Raising the flag of gods

Flags of gods

Lhadar – literally ‘flags of gods’ – includes the giant flags hoisted on tall poles. Representing the triumph over evil, the flags bear inscriptions of powerful animals common to the motifs in the Buddhist worldview: tiger, snow lion, dragon, and Garuda. Traditionally, the lhadar were pure white with no text inscription, with ribbons in three colors attached to the edge of a large rectangular cloth piece that was attached to the pole. The red represents the fire, yellow the earth, and blue the sky or space.

Before our national flag was designed and endorsed, lhadar were hoisted at the entrances of national institutions such as the Dzong, the Royal Palace, or the monasteries. Wherever there were lhadar hoisted, it was necessary for people to observe the Driglam Namzha etiquettes and wear the national dress. Only buildings having the sixteen volume sacred scriptures on Perfection of Wisdom were allowed to hoist a lhadar, signifying the status of house. 

In the past, hoisting of the lhadar was an arduous task that required effort of the whole community. As per oral history, it would take at least sixteen strong men to erect a lhadar in the front yard of the Trongsa Dzong. Equally arduous was the task of locating a slender and tall tree suitable enough to make a pole for the lhadar. For that, people had to comb through interminable thickets before a suitable candidate could be located. Then, the culling of the tree had to be done at an auspicious day and time. The local deity also had to be propitiated with offerings before the culling so that misfortunes and accidents were averted and the deity’s consent enlisted to carry out the activity in its domain.

Over time, however, much of these elaborate traditions of the past surrounding the lhadar wore off and these days the hoisting of lhadar is unrestricted. We can see lhadar in schools, courts, hospitals and private estates. The modern day lhadhar has bronze Gyeltshen replacing the stitched cloth of the past. The wooden poles are replaced by steel or aluminum poles. Lhadar can be hoisted by a pulley system attached to the pole unlike the past practice of fixing them on the tree poles with wooden nails or binding with strings.

Lhadar of Sershong

Since the beginning of 2020, the lhadhar pole in Sershong village lacked the dhar after children playing about it pulled the plastic rope causing it to snap and the dhar to fall. The community had not been able to hoist the flag for over two years due to the COVID-19 protocols.

After the pandemic, Neykor of Sershong village and the coordinator of the Red Cross Society in Bhutan attempted to enlist the most adroit climbers in the village to fix the rope. Four climbers were offered Nu 2000 for the job. But all of them gave up before they made it to the top.

On 21 January 2024, Makpa, famous in his village as an adapt summiteer of slender trees of great heights, arrived in Sershong with a team from the Bhutan Power Corporation. His petite physique did not assure me that he would do the job. I suspected that he accepted the challenge while under the influence of alcohol.

The team had arranged a 10-meter ladder, far too short for the pole’s royal height of 23 meters.  While the ladder skirted at the lower part of the pole, Makpa clutched the pole at the ladder’s end and began to ascend it. A crowd that had gathered there was as anxious as excited by the spectacle. It was not easy for anyone present there to believe the man would make it to the top.

Some couldn’t help but imagine the worst case of him missing some vital move of his hands or feet and tumbling down to an impact that in all likelihood would be fatal or close to it. But, of course, he was well harnessed with a safety belt, thanks to the team’s resourcefulness. Deep inside, the crowd knew he would be the fifth in a series of failures to make it to the top to complete the job. Once he had gained the momentum, however, he covered the first ten meters swiftly. Then he was breathlessly clutching the pole just three meters shy of the top. He couldn’t progress from there.

The crowd grew silent and nervous, and some began to chant prayers. Since I have acrophobia, I could not look at his final ascend. But the crowd suddenly burst into the cheerful cacophony of appreciation. Then I looked up at him descending the pole in swift maneuver. That was the biggest relief and happiness of the day.

Once he landed on the ground, villagers proudly shook hands with him and thanked him. A few elderly people, brimming with smiles, offered beer and local brew to express their gratitude. But Makpa, a teetotaler, proved wrong my first impression of him having accepted the challenge under the influence of alcohol.  None of the men from the team drank. The villagers could finally hoist the lhadhar.

Contributed by

Dr Choeda Gyaltshen

Medical Superintendent

Central Regional Referral Hospital, Gelephu

Related Posts

About The Author