Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Flying colours - the temple flags of Vietnam

Flying Colours

Traditional flags in Vietnam

Flags have been used to communicate meanings, directions and identities for over 6,000 years. The earliest known is a bronze relic from Iran dated around 4,000bc.

I never thought much about the meanings of flags until I moved to Vietnam where flags are far more common than in my native England.  Neighbourhoods are transformed on festival and national holiday days by the brilliant  red and yellow national flags and are sometimes festooned with striped bunting which is strung from post to post in the vicinity of temples.

The National Flag with its red ground and yellow star takes its styling from the Soviet ‘hammer and sickle’ flag which also includes a yellow star. In Vietnam, the star represents the five sections of society; the farmers, intellectuals, factory workers, businessmen and the military. Yellow is the colour of the Vietnamese people and red is universally used to signify revolution, strength and courage.  In the alleys and narrow streets of Hanoi, a few scarlet and yellow flags projecting from balconies and upper story windows instantly injects a feeling of national pride and celebration.

The large temple flags with the jagged or toothed edges make a bold statement don’t they. These are Buddhist in origin but have been adopted more widely within the special blend of religion and ancestor worship practiced in Vietnam. The flags outside a large temple will each have a different colour for the central square. Blue is the colour of compassion, yellow is balance, red is for the blessings of Buddha’s teaching, orange is for wisdom and white represents purity and liberation. 

The size of the flag will denote the importance of the site, ancient temples display much larger flags than more modern or lesser temples and meeting houses. Sometimes you will see a small flag outside someone’s home – this usually indicates that there is a monk resident within. So, don’t display Buddhist flags at your house unless you want the neighbours to bring offerings to your door!

Triangular flags mark the route to the home of the deceased during the funeral week. Black and white is often used for these flags in Hanoi. In Hoi An and Da Nang I saw maroon and dark blue and ochre to mark these sad occasions.

Small striped and squared flags will lead the way to the temple door. The closer to the temple, the larger the flags become. Once inside the temple enclosure, the positioning of flags around main courtyard convey meanings about festivals or other temple events. Usually, a yellow flag representing the sun occupies a central position, Blue and green flags representing nature and sky will be in the eastern corners. A white flag for the moon and metal will be in the west and black or indigo in the north represent water.

For parades, the flags take on even more meanings. The red flag representing the Phoenix should take the lead. Behind that the dark turtle is flanked by the Blue dragon to the left and the white tiger to the right. These complex messages are easily read by locals, but I just marvel at the spectacle and now I know never to pass a massive temple flag without stopping to explore the ancient temple within.

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