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From Prayer Flags and Incense Sticks

Bhutan is a spiritually shaped country. Most people are deeply religious Buddhists who practise their faith visibly. Already at the landing approach to the international airport of Bhutan you can see first signs. In the wind fluttering prayer flags adorn the slopes of the Paro valley and welcome the people.

Prayer flags have a tradition of many centuries and go back to the pre-Buddhist culture of Bön. The mantras which are printed on the flags should bring e.g. happiness, wisdom, peace or even health. The wind, blowing through the flags, carries the prayers out into the world. Therefore, they are preferably suspended at particularly exposed places such as bridges, mountain passes and peaks but they are also seen near houses. On hikes to mountain monasteries they point the way, so that it can even be seen from the valley. The colourful flags shape the image of Bhutan. Looking carefully at them you will be aware that they are available in five colours. Each colour represents an element – blue symbolizes the sky, white the air, red fire, green water and yellow the earth. When they hang together on a cord, this is the right colour sequence. Sometimes, however, there are also single-coloured prayer flags. For a deceased person, for example, 108 white long vertical flags should be hoisted on poles. Moreover, the careful handling of prayer flags is very important. They should always be treated with a great deal of respect. Therefore, you should never step over prayer flags. And when they become frayed through the wind so that the mantras cannot be read completely, they must not simply be thrown away, but you should burn them.

Prayer mills assume a similar function as prayer flags. When they are turned, they send their message into the world and thus increase the good karma of the people who move them. In addition to the imprint on the outer shell, prayer mills inside bear scrolls or prayer flags to enhance their positive effect. They are available in a wide variety of sizes, from small, handy designs to huge, heavy designs which firstly have to be set in motion.

In addition to these well-known spiritual symbols, there are also less known forms which probably originate in the pre-Buddhist period. One of them are the Tsa-Tsas. These small, conical figures are made of clay and they are placed as sacrifices in caves, between roots, or on the steps of Chorten (Stupas). It is said that they improve the karma as well.

Ghost traps, on the other hand, are supposed to protect the house from evil demons. They are simple wooden frames, on which colourful woollen threads are spun. With this spiderweb-like tool evil ghosts should be caught, so that they cannot do any more harm.

Similar to prayer flags, the use of incense sticks has a long tradition, not only in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Even a few thousand years ago, other cultures, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians used incense for sacred and healing purposes. Some ingredients had such a high value that they were even weighed with gold.

Even today incense sticks are attributed a healing, purifying or soothing effect. They are supportively used in meditations or given as a donation in sacred places. When you visit one of the many monasteries in Bhutan or you are a guest at a puja (spiritual festival), you will be usually surrounded by the soothing smell of glowing incense. This fragrance comes from a selection of ingredients such as sandalwood, resins, herbs and fruits. In some cases, more than 20 different components are used for the production of one variety. This mixture gives an incense stick its unique character.

Artificial aromas are never used in Bhutan. In contrast to Indian incense sticks, the incense compound is not applied to a wooden core in the Land of the Thunderdragon, since it negatively influences the fragrance. The pure mass is rolled out by hand and cut with a knife to the wanted length. Then the incense sticks, which are still humid, will be dried in the air. For this reason, the rods are not always straight. Moreover, they are thicker than those from India or Japan. Some monasteries make their own incense. There you can easily track how time consuming the entire process is – from collecting to crushing and kneading, to rolling out and cutting.

In front of many monasteries you can also see stonewalled smoking ovens in which plants specifically collected for this purpose will be burnt. The wind blows the smoke across the countryside and spreads its pleasant odour.

All these are signs that make Bhutan what it is – a spiritual and mystical place of peace.