Travelling to India’s Himalayan frontiers? Here’s why you see fluttering colored flags and stone stacks

Updated: Sep 28, 2020 12:12 PM

A part of the Buddhist religion similar to the one practised in neighbouring Tibet, these sights while making up for pleasant roadside views, also hold great cultural and historical significances.

Himalayan frontiers, Ladakh, Ladakh trip, Indian Himalayan states, Tibet, Indian Buddhism, Tibetan cultural, Tibetan kingdom, trip to himlayasA part of the Buddhist religion similar to the one practised in neighbouring Tibet, these sights while making up for pleasant roadside views, also hold great cultural and historical significances.

By Monidipa Dey

Those that have travelled to Ladakh, Spiti, Sikkim or to other Indian Himalayan states will be familiar with the innumerable pretty chortens that dot the landscape and the colourful flags with their printed mantras that brighten up houses, farms, mountain passes, and water bodies. A part of the Buddhist religion similar to the one practised in neighbouring Tibet, these sights while making up for pleasant roadside views, also hold great cultural and historical significances.

In the modern context, Tibetans refer to those from Tibet (in a geographical and political sense); however, owing to ancient and early medieval cultural ties with the old Tibetan kingdom, many Indians also practice Buddhism as practised in Tibet, which is pretty obvious when we travel to the Himalayan states. Besides the locals, many refugees from Tibet owing to political crises in their own country have made India their home in the last few decades, and have kept their religious and cultural practices intact.

 

The history of Tibetan Buddhism is strongly rooted in India, and records show that while Buddhism made an appearance in the Tibetan kingdom around 7th century CE and received royal patronages, it took a firm shape only after the famous monk Atish Dipankar (982–1054 CE) from the Pala era Bengal carried with him the essence of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and spread it among the masses, from Tibet to Sumatra and beyond. Before Buddhism arrived from India, Tibetans practiced Bon religion, an ancient form of worship. The Bon religion believed in the worship of natural spirits, and exorcism to drive away demons and remove negative effects. Many aspects of the Bon traditions were absorbed into Indian Buddhism, which finally gave rise to the form of Buddhism followed in Tibetan platuea and India’s Himalayan frontier regions. The Bon religion still survives in some parts of Tibet, and the adherents follow practices and philosophies that show a striking similarity to Tibetan Buddhism.

What do the fluttering flags say?

Hanging long strings of prayer flags/banners, and hoisting prayer flags on poles is a unique characteristic of Tibetan culture, and these are frequently seen on mountain passes and tops, farms, forests, beside water-bodies, houses, and gompas. In Tibetan language these flags are referred to as “dar lcog,” wherein dar means cotton cloth and lcog means an upright position (silk and synthetic fabrics are also used). This custom has been in practice for more than a thousand years now, and it is believed that initially the tradition started as a symbol of war, which later modified itself to denote religious activities. As Buddhism took hold among the Tibetans, even the ancient war symbols (flags and spears) slowly turned into philosophical symbols of positive energy that brought forth good fortune, while removing obstacles and unhappiness.

A closer look at the flags and banners show that five different colours are always used in the same order: blue on top, followed by white, red, green, and yellow. The five colours denote five natural elements, wherein blue denotes the sky, white stands for clouds, red is for fire, green is for water, and yellow depicts the earth. The Tibetans belief that there must be a balance between these five natural elements for prosperity (good crop yield and thriving cattle), which in turn will fill the world with happiness and peace. When the balance is lost, unhappiness and misery will engulf the world.

There is another line of Tibetan philosophy that claims the colours represent water (blue), iron (white), fire (red), wood (green), and earth (yellow). In this case the colours should be placed giving precedence to the raiser’s dominating natural element. Interestingly, a common form of this flag known as “wind-horse prayer flag” has Garuda as one among the four supreme power animals shown on it.

Why the stacked stones?

The stacked stones, a common sight in the mountains, tell us tales of previous travellers who have been to that place. Often stacked stones that are seen on mountain passes are covered with prayer flags. These cairns are revered objects, as it is believed they help to please the natural spirits/deities. These stacked stones with prayer flags are known as “la btsas.” Here the word la means mountain pass, and btsas likely refer to a tax paid when going to a sacred place. The practice started long back, when travellers and traders in ancient times made arduous journeys across high mountain passes. Once a pass was reached after a tortuous trek, it was considered a major achievement. The travellers would then collect stones, make a stack, and place some food item on it as an offering. Besides serving as offerings to create positive energy, the stacked stones with food items were also offerings for the later travellers who might arrive exhausted and without any food. With the passage of time as travelling turned less arduous, this practice of boosting the morale of later travellers by keeping food for them gradually went obsolete, and stone stacking turned into a custom of appeasing gods. As more and more stones piled up, flags were put on them, and slowly they turned into means of pacifying the natural spirits and gods. The script often seen on these stones and on Mani stones are known as Lantsa script, which is an Indian Buddhist script of late Pala origin, hence some alphabets are similar to Bengali alphabets.

There is also another line of thought which believes that in ancient times the mountain passes were boundaries of different kingdoms, and as people crossed the borders, they were obliged to pay taxes (“la btsas”), which later changed into a custom of appeasing deities.

There are more such interesting titbits from the Tibetan cultural aspects, which after a closer study reveal the complex weaving of two ancient religions (Bon and Indian Buddhism) to create a new form that has kept alive both the religions, despite the apparently seamless integration.

(The author is a well-known travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)

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