Before I went to Bhutan I had never noticed a water powered prayer wheel before. Perhaps my awareness was low, I didn’t know what I was looking at or the places I have been visiting hadn’t had the right mix of Buddhism and free-flowing streams. Whatever it was in Bhutan water powered prayer wheels seemed to be at almost every little ravine and valley.
At its most basic — and nothing in Buddhism is ever basic — a prayer wheel is a cylinder on a spindle that is inscribed with and filled with prayers, or mantras (Om Mani Padme Hum). Some Buddhist, mainly from Tibetan sects, believe that the spinning of the wheels helps followers build good karma and cleanses them of negativities (bad karma). Prayer wheels come in all sizes: From tiny ones that can fit onto a keychain to one huge one, which weighs over 200 tons, in Heyin Town, China.
A water powered prayer wheel is exactly what it sounds like; a prayer wheel that uses the power of water to make it spin (always clockwise). It is believed that in addition to the good karma brought on by the spinning of the wheel that water touched by it becomes blessed and helps purify all life forms in the streams, oceans, and lakes it feeds into.
As we passed the first water-powered prayer wheel that I noticed upon arrival in Bhutan I asked my driver Nitu to stop so we could have a look. It was a large wheel in a small white building tucked away in a shady glade near the road. One problem; it wasn’t turning. A little investigation around back revealed that the pipe that feeds the little turbine had become clogged with silt from upstream.
Not wanting all that good karma to go to waste — and how often do you get a chance to fix a prayer wheel — we set out to clear the obstruction. All told it probably only took about 20 minutes to get the wheel spinning again but it felt good. It was only a small gesture but good Buddhists believed that life is about merit accumulated over a lifetime and this little wheel, meant to spread good into the world, was going again. I like that!