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Home >> Destination >> Tibet >> Custom >>

Prayer Flag

Banner / Prayer flag is an integral part of Tibetan culture and folk ritual. We can see this type of banner in the mainland of Tibet and the Himalayan regions influenced by Tibetan culture, such as Leh, Ladakh, kulu, Manali, Dharamshala, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan or Arunachal Pradesh. The Banners are raised in Gompas (Buddhist monasteries), in house, or in burial grounds. In Tibetan language there are called Tharchoks. Sutra and mantras are printed in Tibetan script on the tharchoks.

However we find traces of an other kind of banner which is not made of cloth and not printed but inscribed insensible. In a journal of Asiatic society  we found an article about 'Interpretation of the Tibetan inscription on a Bhotian Banner taken in Assam, and presented to the Asiatic society by captain Bogle. The interpreters name is signed A.C. Koroshi and dated 1836.

 He described the Banner as -' It may that the flag-staff, with the wooden found containing this inscription was carried before the Tibetan chief in his march, and so used as ensign in war; but it is more probable that it belong originally to the house-ton or terrace of the prince in Bhutan for the house of great patronage in that country are generally decorated with such ensigns of victory at the four corners of the terrace roof. They are called in Tibetan 'rgyeltsen' ( ensign of victory) and always contain inscription of similar purpose with this'.

There is no specific size for tharchok. It depends upon the bamboo pole or post with which it is attached. But in market some regular size of tharchoks are generally sold. Some monasteries or organizations sometime raise larger size banners. These are ordered specially. Now these are made by synthetic clothes. Even ten years back all tharchoks were made by cotton cloth.
Tharchok can be white or colored. The color is entirely dependant upon the purpose for which a tharchok is raised. The tharchoks which are raised at the time of funeral must be colored white. These are called 'MANI'. The cause of this name is that these tharchoks are printed with the six syllable mantra Tibetan tantric Buddhism 'OM MANI PEME HUM' entirely.

The others are colored tharchoks. These are sometimes five colored or some times single colored. The colors are entirely dependant upon the Tibetan cosmology and astrology. The five colors in a tharchoks are arranged as blue, white, red, green and yellow respectively from top to bottom. These five colors are symbols of five elements according to Tibetan cosmology. These five elements ('Kham' in Tibetan) are water, iron, fire, plant and earth. This is described in the table below.
Besides these are single colored tharchoks - Colors of these tharchoks depend upon the colors astrologically favorable to the person who is raising the tharchok. The Tibetan astrology follows Chinese lunar calendar. This lunar almanac is made upon a circle of twelve successive years, where each year is symbolized by twelve animals - rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. Furthermore each of the five elements of 'Khams' is attached to two successive years. In this way five elements multiplied to twelve animals form a circle of 60 (5×12) year. This is called one 'Rapchung', where each animal became connected with each element.

The first Rapchung was 1027 A.D. So at the time of raising the their choke the element and animal specifying the date of birth of the raiser is counted. Astrologer (`Tsipa' in Tibetan) is called for this purpose. This person calculates the almanac and according to that the color of the tharchok is decided. The appropriate time for raising the tharchok is also mentioned by the almanac.

Another interesting factor is that the side, which is opposite to the side attached to the pole, or the side which sway in the air, has small rectangular pieces of cloth stitched at the end. These are also found in five colors. In case of mani or white tharchok there are orange colored. Tibetan language it is called 'Chyeh', which means tongue. Tharchok is a printed prayer and the mantra and printed on it fly across the air. With these symbolic tongue tharchok or prayer flags utter the prayer - Is this type of imagination source of creation of 'Chyeh' or tongue?

TYPES OF THARCHOK - The tharchok varies according to the printed diagram upon it. Different tharchok are raised for deferent purposes. Generally the invitation of good luck, the prosperity in mortal and transcendental life are the main inspirations. At this point this custom is not different from any other folk custom or ritual. The tharchoks varies according to this types:
1) MANI: These are specially used for funeral rites. Generally 'Mani's are seen in burial grounds. These are white colored with orange tongues and without any image or diagram. Only the six syllable mantra 'OM MANI PEME HUM' is printed on it. By this mantra it is related with 'CHENREJIG' (Avolokiteswara)
2) LUNGDAR (WIND HORSE): Lungdar is raised for the profit in business. 'Lung' means wind and 'dar' means wind. At the center of it an image of a horse a is printed.
3) GYELTSEN CHEMO (BANNER OF VICTORY): This symbolizes the glory of victory. in ancient time it was used after victory in war. An image of cylindrical banner is printed the center and mantra is printed around. It is also included in 'TASHI TAGGYE' or eight auspicious signs are used in ritual, religious procession, proclaiming the victory of piety over evil.
4) VAJRAGURU THARCHOK: These are also white in color. In this banner, the image of Vajraguru PadmaSambhava (Tibetan name Guru Rimpoche) is printed. His mantra 'OM AH HUM VAJRAGURU PEME SIDDMI HUM' is printed in this tharchok. Beside these are general tharchoks on which mantra, sutra, image of Buddha, Goddess Tara, stupa, lion, Dragon etc. are printed.

At the time of raising the tharchok 'sang' also offered. Offering sang or juniper smoke came from pre-Buddhist Bon tradition. 'Sangkang' a white pot bellied chimney containing the hearth is to be fund in almost every gompa.

Though we see tharchok as a process of visual 'JAPA' other than Mahayana Buddhist Tradition, Tibetan astrology and cosmology also contributed largely in formation of this particular ritual.

'Losar' or Tibetan new year is the largest festival in Tibetan life and for this special occasion tharchok is made. This comes generally in the month of January on March. At the last day of the year monks perform, 'Tor-sor' ceremony to exorcise the evil spirit. 9, 19 or 29 offerings are made to wrathful deities. 'Linga' an image which represents the evil spirit is thrown away with offering, gunshot and a sacred dance. They print image of 'Linga' and 'Mahabal' for this ceremony. Printer's of Rumtek monastery make much images.

Tharchoks are hung at this time from one rock to another rock along the hillsides, and between every two tharchok, horoscope of every member of the family is tied. The reason behind it is same as tharchok raising. Here it is the joint prayer from the whole family.

In this way religion, spirituality, ritual everything supported the growth of printing practice within this culture. Practically printing as a craft or art form has no separate existence here, but always related with some kind of belief closely related with life.

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