In an event on Saturday, 18 December, the iconic, colorful prayer flags of the Bouddha Stupa in Nepal were taken down and replaced with white flags. Ang Dolma Sherpa, a Buddhist laywoman and entrepreneur, helped spearhead the event. The goal, she says, is to eliminate both synthetic fibers and chemical dyes from the country’s widespread business of producing and using Buddhist prayer flags.
Bouddha Stupa, located around 11 km (6.8 miles) northeast of the center of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is the largest stupa in Nepal, at some 36 meters (118 ft) in height. It is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Tibetan Buddhists in the country. Since 1979 it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Typically it is adorned with prayer flags in yellow, green, red, white, and blue. Increasingly, the flags used there and elsewhere in Nepal have been made of synthetic fabrics.
“It is the centre of Buddhist religious faith so I believe that it will send a good message and spread in other places too,” said Chandra Man Lama, chair of the Boudhanath Area Development Committee. (The Jakarta Post)
According to Sherpa, “The flags that we all know and used are made up of nylon or synthetic fabric. These flags are burned and they then harm our environment, leaving a lot of carbon footprint. We are always talking about climate change; there is much awareness regarding it; but, now is the time to shift from synthetic prayer flags to biodegradable ones.” (Online Khabar)
Notable figures that have supported Sherpa’s initiative include Nepal’s first woman international mountain guide Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Bouddha Area Development Committee’s chairman Chandra Man Lama, Honorary Consul to Nepal and sustainable tourism and conservation specialist Lisa Choegyal and UNESCO country representative to Nepal Micheal Croft.
According to Sherpa, prayer flags in the distant past were predominantly white. She prefers to return to white flags for both environmental and economic reasons. “Many suggested to me that I should use natural dye. But, natural dyes are costly. And though I could use it, it means the cost for the end-users increase too. And it seemed unfair. I wanted the price to keep minimum,” she says. (Online Khabar)
Sherpa adds, “We are talking about climate change and sustainability. So using cotton does that to an extent, but we are thinking about not just the economic aspect as well. An individual might purchase the prayer flags once, out of supporting the local initiative or concerned about the climate even. But, if the product is costly, it does not encourage them to purchase again and change their behavior.”
Sherpa, along with her partner Shreesma Shakya, have been working toward this event since 2020. Over the months she says she gathered much support from Buddhists interested in helping her. “I was very anxious and worried about people getting offended and hurting their religious sentiment,” Sherpa said, “But, now, that the prayer flags are up, I am ready to get the backlash too, if any, and stand for the values that I have learned from Buddhism and my family.” (Online Khabar)
At the Bouddha Stupa, the flags are only changed once per year. This means the white ones will be visible until at least December 2022. Monasteries in Nepal alone are estimated to use some 2.5 million prayer flags per year, making the market for a more environmentally-friendly option very large. And while many flags are burned, thus causing pollution, Sherpa suggests that the cotton flags instead be buried, where they will decompose in a matter of months.
Mountain guide and supporter, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa carried the biodegradable flags on a recent expedition to the 5,630-metre (18,471-foot) Yalung Ri peak in eastern Nepal. “It is very important for them to be biodegradable,” she said. “These prayers flags (sic) and khadas have an unseen impact.” (The Jakarta Post)
Buddhist prayer flags turn white, that is to say, green (Online Khabar)
Nepal’s biggest stupa turns to biodegradable prayer flags (The Jakarta Post)
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