29 January 2022

Where the Hills Have More Prayer Flags than Trees

The Buddhist funeral ritual of offering 108 prayer flags has the potential of wiping off acres of forest every year. To get a perspective of the threat it poses, look at the hills stretch overlooking Lanjophakha to Taba, there are more prayer flags than trees. It’s so haunting to look into that direction and realize that it will continue to expand further. It's now buddhism against environment, which is not supposed to be. What have we done? 

The Prayer Flag Hill



 I have raised this issue before and even made a few tangible suggestions to make it sustainable. In one article, I suggested the need for every Bhutanese to plant 108 trees as a citizenry mandate so that we could equate that with the trees we would cut down for the ritual when we die.

 In another article, I floated a social business idea to startup prayer flag hiring company to help bereaved families deal with arduous process of hoisting prayer flag at an affordable cost by reusing old pole or finding alternative such as bamboo, plastic or steel poles. 



To do more on this, I have been part of a micro project where we promoted treated bamboo pole as an alternative flagpole. We couldn’t even make a dent because we realized that there is a huge resistance. 

 The big question we must address is, why 108 poles? It’s fundamentally flawed to count the poles when the ritual is about the prayers printed on the flag that will flutter in the wind. Shouldn’t we be counting the number of lines of prayers we are offering in the wind? 


 To make it worse, there is funny logic that states that bamboo and steel poles that are hollow inside cannot be used for offering prayer flags. Who is deciding this for us? Is it a wrong number? Otherwise, wouldn’t an offering that has done lesser harm be a more profound offering? 

Bamboo Flagpoles in Southern Bhutan

 I am not an extreme conservationist, I rather believe in sustainable harvesting of trees. I believe in felling a matured tree to build shelter and produce furniture. But I am opposed to the idea of felling young trees just to stretch a layer of prayer flags on it. Every tree is a golden goose and felling them for a mere pole is like killing the goose. It’s an unworthy sacrifice of a valuable natural resource. 

 There are more reasonable ways to make the offering; 
  1. reuse old flagpoles that are lying all around uselessly. Make all the existing flagpoles public property that anyone can reuse once that prayers are faded. 
  2. use ropes to stretch prayer flags between two poles or around one big pole. There are some fine examples. Make them popular.
  3. explore recycle plastic poles. I think my friend Karma Yonten can do this. He has shown the possibility with his eco-green poles.
  4. use steel poles. It’s far more economical because you can resell them. 
  5. and I am wondering if it’s possible to cut out flagpoles from a big matured timber using some machine. (Business idea?)


Reusable Ru-dhar pole

 But as long as permits to fell young tree for flagpoles are freely available, why suffer a change? We are too lazy to explore better ways. We are happy with the old world, and there are old minds advising us to resist. People gossip about you not doing enough gewa if you don’t do it the old way. 

 Therefore, there should be a systemic effort to putting an end to this mindless culture of massacring young trees for nothing worthwhile: 
  1. Department of Forestry, Forest Resources Management Division must stop issuing permit for flagpoles. We must put a ban on felling young trees for flagpole or any other purpose. 
  2. Department of Culture and Zhung Dratshang must create awareness on how the offering is about the prayer on the flag that flutter in the wind rather than the pole. Pole can be anything or nothing. Prayers matter.
Let's state the truth that it's so sinful to cut a young tree for hoisting a prayer flag.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Passu,

    I totally agree…. It is so damn mindless to defile the surrounding mountaintops with these unsightly flagpoles. I also support the suggestion that the Department of Forestry and Park Services should stop the issue of permits to cut down young trees for the purpose of hoisting prayer flags. In fact they should make it illegal to use trees as flag posts. This practice of using young trees for flag post is wrong in many ways:

    1. On a daily basis I think few hundred Bhutanese people die. This means that few thousand young trees are felled – to hoist the prayer flags.

    2. Ninety nine percent of the people don’t even know what prayers are printed on the flags. So basically this is a mindless moronic act.

    3. Unlike in the past when bio-degradable cotton cloth was used, now people use synthetic material to print the flags – so this practice is two times bad.

    Unfortunately the Dashos in the government are incapable of thinking – let alone progressive thinking.

    A look at your images on this article is proof that our forest stand is nowhere near what is claimed. I mean if mountaintops near the seat of power are in this condition, imagine what is the condition of our forests that are away from the attention of the regulators.

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