This paper is a modest attempt to understand and conceptualize religious symbolism, its meaning, philosophy, and significance from sociological perspective. To show how Ladakhi society has evolved with their faith and symbols, three important Tibetan Buddhist symbols has been examined as a subject of the study. In doing so, it seeks to explore the relationship between faith, symbols and human experience. Finally, the paper will argue that symbols is one of the most fundamental aspect of human society which has an ability to represent the complex social reality and cultural consciousness which act as a trigger to remain people, in the culture, of its rules and beliefs. Overall my paper is an insightful account of the complex links between symbols, culture, and Ladakhi identity.

Dr. Tashi Lundup
Department of Sociology
University of Ladakh

Religious symbolism in Ladakh: with special reference to three important Buddhist symbols.

In the study of the Ladakhi People’s thoughts on religion particularly Buddhist community, we can categorize it into two aspects of religion in order to construct a method that is suitable for the study of the Ladakhi people’s philosophy of religion. First, the experience of the relationship between individual and sacred is called a religious experience. Such experiences lead people to believe or to agree, and this we call faith. The second aspect of religion is symbols. In every religious tradition, symbols are used for expressing religious experiences. Human beings encounter numerous experiences, familiar ones being, the experience of joy in the family when a new baby is born or the experience of sorrow when one’s beloved departs; further, we know the experiences of the feeling of being in love, as well as the experience of being hurt when the love is not returned. All these human experiences are experience of being mystified in a specific culture, by the theory of Karma, of being grateful for surviving a dreadful disease like cancer, and experience of being engaging in practicing love, compassion and understanding Buddha’s teachings. Such experiences symbolize a religious encounter, an encounter with the Divine. The religious experiences are expressed through various kind of rituals, myths, traditions and others symbolisms1.

Hence, the usage of symbols in every religious tradition is to express the religious experience. No religion in the world exists without having symbols. Therefore, symbols are one of the most essential elements of religion, and it is also an important language to comprehend one’s religious tradition. It can come as no surprise that people of Ladakh have various symbols of Tibetan Buddhist traditions because of the prevalence of Tantric form of religion. The Trans-Himalayan region is covered under the umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism, and their culture has been shaped by the indispensable existence of Buddhist symbols, values and ethics. In Ladakh these symbols are part of everyday life and significant among these are the veneration of Rinpoche or an incarnated Lama and the use of religious articles and various other symbolisms including devotional prayers. In order to distinguish the Ladakhi’s understanding of religious thoughts, we need to comprehend the symbols that enfold Ladakhi religiosity. Therefore, in this paper modest attempt has been made to explore the three main religious symbols prevalent in Ladakh and the usage and meaning associated with these symbols.

What is a Symbol?

Symbol are not new, they have been in use since thousands of years. Symbols have been connecting people from generation to generation. They have also been very useful means in communicating and expressing particular experiences. They signify the importance of particular events, memories, good and bad luck etc. Symbol lacks the ‘quality of conceptual clarity and specificity’2. Rather, it has more of ‘vagueness and ambiguity’. Nevertheless, the power of a symbol lies in its quality of abstractness. The gap of conceptual clarity is filled up by the power of its reminiscent authority. It is in this context that Ricoeur points out, “If no concept can exhaust the requirement of further thinking borne by symbols, this idea signifies only that no given categorization can embrace all the semantic possibilities of a symbol”.3 Angobung (1995) recap this point, by saying that symbols are opaque. It is difficult to understand what a symbol intends to signify and hence, it is quite blurred for us what it really means, due to this opacity, a symbol is unique and rich, in view of the fact that a symbol lacks its conceptual clarity. It is only due to this opacity, a symbol is seen to be a profound expression. Moreover, Ricoeur goes on to argue that a symbol is illustrated as having both ‘semantic and non-semantic dimensions’

The Concept “symbol” brings together two dimensions, we might even say, two universes, of discourse, one linguistic and other of a non-linguistic order. The linguistic character of symbols is attested to by the fact that it is indeed possible to construct as a semantics of symbols i.e., a theory that would account for their structure in terms of meaning or signification. Thus we can speak of the symbol as having double meaning. But the non-linguistic dimension is just obvious as the linguistic one… a symbol always refers its linguistic element to something else.4

