If there is one item that seems synonymous with climbing Everest, it is the prayer flag. Summit photos feature them strewn about the peak. At camps they stretch from any high point earthward, colorful and frantic in the wind. It is clear that prayer flags have meaning and are revered by the local people as well as many climbers. So, for the sake of these pages, I set out to learn more about prayer flags.
Prayer flags originate from the Indian Sutras carried into Tibet about 1040 CE. These Sutras were originally battle flags, but gradually transformed in the Tibetan culture to the prayer flags of today. There are vertical flags, known as Darchor, and strings of horizontal prayer flags called Lung Ta.
The Darchor are typically a single large rectangle flag attached to a pole in the ground. These flags feature elaborate graphics and symbolism as well as mantras. Dar means "to increase life, fortune, health and wealth", and Cho translates as "all sentient beings". This is a central tenet to prayer flags; that they are not communicating with the Gods, but rather distributing good will to all people.
The Lung Ta, meaning powerful or strong horse, are smaller rectangle flags strung together at the top. They are commonly hung on a diagonal line from high to low between two objects in high places such as monasteries, temples, and mountain passes. Lung Ta come in sets of five colored flags; blue (symbolizing sky/space), white (air/wind) , red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth). Traditional Tibetan medicine states that achieving balance between these five elements creates health and harmony. They believe the air is purified by the flags as it passes over their surface and carries good will and compassion to all beings. The higher a flag is flown, the greater its distributive effect. Thus the summit of Everest is the single best place on the planet to hang one's prayer flags and doing so is considered a great honor. The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. So Tibetans continually hang new flags alongside the old in renewal of their hopes for the world.