Prayer flags can serve a number of purposes.
“Prayer flags are believed to bring about peace, love and compassion in the world. The prayer flags are also believed to generate positive karma for the dead as well as the living,” Pema says.
“Especially, when someone in your family dies, this is done to show respect for the person who has died,” Pema says. “So, a family would go up to the mountains wherever there is a good view and wind direction. They would climb up as far as possible and then install these prayer flags so they could move in the direction of the wind.”
Collecting positive energy
“People believe that these flags accumulate merits and positive energy, and it helps for the person who has died. Also, they believe that it's good for the community, such as getting rid of the obstacles in your life,” Pema says. Mountains are also sites for religious ceremonies. “People make smoke offerings. They go up there, make a fire, make some smoke and pray. Sometimes, people would invite important lamas (spiritual leaders) as well to conduct ceremonies.”
Hiking to the valley of a dying language
The language that Pema studies, Brokpa, is spoken in a valley not far from where he walked to school. “It's a different valley. You cross a mountain in between. There are two main villages, and several smaller villages. One village is one day's walk from my village. The other one is about three days’ walk from my village.”
Even though the villages are not very far away, as the crow flies, Pema had no knowledge of this language before he started his research. “I didn’t speak that language, because is totally distinct from my native language. And interestingly, all the speakers of the language that I am studying, almost 100 per cent of them, speak my language.” This is, Pema explains, why his work is so important: to preserve an endangered language of the mountains of Bhutan.
Diversity matters – not only when it comes to languages
In English, 'Brokpa' means ‘highlander’. Pema Wangdi is currently working on a comprehensive grammar of Brokpa, which is a Tibeto-Burman language that is spoken by about 5,000 people in Sakteng and Merak, two villages in Eastern Bhutan.