It is cleared from the above statements that symbol have two dimensions to be analyzed. One can comprehend symbol with linguistic analysis. And the other way to understand symbol is from the sign itself which resists the linguistic dimension. Thus, an important question can be drawn from these ambiguous characteristics of a symbol- ‘how can one understand and interpret symbols?’
Symbols according to Hofestede’s (2001) are words, discourses, nonverbal gestures, pictures and art forms that contain “often complex meanings recognized as such only by those who share the culture”. The members of shared cultures are expected to understand the hidden meaning of the symbols which are very much prevalent in their everyday life. The human ability to create symbols makes human beings different from other beings. It is in this context Kramsh (1998) notes that the key significance of symbols is that it differentiates animals from humans, as the latter are able to use signs that mediate between the human and the animal world. Thus, the meaning of the symbols is neither instinctive nor automatic, for they are learned behaviour, and are in use when the members of a particular community can understand and interpret them in a common framework.

In some sense, symbol is the representation of “community’s deeply rooted values, collective consciousness, mental programming, habitus and ideology”.5 The word Habitus was first coined by the French sociologist Bourdieu, habitus is his term for the ‘capacity of individuals to innovate cultural forms based on their personal histories and position’ and this, then, in my mind, is the first theoretical attempt to recognize symbols and social reality without having adequate understanding about it. The arbitrary nature of symbols and the meanings associated with them is highlighted here, permitting the innovative capacity of symbols to be appreciated. With the help of Bourdieu’s formulation of the term habitus, we are able ‘to integrate and to transcend’ the foremost close to the hidden meaning of the symbol.
Hence, symbols are the things which are means to cultivate cultural consciousness and act as a trigger to remind people, in the culture, of its rules and beliefs.

Symbolism in Buddhism

Buddhist symbolism is some kind of a complex artistic representation, an outward gesture used as a sort of key to express the various hidden meaning of religious concepts, thoughts, and philosophy. The symbols represent the visual, auditory , and kinetic representations of religious ideas and events. It can actually transform the abstract concepts, thoughts, ideas and belief into tangible things that we can touch, see, hear, taste smell and understand. Symbolism brings more power to the abstractness of the religious philosophy which symbolizes through different objects.

Buddhism is very rich in terms of using symbols which in fact was developed even more by the additional symbols which it derived from the common Indian heritage. Buddhism has given a new interpretation to symbols suiting its principles. There are various commonly used symbols which were related to the life of the Buddha, like the pillar on which is inscribed the Buddha’s teachings, Stupas , and sculptures representing Buddha’s life. Others symbols include the Lotus, footprints of the Buddha, the Bodhi tree, lions, mudras and the deer etc. Amongst all, the Dhamma-cakka , (Sanskrit) the wheel of Law , is the most significant symbol of the Buddhist life which represents the emblem of Buddhism as a religion. The very meaning of the wheel symbolizes Budda’s turning the wheel of ultimate truth as well as his first sermon at Sarnath and is commonly known as ‘turning the wheel of Dharma ’. The wheel also stands for the endless cycle of Samsara , or rebirth as well as the representation of Buddhist teaching or Dharma. The wheel often has eight spokes which symbolize the eightfold Noble path set out by the Buddha in his teachings.

Photos by Alfredo La Malfa

The use of symbolism in Tibetan form of Buddhism is even more prevalent. The best-known art forms and symbols in Tibetan Buddhism include Thangka paintings, butter sculpture for ritual purposes, printed and Sand Mandalas, Masks, Prayer wheels, metal and woodcraft work, sculpture, poetry which have immense artistic value. As artists have very limited space to innovate in the traditional sphere, one has to keep in mind to meet the idea behind the symbols which signify a lot more than mere art.

