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Bod, Bö, བོད་

Last modified: 2021-04-10 by ian macdonald
Keywords: tibet | china | jewel | snow lion | rays | sun |
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[Tibetan flag] image by Brett Hamilton 26 September 2003
Proportions: 3:4

Tibet: Index of Pages

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The Flag of Tibet

A photograph of an actual Tibetan Flag made by Tibetan refugees is found on page 25 of Flags Through the Ages and Across the World by Whitney Smith (McGraw Hill, 1975) [smi75b]; these flags were available to subscribers of the Flag Bulletin for a nominal cost at the time of the article about the Tibetan Flag and I have one. The following is from "The story of the flag of Tibet" by Prof. Pierre C. Lux-Wurm, Flag Bulletin, Vol.XII, No. 1 (Spring 1973):

... It is said that the main features of the Tibetan flag were designed in the latter half of the 7th century A.D. by King Srongtsan Gampo, ... The lion emblem first displayed as a war-banner became in time the national flag. The final consolidation of Tibetan independence brought about the addition of the rising sun and the twelve stripes of red and blue, which were introduced by the thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1912...
  • The white triangle at the bottom is a snowy mountain and represents the geographical location of Tibet in the heart of the Asiatic continent.
  • The two lions (in white, with green manes and tails) symbolize the twin system of the temporal and spiritual rule or, in other words, harmony between religious and earthly government.
  • The multicolored round gem (or Wishing Gem) in the lion's paw represents the rule of law based on the endless principle of Cause and Effect 'underlying the Ten Golden Precepts and the Sixteen Humane Principles of Buddhism, which are the source of infinite benefit and peace.'
  • Over the Wishing Gem stand the Three Flaming Jewels symbolizing Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, 'endowed with Twenty-Four Transcendental Attributes.' The Three Flaming Jewels are sometimes identified with the body, speech, and mind, ...
  • The golden rising sun symbolizes freedom, happiness, and prosperity.
  • Beginning at the lower hoist and continuing clockwise, there are twelve stripes in red and blue. They stand for the twelve descendants of the six aboriginal tribes of Tibet. The two colors symbolize two guardian deities known as Mar Nag Nyi, who are the special protectors of the flag. Red is for the male deity Chhyo-kong, blue for the female, Sung-ma.
  • "The yellow border is not a mere ornamentation. It indicates the spread of the golden ideals of Buddhism. But, as I was told, the fact that it only covers three sides of the flag is due to a practical observation: the fly of the flag is left free because, when waving, the cloth gets rid of dust or snow.

Dave Martucci 01 August 1996

From another site, the details are slightly different:
The Tibetan flag was designed by the thirteenth Dalai-Lama in the beginning of the 20th century. It is based on the traditional flags of the Tibetan regiments. From that time, it has been the official flag of Tibet.

Here is the meaning of the symbols:

  • In the centre stands a magnificent snow clad Mountain which represents the great Nation of Tibet widely known as the Land surrounded by Snow Mountains.
  • The six red bands across the blue dark sky represent the original ancestors of the Tibetan people :- the six tribes called Se, Mu, Dong, Tong, Dru and Ra which in turn gave the (twelve) descendants. The combination of six red bands (for the tribes) and six dark bands for the sky represents the unceasing enactment of the various deeds of protection of the spiritual teachings and secular life by the black and guardian protector deities with which Tibet has been connected since times immemorial.
  • All the tip of Snowy Mountains, the Sun with its rays shining brilliantly in all directions represents the equal enjoyment of freedom, spiritual and material happiness and prosperity by all the being in the land of Tibet.
  • On the slopes of mountains a pair of snow lions stand proudly, blazing with the means of fearlessness, which represent the country's victorious accomplishment of a unified spiritual and secular life.
  • The beautiful and radiant three-colored jewel aloft represents the ever-present reverence respectfully held by the Tibetan people towards the three gems, the objective of refugee Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
  • The two colored swirling jewel held between the two Lions represents the people's guarding and cherishing the self discipline of correct ethical behavior, principally represented by the practices of the ten exalted virtues and 16 human modes of conducts.
  • Lastly, the adornment with a yellow border symbolizes that the teachings of the Buddha, which are like pure refined gold and unbounded in space and time, are flourishing and spreading.

