Suitcase and World: Flags.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


I'm fascinated by the design and symbolism represented by flags so before I visit a country, I often spend time learning about its flag. Here's what I've discovered about the flags of India, Nepal, Tibet, and China as well the Prayer Flag that is omnipresent in Nepal and Tibet.

The Flag of the Republic of India

The Indian national flag was adopted by India's constituent assembly on July 22nd, 1947. The design is three horizontal bands of equal proportion The deep saffron band on the top stands for courage, sacrifice and the spirit of renunciation, the white middle band for purity and truth and the bottom green bad for faith and fertility. In the center of the white band is a navy blue wheel that represents the the Dharma Chakra, a Buddhist symbol dating back to 200th century BC.

The Flag of Nepal

The flag of Nepal is the only national flag which is not rectangular. You have to admit, it's an unusual looking flag! Nepal's flag is a simplified combination of two single pennants which belonged to rival branches of the Rana dynasty who formerly ruled the country. The two pennants were first joined in the last century, but it was not adopted as the official flag until 1962, when a constitutional form of government was established.

The blue border denotes the peace and harmony that has been prevalent in the country since the age of Buddha, who was born in Nepal. The crimson color is Nepal's national color, and it represents the brave spirit of the Nepalese people.

The moon in the upper pennant represents the royal house. The sun in the lower pennant symbolizes a branch of the Rana family, members of which acted as prime ministers until 1961. The depiction of the sun and the moon also represents permanence - the hope that Nepal will last as long as the two celestial bodies with the moon symbolizing that the Nepalese are soothing and calm and the sun symbolizing the fierce resolve of the Nepalese.

The Flag of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

The flag of Tibet was introduced in 1912 by the 13th Dalai Lama, who united the army flags of various provinces to design the present one. It remains the emblem of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama - government in exile headed by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, which claims to be the rightful and legitimate government of Tibet. As a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement, it is banned in the People's Republic of China, including the Tibet Autonomous Region which corresponds to the former area of control of the Tibetan government at Lhasa, as well as other areas in greater Tibet.

This flag is the most religiously symbolic of any flag I've researched to date. This is some pretty spiritual stuff to try and wrap your head around - it helps if you are a practicing, devout Buddhist.....which, I am not.
  • In the centre of the flag stands a magnificent thickly snow clad mountain, which represents the great nation of Tibet, widely known as the Land Surrounded by Snow Mountains.
  • The six radiating red bands represent the six original tribes of Tibet - Se, Mu, Dong, Tong, Dru and Ra.
  • The six radiating dark blue bands represent the sky.
  • At the tip of the snow mountain is the sun with its rays brilliantly shining in all directions - representing the equal enjoyment of freedom, spiritual and material happiness and prosperity by all beings in the land of Tibet.
  • The pair of snow lions represent the country's victorious accomplishment of a unified spiritual and secular life.
  • The tricolored jewel held aloft represents the ever-present reverence respectfully held by the Tibetan people towards the Three Supreme Jewels which are the three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition: Buddha, Dharma (roughly translated as the teachings of Buddha) and Sangha (roughly translated as the Buddhist community).
  • The bicolored swirling jewel held between the two lions represents the peoples' guarding and cherishing the self discipline of correct ethical behaviour, principally represented by the practices of the ten exalted virtues and the 16 humane modes of conduct.
  • Lastly, the three-sided yellow border reresents the flourishing of the Buddha's teachings. The side without a border represents Tibet's openness to non-Buddhist thought.

Flag of the People's Republic of China

A very simple design with strong political symbolism, the flag of China was approved by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on September 27, 1949 at their First Plenary Session. The flag was first raised by Mao Tse Tung in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949 - the day of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
The red of the flag is the traditional color of the Communist revolution; the large gold star represents "the Common Program of the Communist Party"; and the smaller gold stars represent the four classes united by the common program - the workers, the peasants, the petty bourgeois, and capitalists sympathetic to the Party (or "patriotic capitalists").
Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are colorful panels that are often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding countryside. Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown upward as offerings to their deities and will bring benefits (such as happiness and good health) to all who hang them, as well as their families, loved ones, neighbors, and all people throughout the world including even enemies. By hanging flags in high places the "Wind Horse" will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings. As wind passes over the surface of the flags which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.

Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements and are arranged from left to right in a specific order:

  • Blue symbolizes sky/space
  • White symbolizes wind/air
  • Red symbolizes fire
  • Green symbolizes water
  • Yellow symbolizes earth

The center of a prayer flag traditionally features a "Ta" (powerful or strong horse) bearing three flaming jewels on its back. The Ta is a symbol of speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Surrounding the Ta are various versions of approximately 20 traditional mantras (powerful ritual utterances), each dedicated to a particular deity. In addition to mantras, prayers for the long life and good fortune of the person who mounts the flags are often included. Images (or the names) of four powerful animals (also known as the Four Dignities), the dragon, the garuda (a wise eagle-like bird), the tiger, and the Snowlion, adorn each corner of a flag.