Symbolism in Ladakhi culture

It was in the seventh century that Tibet came into contact with Buddha’s teachings from India. In Ladakh, Buddhism spread from two sides both from Tibet as well as from India and it got infused with the indigenous Bon (archaic) religion and its Shamanic practices.6 However, later Tibet became the epicenter of Buddhism which spread all over the Himalaya. Owing to the geographical location and historical background, the Tibetan arts, symbols, and iconography reflect the cultural infusion of China, Bonpos, Nepalese, Mongols, and Indians.7 The symbolism in Ladakh is commonly known as rtags (sign, omen) and Rtendrel, the latter one embrace plethora of possible meanings and association. These words are very auspicious and sacred in Ladakh. The word rtendel constitutes two words rten-drel, the former meaning support and latter meaning dependence, conditionality. The very notion of Buddhist philosophical understanding of interdependency is expressed in this word. As all phenomena are interlinked with each other and dependent on each other in its cause and effect, nothing exists on its own, by its own power. From this very word we can understand that how much Buddhist symbols influenced Ladakhi culture. The understanding of the notion of the emptiness of inheritance/existence is an important feature of Buddhist teachings. The word rtendrel is not only used as a technical term in philosophical discussion but used in everyday conversation by common people. It generally means a fortunate chain of circumstances, a sign of good fortune to come, a good omen. The expression is also used with reference to particular symbols, objects, actions, pictures, or forms of expression which are more likely than other designated conditions related to desirable positive results.

The importance and meanings of three Buddhist symbols in Ladakh

Tibetan form of Buddhism prevails in Ladakh, which strikes outsiders as mysterious, stimulating, and certainly delightful.8 The religion permeates all facets of life in Ladakh and its symbols – prayer flags, Stupas, Mantra wall, thangkas, images, – and the monasteries represent the religious and sacred landscape. There are various ways to understand the significance of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. One imperative way to comprehend is through visualizing and understanding different symbols used in all religious institutions for performing prayers during the festivals and also on many other occasions. As mentioned earlier, there is a range of sacred symbols that people use and which influence their everyday life in Ladakh. However, my concern here is mainly to explore the three important symbols used in Ladakh which are-

– The Wheel of life, (srid-pay-Khor-lo)
– The Prayer Flags,(Dar-cho)
– The Eight Auspicious Symbols,(Tashee-Stagyat)

The objective of the paper is an attempt to investigate these three symbols, their meanings, significance and influence on Ladakhi people’s way of living.

Wheel of life (Saṃsara-cakka,)

The origin of the symbol of Wheel of life goes back to the time of the Buddha Siddartha Gautama who is also known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddha taught his doctrine according to the caliber of his discipline.9 He adopted simple yet very effective ways to deliver the teaching to his disciple and in doing so he adopted numerous symbols and corollary to making his teaching simpler and understandable. With the advent of Buddhist Tantra around 6th century AD a prosperity of new artwork and symbolism appeared, many of which later got incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism advocates numerous methods and techniques in order to guide the sentient beings to be liberated from Samsara.

Buddha Gautama is considered to have lived in the period approximately 563 BC, near Banaras in Northern India. The history of Buddha’s life was preserved both through oral and written traditions which passed on through teachers to disciples in an unbroken lineage to some period of time. Over the course of time, Buddhism evolved in different lineages and each preserved as well as propagated its own teachings. It is mentioned in one Sutra that there was a king called Bimbisara who was a friend of Buddha. Once he received a very precious gift from another King. Right after he received this precious gift, he thought a lot and hard about what would be the appropriate gift in return, because the one who has sent him a gift was very wealthy and rich, he would not be happy with any material goods in return. Hence, he consulted Buddha and it is in this context that Buddha composed the wheel of life, which encapsulated the primary and advanced teachings of Buddhism. When his friend received the gift he was not only satisfied but also developed an immense devotion towards Buddha. This, in turn, resulted in converting his whole kingdom to the spiritual path of Buddhism. In this way the Wheel of life became symbolic and one of the most profound of all the Buddhist teachings.