Source: CSPT (Comité de Soutien au Peuple Tibetain) Bulletin Nr. 11, February 96.
Ivan Sache, 08 October 1996

The Tibetan Flag is illegal in the T.A.R. As is possession of a photograph of the Dalai Lama, for which the punishment is imprisonment. The Peoples Republic of China only refer to the former province of U'Tsang as the Tibet Autonomous Region (T.A.R.) The term "Tibet" itself refers to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet, they usually mean the T.A.R., which includes only U'Tsang. Amdo and Kham were renamed by the Chinese as the province of Qinghai, and as parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces, respectively.
Neil Carman, 29 October 1997

Dragonflags No. 2 (1999) [dfs], a supplement of the Canadian Flag Association had a feature on the Tibetan flag, or snow mountain lion flag.

Basically, in the 7th century, under Sontsan Gambo, the Tubo kingdom was divided into 4 rus (flanks), each ru subdivided into an upper ru and a lower ru. Each ru had its own flags. Dragonflags gives the following as information, but no graphic details:

  • red flag with floral border and a red lucky flag for the rear guard.
  • red lion flag and a black black-hearted flag for the left flank.
  • a white lion in the sky flag and a black lucky flag for the right flank.
  • a black flag with white heart and picture of a roc and a pale yellow flag with stripes.

Information elsewhere in Dragonflags also indicates that there were:

  • a flag with two snow-lions facing each other.
  • a flag with a snow-lion standing upright, springing towards the sky.
  • a red flag with a white flame

These were standardized under the thirteenth Dalai Lama, basically creating a national standard from several military standards.
Phil Nelson, 14 November 1999

I have additional details on the national flag from a Chinese website [on a 1945 conference]:

Meanwhile, Britain had persuaded the authorities in Tibet to send a delegation to the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. The Tibet government complied, and the arrival of the delegation was hailed by the major Indian newspapers. Hugh Richardson, the commercial attaché at the British Embassy in New Delhi, suggested that if the delegation had its own flag it would be claiming to represent an independent country. He wasted no time in notifying the Gaxag. But Tibet had no national flag, and so the Gaxag sent its army&'s flag, which showed a lion against a back ground of snowy peaks.

This is probably the real origin of the national flag. The 13th Dalai-Lama tried to make Tibet fully independent and internationally recognized. The reason why he didn&'t keep the army flag is probably political. Between 1914 and 1933 (death of the 13th), the army went through major reforms. It became a little but real national army with foreign instructors and began to successfully expel the Chinese troops from eastern Tibet.

Nevertheless, the army met three important obstacles:

a) the monasteries were absolutely opposed to a national army who would have diverted young men from religion and religious power
b) the nobility would have lost its privilege and justification with a conscript army
c) the eastern Khampa principalities who wanted to keep their independence both from China and Tibet. The army didn&'t win this political fight, and that's why a new flag rose on Tibet.

Corentin Chamboredon, 20 March 2006

The text below is from a scholarly dissertation found in Like many flags, the explanation of the symbolism of the Tibetan flag varies from one source to the other. Here is is another one.

Nechung: The Ritual History and Institutionalization of a Tibetan Buddhist Protector Deity / Christopher Bell (2013) is "a detailed historical study of the cult of the Tibetan Buddhist protector deity named Pehar as it grew to prominence at Nechung Monastery in seventeenth-century Lhasa under the auspices of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s burgeoning government." It is a 644 pages long historical study, often difficult to read but it provides surprising insights on how what seemed to be the little protector deity of the treasury of Samye monastery (central Tibet) was imported to Lhasa area and became an important deity whose new monastery, Nechung (གནས་ཆུང་, gnas chung), was strongly linked to the Dalai lamas. But as its influence grew, this deity Pehar (པེ་ཧར་, pe har) became itself overshadowed by one of its own auxiliary deities, Dorje Dragden (རྡོ་རྗེ་གྲགས་ལྡན་, rdo rje grags ldan).

