Science & Nature

Nepal’s biggest stupa turns to biodegradable prayer flags

Nepal's biggest stupa turns to biodegradable prayer flags thumbnail

Nepal’s largest stupa, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Tibetan Buddhism, was festooned with biodegradable prayer flags on Saturday after devotees replaced the more common synthetic version with a greener alternative.

Colourful prayer flags — which have auspicious symbols and prayers inscribed on them — are an integral part of Buddhist rituals.

At the white-domed Boudhanath stupa, prayer flags stream down in four directions from the finial.

On Saturday, workers swapped out the usual polyester banners and strung up new biodegradable ones.

“It is the centre of Buddhist religious faith so I believe that it will send a good message and spread in other places too,” Chandra Man Lama, chair of Boudhanath Area Development Committee, told AFP.

Old prayer flags are usually burnt when discarded under the belief that the winds will carry the prayers to the gods.

Traditionally, prayer flags were made of natural fibres like cotton and silk but the current market is saturated with versions constructed of polyester and other synthetic materials, which take decades to decompose and emit toxic gases when burnt.

“The prayers might be answered but it is also causing pollution,” said Ang Dolma Sherpa, founder of Utpala Crafts, which made the biodegradable prayer flags now adorning Boudhanath stupa.

Sherpa uses cotton and prints prayers and symbols on her flags with water-based paint. The ropes are made of natural fibres instead of nylon.

“I am giving an alternative. I hope that people will use them wisely and turn them into compost,” she said.

Prayer flags and khadas — Buddhist scarves used as a greeting or offering — are also popular fixtures in mountaineering, with climbers carrying them for good fortune and offering them at the summit.

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Mountain guide Dawa Yangzum Sherpa took biodegradable flags on her 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 and khadas have an unseen impact.”

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