The symbol of Wheel of life which is also known as “Bhava-cakka ” (Sanskrit) and “Srid pa Khor lo ” (Ladakhi) is considered as one of the most sacred Buddhist symbols in Ladakhi society. It illustrates the actual essence of Buddhist teachings.10 It is based on the four noble truths as taught by Buddha Sakyamuni, i.e, the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of cessation and the truth of right path.11 The Wheel is divided into six realms of existence which is further sub-divided into two types, as upper three parts known as fortunate beings and lower three parts called as unfortunates beings. When we glance at the symbol from the top, clockwise, the upper three realms consists of the abode of Gods called the Sura in Sanskrit or Lha in Ladakhi, the realm of Demigods called the Asura in Sanskrit or Lhamayin in Ladakhi who seek power and are always at war, and the human beings called Manushya in Sanskrit or Mi in Ladakhi. The lower three realms belong to the Animals called Pashu in Sanskrit or Tutdo in Ladakhi, Hungry ghosts called Preta in Sanskrit or Yidags in Ladakhi, beings from hell, called Maraca in Sanskrit or nyalwa in Ladakhi.12 A Being can be born in any of these realms depending on his Karma (deeds). Bodhisattvas are shown in each realm preaching and trying to free them from the bondage of suffering.

Three animals, namely, a black pig, a green snake and a red rooster are depicted in the centre of the prayer wheel, which represents the truth of the origin of suffering respectively. The black pig symbolizes ignorance, the green Snake represents hatred, anger and the red rooster symbolizes desire and attachment. Delusion and Karma (action) are shown as being the two causes of sufferings. The three animals symbolise delusion, the next circle in the wheel which is equally divided into white and black parts represents karma. The whole point being, if we are able to abandon these three poisons (hatred, desire, and attachments) then only we can be liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

The narrow outermost circle shows symbolically the cycle of cause and effect through symbols which represent twelve links of dependent origination. The first one begins with ignorance, which is spiritual blindness, exemplified by a blind man with a stick, unable to find his way. This symbolizes as to how ignorance lead beings to desire and attachments. The second picture, shows a potter molding the pot which symbolizes as molding his own Karma (deeds), commonly known as fate. The third symbol, a monkey looking out of a window depicting the major consciousness due to which ignorant being sprung uncontrolled from one object to another. This is the only reason that Buddhist aims to understand the inner and outer phenomena with full control of consciousness.

The fourth picture shows a man rowing a boat and it symbolizes name and form, spiritual and physical energy, inseparably floating on the stream of life. The fifth symbol represents a prosperous-looking house with five windows and a door which symbolizes the five senses and the faculty of thinking, through our organs by which the outer world is perceived. The sixth, represent a man and women embracing each other which express the result of sensual perceptions. The seventh picture is depicted as an arrow piercing the eye which symbolizes the emotions. The eight shows a drunken man which illustrates desire, stimulated by perceptions and emotions and leading to so-called thirst for life. The ninth picture represents a man plucking fruits and this symbolizes sensual entanglement. The tenth, which is a pregnant woman, symbolizes the perception of a new life. The eleventh picture shows a woman giving birth to a child which represents a being born. Lastly, the twelfth one is shown with a corpse being carried to cremation representing old age and death, which symbolizes the inevitable end of all earthly existence.

As already mentioned above, the wheel of life is based on the four noble truths, two of which, the truth of suffering and the truth of the origin of suffering are found inside the wheel. In order to understand these two, all this complex theory is portrayed. The symbols depicting the other two noble truths are found outside the wheel which are, the symbol of white full moon, one which is right above the wheel of life which constitutes the third noble truth i.e. the truth of cessation and on the left is depicted the picture of the Buddha, pointing his finger out constitutes the fourth noble truth i.e. the truth of right path.

