running rivers and waters, their energy and blessings too are activated and will flow swiftly and far into the oceans. This is part of the Bhutanese faith that harmony with the environment through air and water promotes goodwill and healing. 

Chumpu Nye 8-1
Taken at the foot of the mountain towards Chumpu Nye.  Few prayer flags here but still strategic.

So whilst bridges here may be built out of necessity as crossings over rivers or highlands, it has become a place of choice for the practice of planting prayer flags in Bhutan, especially those closely located to pilgrimage sites. They are also convenient for when worn-out prayer flags are to be taken down. 

In cities where I have lived,  you rarely greet strangers when you pass them on a bridge. In Bhutan, the culture of sending well wishes and faith to the universe is so widespread regardless of who or what the beneficiary might be. So do you think it is possible that the waters that we wash our hands with bear the blessings from the prayer flags of Bhutan? I’d like to think so.  Photo feature story for Photo Challenge: Bridge