The khorten, commonly called the “prayer wheel,” is undoubtedly the best known Buddhist ritual object, being the pilgrim’s dearest companion. Another name for it is the chos-kor, which means “to turn the doctrine” and refers to the first teaching of the Buddha, when he set the Wheel of the Law in motion.
From the smallest to the largest, the prayer wheel always consists of a hollow cylindrical body, usually of metal, engraved with mystic emblems or prayers. It is penetrated along its axis by a rod provided with a handle, if portable, or with two clips if it is fixed to a stand.
Enclosed in the chos-kor are sacred texts or invocations (mantra), written on paper or parchment. The cylinder of the wheel is rotated in the same direction as the sun, and each turn is the equivalent of a reading of the prayers enclosed within.
According to the faithful, this attests to the flight of the prayers thus scattered to the four winds. The portable prayer wheel is fitted with a ball at the end of a small chain fixed midway along the metal body; with a flick of the wrist, the person carrying the wheel sets its twirling rhythm.
Many materials can be shaped to form the body of this singular instrument, not only coarse metal, but also more precious alloys, sometimes even enhanced with mother of pearl, coral or turquoise. Thus certain prayer wheels are genuine works of art.
Tibetans also have a custom of erecting prayer flags, mounted in garlands, on the roofs of their houses, or in the case of nomadic shepherds, on top of their tents. Prayer flags ornament the bridges that straddle torrential streams and they accumulate at mountain passes. These beneficial formulas are printed on small pieces of cloth in the five basic colors (yellow, white, red, green and blue), which stand for the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether), the five senses, and the five wisdoms. Prayer flags are a means of spreading the good word to all beings, both in populated regions and in the vastness of deserted spaces. But their function is also to attract good luck, to preserve health by warding off disease, the evil eye, demons and evil spells, and finally, to manifest one’s gratitude for a wish fulfilled or an unexpected beneficial occurence.
Near monasteries, prayer flags become victory banners. Mounted on tall poles, they indicate places worthy of attention. They mark the location of sacred caves, and the high points of mountain passes, where the traveler may thank the gods for their protection.
At sowing time, these small colored cloths are placed on the foreheads of farm animals, to ensure good harvests. The yaks that accompany pilgrims also wear them, which serves as a signal that they are not to be sacrificed but should be allowed to die a natural death.
In the middle of the most common model of prayer flag stands the Lungta, or wind-horse, the bearer of the precious Wish-fulfilling Jewel. It can be inscribed with the name of the person for whom the wind-borne wishes are intended. The remaining space is filled with sacred or magical formulas, and the four corners usually contain a tiger, a lion, a dragon and the mythical bird, the garuda. All these animals are symbolic of power and energy. A victory pole can be mounted or garlands of prayer banners assembled for ceremonial occasions: the presence of monks then confers a sacred character on the act, which becomes commensurately more beneficial by being part of a ritual.