Thus, According to the symbol of wheel of life, we will not be free from suffering and misery until we understand and implement the four noble truths. The terrifying Yamantaka (the Lord of death) holds the wheel under his teeth and hands which symbolize that we will be under the control of Yama unless and until we do not overcome with the three poisons. This is the only reason that the full moon and the Buddha are shown outside the wheel and not inside which symbolize that they are free from misery and delusion.
Looking at the Ladakhis’ way of symbolizing the Wheel of Life it can be said that it occupies a very special and sacred place in Ladakh. The wheel of life can be usually found on the portico wall of the monasteries as well as in local houses depicting the cycle of existence in accordance with Buddhist thought, and expounding in detail the six realms, including the human realm that we are a part of. As we observed above, the six realms are graded on the basis of types and nature of suffering. This depends on one’s own intentional deeds and becomes a part of the process leading to enlightenment. Thus, this symbol becomes a kind of instrument for Ladakhis’ to find balance in one’s life and to live according to the Buddha’s teaching. It constantly reminds one to follow the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

Prayer flags

The second important symbol being used in Ladakh is the prayer flag. These flags are not just pretty pieces of colored cloth with funny writings on them. It is a long strip of cloth inscribed with ancient Buddhist mantras and symbols and can be seen everywhere in Ladakh, fluttering from poles or strings at the passes or crossroads, monasteries and from bridges. It is believed that these mantras and auspicious symbols inscribed on them have the power to produce a spiritual vibration which is carried by the wind blessing everyone it touches and causing the generation of more luck, prosperity, and harmony.

The prayer flag in Ladakh is known as Tar-Chog the former word Tar means to increase life, fortune, health, and wealth. Later word Chog means all sentient beings. The tradition of prayer flags dates back to thousands of years in India and to the shamanistic Bon tradition of pre-Buddhist Tibet, China, and Persia . The tradition has now reached the west as well and is rapidly gaining popularity. The very meaning of prayer flag, text and symbols are indeed based on the most profound concepts of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.13 As shamanistic Bonpo priest used solid colored cloth flags in healings ceremonies, perhaps with their magical symbols, to balance the elements both internally and externally. The five colors of prayer flags represent the five basic elements as yellow and earth, green-water, red-fire, white- air, blue- space. Balancing these elements externally brings harmony to the environment, our physical body and mind.

Furthermore, color is also used as one of the most important means of the visualization of the forms of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and so on. If one knows the color of spiritual significance then he or she can understand what the representation of that color form is. In the Buddhist iconographies in the Himalayan region a range of colours are used: red, green, yellow, white, and black. The red color signifies love and compassion. If you see a red Buddha, Bodhisattva, etc, then you can be sure that they represent the Buddha-nature or the Buddha mind or enlightened being under the aspect of love and compassion. Green color represents peace, pacification, and salvation from danger. The yellow signifies richness, growth and prosperity, even worldly riches, of beauty and of maturation. The blue represents absolute knowledge, sunyata in Buddhist terminology. The color white represents purity, as in all traditions. Lastly, black colour symbolizes death and destruction, but more in a positive sense.14

Photos by Alfredo La Malfa

When there were occurrences of the natural disasters and disease Bonpos (in archaic religion) used the coloured flags to appease the local gods and spirits with rituals and offerings, this was the Bonpos ’ way of pacifying and invoking the blessing of the gods. But there is no evidence whether Bonpos ever wrote words on their flags. The history of a pre-Buddhist era has been preserved in oral and not written form. In fact, the very words “Bonpo” means “one who recites magical formulas” although, the flag was not inscribed by words but it is probable that they painted sacred symbols on them. Several symbols that we see these days on Buddhist prayer flags certainly have Bonpo origins, but their meaning now is enhanced with the deep importance of Vajrayana Philosophy15.

As Buddhism slowly assimilated into the Ladakhi way of life and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century when Padmasambhava, popularly known as Guru Rinpoche was requested to visit Tibet to pacify the spirit that caused diseases and natural disasters. It was during his time that Buddhism spread in Tibet once again. Some of the prayer flags that we see today were composed by Guru Rinpoche to control the forces causing diseases and destruction.16 Therefore, Tibetan version of prayer flags inscribed with written text and symbols were basically painted by hand, one at a time. Woodblocks, cautiously carved in mirror image relief, were first introduced in China in the fifteen century. The introduction of such design made it possible to replicate the same design and they passed it from generation to generation.

