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On the western side of China, about a 3 hour busride from Zhongdian (wink wink Shangra la) there are some lovely glaciers, and of course a monastery with lovely rows of stupa and prayer flags everywhere. My life is blessed to see so much beauty.
Originally the writing and images on prayer flags were painted by hand, one at a time. Woodblocks, carefully carved in mirror image relief, were introduced from China in the 15th century. This invention made it possible to reproduce identical prints of the same design. Traditional designs could then be easily passed down from generation to generation. Famous Buddhist masters created most prayer flag designs. Lay craftsmen make copies of the designs but would never think of actually creating a new design.
Sutras are prose texts based on the discourses directly derived from Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who taught in India 2500 years ago. Many sutras have long, medium and short versions. Prayer flags use the medium or short versions. One short form of sutra often seen on prayer flag is the dharani. Closely related to mantras, dharanis contain magical formulas comprised of syllables with symbolic content. They can convey the essence of a teaching or a particular state of mind. The Victory Banner (Gyaltsen Semo) contains many lines of dharani. Praise to the 21 Taras, the Long Life Flag and the White Umbrella are also examples of prayer flags using Sutras.