The Tibetan Empire, at its height, reached its influence as far south as Bengal and as far north as Mongolia. In the centuries that have passed, the country has been in and out of turmoil, with ever changing borders and conflicts around its autonomy persisting even today. Modernly, the geographical Tibet is part of the Peoples Republic of China, and the Tibetan government (in exile) operates from the mountainous region of Dharamsala, India.

Despite the centuries of changes and conflict, one defining tradition in Tibet has remained: it’s dedication to spirituality. Largely influences by Buddhism, the people of Tibet still cherish and hold to their traditions, and people around the world still flock to the region for sources of spiritual wisdom, like that of the Dali Llamas.

When thinking of Tibet, there is one symbol that usually come first to mind:  the multi-colored Tibetan prayer flags. This nearly ubiquitous symbol in Tibetan culture is both beautiful and mysterious – you may even hang the flags now and wonder about the complete meaning behind them.

So what does these prayer flags stand for?

A Long History and Important Purpose

It has been recorded that the tradition behind the prayer flags originated some 2000 years ago, when the local people made flags to honor the nature gods of Bon, a distinct shamanistic religion, but with teachings, terminology and rituals that resembled Tibetan Buddhism. This was during a time of pre-Buddhist Tibet, and the practice was also recorded in China, Persia and India.

The purpose behind the prayer flags dealt primarily with what the region’s spiritual leaders were most concerned with – the life of all beings. In fact, the Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar Cho, which means “to increase life, fortune, health and wealth” (Dar) “of all sentient beings” (Cho). These prayer flags were messengers and mediums of this mission. They drew attention to the subject, they harmonized with the environment, and they were intended to increase the happiness and good fortune of all beings around them. These flags were displayed across mountain passes, on homes, and throughout locales, all with the intention of fulfilling this mission.

The Elements and Their Healing Power

The significance of the Dar Cho begins with their colors – blue, white, red, green and yellow – which directly related to the five elements.

They used blue for sky or space, white for air or clouds, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth, and in the same way the flags were balanced with these colors, the portrayal of the elements where meant to balance the world around them. One example was their use in healing ceremonies – when properly displayed around a patient, the elements represented by the colors help create an atmosphere of balance and tranquility, easing ailments and helping shamans treat disease.

The flags also were meant to appeal to the natural elemental gods that encompass the world. When provoked, these natural gods caused disasters, disease, famine, and turmoil. By flying the prayer flags, it was hoped that the elements would be balanced and please the elemental spirits. It was a form of offering meant to pacify nature and invoke the blessings of the gods.

The Spread of Mantras, Spiritual Information and Solidarity

The purpose of Dar Cho goes beyond healing and spiritual protection as well. Inscribed and printing on the flags were also sutras, and the flags were a way for people to spread the prayers of their religion and keep themselves focused on their own practice. For example, some flags were covered in specific mantras, or words that would be repeated over and over again as a form of meditation. By stringing the prayer flags around a home or spiritual spot of significance, practitioners would be reminded of their inward practice.

Modernly, many prayer flags are imprinted with a number of different things, from mantras to poems to intricate symbols, and beyond their spiritual significance, they’re a great way to support the Tibetan people and their culture. These flags not only represent a part of their culture, but they represent a solidarity one shares with the people who have been exiled from their home and country