The continuation of the designs of prayer flags was due to the fact that most of the designs were created by famous Buddhist masters. People afterward probably would never have thought of creating a new design. Therefore, the same basic designs continue till date. Another thing is, when China occupied Tibet, they destroyed almost everything associated with Tibetan culture and religion. They also imposed a restriction on prayer flags but could not totally put an end to it. We might never know how many traditional designs have been lost forever since the turmoil of China’s cultural revolution. But, it was easy for them to preserve the woodblocks, rather than the clothes and paper prints which could easily be destroyed. Presently, most of the prayer flag designs are made in Nepal, Ladakh and mostly by the Tibetan refugees.

The text which we see on prayer flags are in Tibetan script (invented by Thonmi Sambhota) which are mostly mantras, sutras, and prayers. Mantras are considered as sacred words and primordial sound holding the essence of a divine being and control the invisible energy dimensions. Almost on all the prayers wheels, flags, and walls and parchments, mantras or sacred texts are inscribed. Perhaps, the oldest Buddhist mantra is still prevalent among the Tibetan in Six-syllable, this invocation is addressed to Avalokiteshvara, popularly known as Bodhisattva of compassion and the Mantra is, OM MANI PADME HUNG which is printed on prayer flags. This mantra sends blessings of compassion to six worldly realms (which we discussed above).

Sutras are the writing styles based on the discussions and dialogues during the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of the Sutras have long, medium and short versions. On the prayers flags, the short versions are used. For instance, one short forms of sutra we often see on prayer flag is Dharani which contain magical formulas consisting of syllables with symbolic content. Sutras are the expression of Buddha’s teachings or a particular state of mind. Gyaltsen Semo (Victory Banner) is comprised of various lines of Dharani . The symbols inscribed on prayer flags are usually known as Lung-ta (Wind Horse) carrying the “wish-fulfilling jewel of enlightenment”, Tashi-stagyet (The eight Auspicious Symbols), Dorje (The Vajra), the four dignities, mithun gyulgyal (the union of opposites), the seven precious possessions of monarch , and Deities and enlightenments beings, are most widespread symbols used on flags. Prayer flags can be erected vertically as well as horizontally. The vertically erected flag is called Tarchen and the Horizontal one is called Tarchog.

The prayer flags typically come on ropes to be hung in horizontal display or printed on long narrow strips of cloth that are tried on vertical poles. Most of the Tarchen (horizontal) are kept in front of main entrance of the houses, monasteries etc. And Tarchog (vertical) are usually tied to the edge of a roof or strung between pools or trees, passes, bridges, mountains etc. One interesting thing is that prayer flags are the first symbol to identify the house of a Buddhist. Almost every Buddhist house will be seen as hanging prayers flags on their roof top. Vertical pole flag looks aesthetic and wonderful in a garden. For raising the prayer flags proper motivation is required. Calmness, love, compassion and the attitude of selflessness has to be cultivated, otherwise, a small and narrow (ego-centered) attitude will not benefit much. The attitude of ‘May all beings everywhere receive benefit and find happiness’ will carry the spiritual vibration to all sentient beings. 17 The Ladakhi tradition considers prayers flags as very sacred and should be hence treated with respect. The flags must not be thrown on the ground.

These Buddhist symbols are sacred for the people of Ladakh, in fact, most of the symbols often give clues to hidden meanings behind the words. The above account is a very brief introduction to the common symbols which I came across. There are plenty of Buddhist sacred text which explains the meaning and definition of symbols and mantras in Tibetan script. Nevertheless, colored flags are more beautiful if we understand the actual meaning of the symbols and words . To me, the merit of putting prayer flags up for the benefit of other sentient beings is way too beautiful than mere colorful flags waving in the wind and the dancing of shadow and light. I think probably there is no simpler way to earn merit than putting up the prayer flags to bring peace, fortune, prosperity and harmony in this troubled world.

Eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism

Another important and common sacred symbol in Ladakh is the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. These symbols in Ladakh are popularly known as Tashi-tay-gyat, tashi means ‘fortune’ (auspicious), tag means ‘symbol or signs ’, and gyat means ‘eight ’. In Sanskrit, they are known as Ashtamangala, ashta meaning ‘eight’ and mangala means ‘auspicious’ . These symbols are derived from Indian iconography and spread all over the Himalayan regions such as Tibet, Bhutan, Ladakh, and Nepal. The eight auspicious symbols are:

1) Right-Coiled White Conch shell (sankha),
2) Precious Parasol (Chattra)
3) Victory Banner (dhvaja)
4) Golden Fishes, (suvarnamatsya) 
5) Dharma Wheel (dharmachakra) 
6) Endless Knot (shrivasta)
7) Lotus or Flower (padma) and
8) Treasure Vase (kalasha) 18.

Thus, it comes to light that these eight symbols represent the Body of Buddha as quoted below.

“Veneration to you with your head like a protecting parasol, With eyes like the precious golden fishes (even today a woman with beautiful eyes is known as ‘minakshi,’ meaning one with fish-like eyes) With neck like a precious, adorned vase of good fortune, With speech like a right-turning Dharma shell, With a mind infinite with wisdom like the never ending knot, With a tongue open like the auspicious pink lotus, With a body proclaiming triumph over the attacking armies of Mara, With feet that tread the path of dharma like the auspicious wheel”. 19

Coming to the first, Parasol or Umbrella (rin-chen-duke) symbolizes the notion royalty and spiritual power. In Ladakh Rinpoches and top religious heads, used the silk Parasol or umbrella , the very meaning of which symbolizes wisdom and the hanging skirt right above his head while preaching, symbolizes the meaning of compassion.
Golden Fish (Ladakhi–gser nya ) symbolizes luck and happiness in general. But in Buddhism, the connection is with those who practice Dharma who will not have fear in the ocean of suffering and can move freely like fish in the water. It also represents fertility and conjugal unity.

The Treasure Vase (In Ladakhi-Pungpa ) The symbolic meaning of the pot is associated with the notion of storage and satisfaction of material desires. It has a large ‘belly, narrow neck and large mouth’ which represents the ‘vase of inexhaustible treasure’ available in Buddhist teachings. It also believed to attract wealth and bring peace, prosperity, and harmony to the surroundings. Hence, benefits to this world.

Lotus (Ladakhi –Mentok or Lotus ) generally the Lotus represents the symbol of love and purity. In Buddhism, it signifies the path and spirit of human beings. As the attractive and gorgeous flower peacefully rising from the darkest and muddiest of situation (Samsara ) bloom above the muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification ), turn into a majestic fragrant flower (enlightenment ). The beautiful white blossom symbolizes purity, the darkest and muddiest of situation represents worldly existence, the rising above the muddy to clean water stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the worldly existence (renunciation of worldly life) and give rise to right thinking. And the initial blossom signifies purity hidden within the depths of the darkest and the potential for enlightenment. The full and open blossom symbolizes the full liberation from the darkest of Samsara. Hence, Lotus signifies the Buddha nature and has very special place in the iconography of many Asian cultures.

Planting flowers in front of one’s main entrance or window side is said to bring more pleasant, harmonious and peaceful environment. When flowers blossom fully it signifies the coming of a happy occasion. When we cut the flower, and see nothing inside which signifies the wisdom of understanding emptiness.

White conch shell (Ladakhi-dung-Kar ) is considered as the precious and deep meaning is associated with it. It is considered as an emblem of ‘power, authority and sovereignty’ . The beautiful and melodious sound of the Conch symbolizes the wide-spread of Buddha Dharma , hearing the melodious sound every sentient being will awaken from the deep slumber of ignorance to accomplish their liberation as well as for others’ wellbeing. It also has the power to expel evils forces, turn away natural disasters and frighten away poisonous creatures.

