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The tradition stems from pre-Buddhist traditions in Tibet, just as the the so-called Wind horse which is often found on them. Traditionally, prayer flags have a combination of mantras, special prayers and auspicious symbols printed on them. Prayer flags are not only strung on ropes to hang between two poles, they can also be hung like a flag from one pole. Usually, the flags come in five different colors: blue corresponds with the sky, white with clouds, red with fire, green with water and yellow with earth. (This is different from the usual general symbolism of colors, which is related to the elements: black/blue for air, red for fire, white for water and yellow for earth.)
In the photo you can see one side is so draped in flags and khata that it appears solid. Lovely how the flags mimic the mountains behid. On a pass, you have complete silence, the only noise is the fluddering of flags in the wind. It is such a peaceful time. I hate to get gushy but it is spiritual, you feel the power of nature.