Let's only buy bio-degradable prayer flags

Dawa Yangzom Sherpa with prayer flags at the summit in Rowaling with Mount Gauri Shankar in the background. Prayer flags like these will increasingly be eco-friendly from now on. Photo: DAWA YANGZOM SHERPA.

Long lines of multi-coloured prayer flags dangle from Buddhist stupas, they are strung up on Himalayan summits by mountaineers, and they flutter noisily at pilgrimage sites.

At Kathmandu’s Boudha shrine, the prayer flags stream down in four directions from the top, adding to the sacred ambience under the ever-watchful eyes of the Buddha.

On 18 December, however, the stupa is getting a green makeover that will not be immediately visible to visitors — prayer flags made from synthetic material will be replaced by biodegradable ones.

Called Lung ta (Tibetan for ‘Wind horse’) prayer flags are essential at Buddhist shrines across the Himalaya from Ladakh to Bhutan. Activists are launching a campaign to replace them with more eco-friendly alternatives as expressions of faith and spirituality.

For Ang Dolma Sherpa, founder of Utpala Crafts in Kathmandu, this has been the culmination of a five year campaign to spread the acceptance of the biodegradable prayer flags and khada she initiated.

“It all started with 15 Buddhist leaders from around the world, including the Dalai Lama, signing the Buddhist Climate Change Statement to World Leaders at COP21 in 2015,” she says. “I was convinced small-scale initiatives like these can also help address pollution and climate change.”

The idea germinated in 2016 with khada, the traditional ceremonial scarves used in almost every occasion, from birth to weddings, graduations, arrivals, departures and even funerals.

“Growing up in a Buddhist family, we used to have heaps upon heaps of khada collecting in our house, and once every month we used to sit and separate the old ones from the new to throw or recycle,” recalls Ang Dolma.

Even then, massive amounts of khada went to waste. “When I was younger, I didn’t really care about it,” she says, “but when my father died in a car accident in 2011, I noticed during the funeral just how much of it was thrown away.”

In the past, khada used to be made of cloth, and sometimes silk, but this changed with the introduction of synthetic materials, such as polyester and nylon. And since khada used in funerals cannot be recycled, these are either burnt or thrown away, creating greenhouse gases, pollution and garbage.

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“I wanted to do the right thing,” Ang Dolma says. “Buddhism also teaches us to reduce waste and take care of our planet, and so my mother and I decided to make our own biodegradable khada.”

But it was difficult to find a manufacturer at first. In 2019, Ang Dolma proposed biodegradable khada to Idea Studio, a platform that enables young entrepreneurs with innovative business ideas addressing local social-economic and environmental issues.

It was during the incubation at Idea Studio that she felt like she was on the right path. “Talking to other young people had a positive impact on me,” she says. “Many of us had similar views regarding environmental conservation, and I was encouraged.”

Later, she was awarded as a top ‘Ideator’ for her pitch because of its originality and sustainability and she set up Utpala Crafts last year.

But as she had no background in business, she found a partner in a friend who shared her philosophy. “To me, what’s important is upholding the ethos of the business, you have to be very patient to make that profit,” she says.

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Khada have a huge market and are used by people across communities and religions, in celebrations and sorrow. However, most are not manufactured in Nepal but imported from India and China.

“Which is why I wanted to be involved myself,” says Ang Dolma, whose Utpala Craft does not have a factory but manufactures the flags and scarves locally in Lalitpur’s Lubhu. The stitching and design are done by women by Ang Dolma’s neighbours in Patan, where Sherpa currently resides and her network is expanding with the demand.

“We are trying to export to Germany as well, but the idea is to create awareness and interest in Nepal first,” says Ang Dolma. “Rather than branching out, I hope people in Bhutan or Ladakh are also inspired to manufacture their own biodegradable prayer flags.”

Currently, the khada and prayer flags are available in white with symbols and prayers printed on them in water-based black ink, recalling the traditional designs. Natural ink is also being planned as the business grows. Khada made of 100% natural fibres is priced at Rs290 and Tencel cotton at Rs160.

Boudha is a prominent centre of Buddhism in the Subcontinent and attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims every day. And Dolma hopes that the introduction of biodegradable prayer flags there will spread the word and encourage communities across the Himalaya to be more responsible.

Ashish Dhakal

writer

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