However, in Ladakh and in Tibet they use only the rightly twisted conches for religious festivals and rituals. They believe that twisting echoes the celestial motion of the sun, the moon, the plants and the stars across the heavens. We can also recognize whether the shell is male or female, as the male shell is thicker than female. Most of the shells are found in the Indian Ocean.
Endless Knot (Tibetan-pell-bay-oo) this is a symbol that has lines overlapped signifying the theory of Karma and its effects . The knot also represents that everything is interconnected, having no end and beginning which represents the Buddha’s endless wisdom and compassion . Furthermore, it symbolizes the illusory character of time and long life.
Victory Banner (Gyal-tsen)- Every monastery is decorated with raising victory banner on the roof top with different sizes and shapes. It symbolizes Buddha’s victory of teaching over human sufferings and negative forces which prevail in this world. It comes to fore that Buddha himself raised a victory banner on mount meru , which is believed to be the axis that supports the world. The significance of the symbols is the realization of Buddha’s spiritual realization and discovery of ignorance as the biggest hindrance in the path of spiritual liberation.

The Dharma-Wheel (Chos-ki-Khor-lo) is commonly known as ‘Golden Wheel’ and ‘Wheel of Law’ which we discussed above in detail. It symbolizes Buddha’s turning the Wheel of Dharma . It is the symbol which represents the Buddha’s revealing of the four noble truths the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of cessation, and the truth of right path. The wheel also spokes the eightfold noble path, i.e right view, right thought, right speech, right effort, right action, right concentration and right mindfulness. Thus, the mysterious ‘Golden Wheel’ symbolizes the achievement of the ultimate form of liberation, and it shows the way to achieve permanent happiness and to end all sufferings. It is believed that by keeping this magical wheel in one’s house lasting happiness can be brought.


Symbols plays a phenomenal role in understanding one’s culture and asserting identity. It has an ability to describe the complex reality of the relationship between individual and sacred encounters. Although it lacks conceptual clarity and specificity because of its vagueness and ambiguity. However, it opens up a space for redescription of the reality. In fact, the very means of identifying religion is symbols. Hence, the usage of symbolism in every religious tradition is to express the religious experience, thought, and concepts. No religion in the world exists without having symbols. Therefore, symbols are one the significant elements of religion, and it is also an important language to understand one’s religious tradition.

In the same way, symbolism plays an important role in representing Ladakhi Buddhist culture and establishing their identity. The symbol of Wheel of life, Prayer flags, and Eight auspicious symbols are infused in Ladakhis’ way of life. It becomes a means to cultivate cultural consciousness and act as a trigger to remind people, in the culture, of its rules and beliefs. Thus, this symbol becomes a kind of instrument for Ladakhis’ to find balance in one’s life and to live according to the Buddha’s teaching. It constantly reminds one to follow the path leading to the cessation of suffering.


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Paldan Thupstan, The guide to the Buddhist Monasteries and royal castles of Ladakh, pub: Balimaran, New Delhi 1997.

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2. Ibid.,
3. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 57.
4. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory, 54.
5. Dorjay Morup. Buddhism symbolism: its impact on Trans-Himalayan art, culture and society , pub: international association for Asian Heritage, 2013.
6. Moacanin, R., The essence of Jung’s psychology and Tibetan Buddhism: western and eastern paths to the heart , pub: Wisdom, Boston.
7. Dorjai, M., Buddhist symbolism: it impacts on Trans-Himalayan art, culture and society, pub: An association for asian art, culture and heritage, Sri Lanka, 2013.
8. Banerjee S. Partha, Ladakh: the essential guide with Kashmir and Kulu-Manali . Publication: Milestone 2010
9. Dorjay Morup. Buddhism symbolism: its impact on Trans-Himalayan art, culture and society, pub: international association for Asian Heritage, 2013.
11. Paldan Thupstan, The guide to the Buddhist monasteries and royal castles of Ladakh, pub: Balimaran, New Delhi 1997.
12. Ibid p, 75
14. Dorjay Morup. Buddhism symbolism: its impact on Trans-Himalayan art, culture and society, pub: international association for Asian Heritage, 2013.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.,
19. Quoted in