Pehar is a member of a group of deities called the five sovereign spirits and is the northern sovereign. Each of them has its own weapons, favorite animal, consort and minister. Dorje Dragden is the minister of the western sovereign Kyechig Marpo (སྐྱེས་གཅིག་དམར་པོ་, skyes gcig dmar po).

Page 6, one can read :
"For instance, the Tibetan flag introduced by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in the early twentieth century prominently references a form of the deity, who is signified by the red rays of light that emanate from the sun at the center of the image.26"

The corresponding footnote reads :
"26. The red bands specifically refer to Dorjé Drakden, an important emanation of Pehar that will be discussed in chapter 2. By contrast, the flag’s dark blue bands represent Penden Lhamo Makzor Gyelmo; see Central Tibetan Administration 2013. See also Heller 1992a, pp.490-491"

Magzor Gyelmo (དམག་ཟོར་རྒྱལ་མོ་, dmag zor rgyal mo) is herself a particular form of the female deity Penden Lhamo (དཔལ་ལྡན་ལྷ་མོ་, dpal ldan lha mo). If you have trouble to understand who is who amongst all this abundant divine population, I recommend you read the section The many gods and spirits of Tibet (pp. 7 to 15).

Source :
Corentin Chamboredon, 12 July 2020

Early influences of the Tibetan flag

I have read a book about the ancient civilization which dwelt in western Tibet before the rise of the Tibetan empire, The dawn of Tibet : the ancient civilization on the roof of the world, by John Vincent Bellezza (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), and I found some interesting information about the antiquity of the symbols which appear on the Tibetan flag.
Western Tibet was home of two related kingdoms: Zhangzhung (ཞང་ཞུང་, zhang zhung) and Sumpa (སུམ་པ, sum pa). This civilization built its oldest monuments sometimes around the XIth century BCE and gradually disappeared after being conquered by central Tibet in the VIIIth century CE.
P. 178, one can read this :
"The sunburst, a universal symbol of light and life, is an especially evocative facet of the Upper Tibetan rock art tableau. [...] Like the swastika, the sunburst is sometimes depicted above wild yaks and other herbivores. One such prehistoric example from Rigyal, or "Monarch Mountain", depicts a solitary wild yak with a sunburst of twelve rays overhead and a crescent moon below.
From the early historic period onward, tongues of mystic fire emitted by three bulbous jewels have embellished rock surfaces in Upper Tibet. This Eternal Bön and Buddhist religious symbol is known as the flaming jewels, or norbu mebar in Tibetan, and represents the treasures of the doctrine."
Flags were apparently used by this old civilization (p.183) :
"In Tashi Do's Zhamar cave there are two poorly preserved ancient pictographs of horsemen confronting each other. They brandish long objects, possibly spears with regimental banners (an ancient Tibetan standard), underscoring the seemingly confrontational nature of the encounters."
Corentin Chamboredon, 14 December 2014

Flag reported in 1916

[Tibetan flag] image by Jean-Marc Merklin, 3 December 2020

I drew a flag of Tibet supposed to be from 1916, from a cigarette card found by Paolo Paddeu last October.
Jean-Marc Merklin, 3 December 2020

This flag appears in the "Flaggenbuch" of the German Navy edition 1926, but not in the edition 1905.
Klaus-Michael Schneider, 4 December 2020

I believe this flag is from 1929 The Berlin-based Massary Zigarettenfabrik printed a series of flag cards and flag album titled “Wer nennt die Länder, kennt die Fahnen?” (English: Who can name the countries and knows the flags?). Tibetan historians date the creation of the flag back to 1916, which I think explains that date.
Nick Gulotta, 4 December 2020