Prayer flags, ‘lung-ta’, were first associated with an ancient Tibetan folk religion called Bon Shamanism. Tibetan Buddhism supplanted Bon in the seventh century but incorporated many aspects of it including the tradition of prayer flags. For thousands of years Himalayan peaks have been decorated with strings of ‘lung-ta’. Five colours of flags exist and each symbolises a natural element: blue symbolises sky; white symbolises wind or clouds; red symbolises fire; green symbolises water or wood and yellow symbolises earth. An image of a wind-horse and a prayer mantra is stamped onto each piece of cloth using a wood-block. The horse represents earth and the wisdom of equanimity. Many Tibetan families have their own blocks which have been passed down as heirlooms for generations. The flags are strung onto strings and flown from any place where a breeze will be able to carry the blessing.
These lung-ta are hung from a Buddhist cairn, or lata, on a 4,551m high pass between the Himalayan valleys of Lahaul and Spiti. The pass is called Kunzum-la and the track over it deviates so that one has to circumambulate a full rotation around the Lata’s base. This is an auspicious act in Buddhism.