Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Ultimate Truth

As photographers we’re always searching for the next subject, the award-winning photograph, as writers for the next word that follows, the elusive bestseller, as scientists for the God Particle, the “reason” we exist. There is nothing new in this. Our forefathers, the hunter-gatherers searched for the next morsel of food. And the legacy of search continued. But before this quest even begins, we need to figure out what is it that we search for?

As for me I chased my dreams, almost all of them. Whatever I wanted to do, or thought I should do, I went for it. Some came true, some didn’t. But even dreams change with time, what we desire (or want or need) changes with time. It’s the process of evolution. My experience tells me that though change isn’t easy in itself, it’s still relatively easier to change than for people to accept that you’ve changed. Isn’t that ironic?

Of course I failed along the way, and failed miserably at that, many times across many years. I believed that I had the Midas touch, unfounded arrogance at that, I chased rainbows for that pot of gold, till enough hard knocks proved otherwise. And each time I failed, I wondered what had happened to my touch, where was that rainbow, little realizing that Midas was mythical, the real one and the pot of gold is here and in such.

With time (and I don’t mean to sound old and gone, but age does make a difference), I realized that failure is good, failure is humbling. It teaches me. As Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I believe him. Now I dream without fear of failure, so what if I fail? No big deal.

Coming to the search, the quest – of course, I have a dream. Maybe not as big as Martin Luther King’s was, but as important to me as his was to him. I have been thinking for quite a while now of something, someone to photograph which hasn’t ever been done before and do it in a way that is different. Quite a tall order isn’t it? Almost everything seems to have been photographed. But then why not dream big? In the words of Salman Rushdie: ““Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping , like sand, through our fingers.” I’d only add photography to writing.

 I feel the need, the perhaps inexplicable desire to walk this path. 

For months, I obsessed over the subject of a dream so big and just a few days back, I was lying in bed tossing and turning and finally when the answer came to me at 03:00 AM, I jumped out of bed, switched on my laptop and said let me figure out if this has ever been done before. I researched extensively. And no it hadn’t. I wondered why though? Why hadn’t someone yet photographed what I am thinking about and in the way I’ve thought of? The closest I can get to the answer is maybe no one ever believed they could do it. You see we give up before we even start because we think something is really difficult. I won’t give up, I never give up. This is something I’ll do. And God be my witness, I’m not doing it for all the “wrong reasons” of fame and fortune, but because I know that this is what I’m meant to do someday, sometime, somewhere – when I do not know really, the how I know. What I do know also is that this will bring me happiness. I might fail, but I’ll still try. My photographs and words might not find their way to National Geographic, the Holy Grail for most photographers and  some writers, but I’ll still photograph and write. And I also am aware that there will be naysayers along the way to whom I could say just as Clark Gable did: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, but I’d much rather use Mother Teresa’s words:

People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.

So that really is: The Ultimate Truth.

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Of photography and of shan shui

You could say I explore, but I actually wander – not only literally, but also figuratively. At any point of time, there is this entire smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated thoughts oscillating in my mind. Though I must admit there are a few instances when my mind is really still, when my thoughts slow down – when I write, when I photograph, and when I walk in solitude in the shadow of high mountains. When I sit down to write how I feel, I honestly don’t actually know where or how it’ll end. I know vaguely, but not precisely where and how. It happens to be the same with my photography. I recognize my emotions deep within and attempt to capture those in my photographs.  I want the images I create to express: “I felt this”, not “I saw this”. Whether I succeed or not is a matter of conjecture really. I create through my photography and my writing because I believe that beauty is in the act of creation itself, and not so much the creation itself. Both writing and photography for me are spiritual – meditative, reflective. And I said I’d tell you how I felt in the mountains. So this is it – the last in the trilogy of mountains.

About the end of last year I made a trip to the Mt. Everest and Khumbu region.  So why did I head to Everest? Quite honestly, I can’t come up with a one-line answer. Perhaps, I should plagiarize – George Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there”, which has been called “the most famous three words in mountaineering”. Of course, I don’t claim to be anywhere in that league, but my answer is just the same!

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Without an iota of doubt, there is a powerful mystique, an almost magical and mesmerizing aura about the Khumbu. On this trail, you tread in the footsteps of the greats – mountaineers such as Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs and co. Laboriously (or maybe not so) as you ascend through the foothills of the world’s highest mountain starting from Lukla, the terrain soars on all sides like jagged shards of glass and changes from green, verdant valleys overgrown with pines, conifers, and rhododendrons to a Spartan, barren, almost lunar landscape. The trails are steep, oftentimes footstep-wide and vertigo-inducing, and the altitude constantly hangs on your muscles with each belabored breath.  But in this rarified high-altitude atmosphere of the Everest region, my brain was oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated.

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I’ve quite literally traveled the globe, but nothing, nothing really prepared me for the beauty and serenity of Nepal, the graciousness and simplicity of the people, the courage and determination of the Sherpas, the austerity of homes, the smiles despite the hardships, the Zen in thought, belief and life. On a more earthy level, nothing even prepared me for the thunderous roar of the rivers, the groaning of the seracs of the Khumbu glacier, the sounds of avalanches and landslides, the grayish mist enveloping me in just a few minutes without warning…and for sure nothing prepared me for the massive earthquake, 6.9 on the Richter scale, that rattled the lodge where I was at in Pheriche so much so that the ceiling collapsed (the adjacent lodge was completely destroyed).

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All the while as I traveled in the Khumbu heading towards Everest, I couldn’t even for a moment forget the presence of a Power far greater than me, than us. Something, someone who created this all. This beauty, this magnificence of immense magnitude far beyond what my words and photographs can even attempt to describe or capture. Of course, it was reiterated by the fact that many mountains are named for deities, murals of Rinpoches dot the mountainsides, gompas, chortens, mani stones, and prayer flags map the landscape.  Each moment there reminded me of the presence of the Lord. Each moment there reminded me of how small and insignificant I am, we all are, in the bigger scheme of things. As Galen Rowell said: “This was the throne-room of the mountain Gods”.

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Which brings me to my wandering mind and rambling thoughts. The moment I put pen to paper as I started writing this piece, I thought of shan shui.  I didn’t know why it came to mind, and as I’d said I never know how my story will end when I start out. I don’t rearrange my words. I don’t edit. As it slowly starts taking shape and form as I slow down to write, I understand when my thoughts come into a semblance of coherent order. And I understand now. Shan shui is a style of Chinese painting that illustrates scenery or landscapes using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints, and in which people and animals are reduced to tiny brushstrokes epitomizing the idea of Chinese philosophy that the environment is far more powerful than any individual. Which is just how I felt. Each and every time I composed within the frame of my camera. When you find yourself in the shadow of the Himalayas, you will know what I mean. When you stand beneath the overwhelming presence of Everest, you will know what I mean. Shan shui  is more a philosophy. So now I know why shan shui came to mind – because my thoughts converged on to the philosophy, the essence of shan shui.

Shan shui in its basic philosophy has certain unwavering, should I say, mystical rules which determine composition, form, and balance. As Osvald Siren said, in shan shui pathways should never be straight, but meander like a stream and so help deepen landscape by adding layers. The path can be the river or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain.  Then the path should lead to a threshold, which is there to embrace you, to welcome you. This threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the ground, or how it penetrates the sky. And finally, the heart is the focal point of the painting with all elements leading to it, and defines the meaning of the painting.

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Isn’t this how life is? As I recollected my “pilgrimage” in the Himalayas to write, I was reminded of this. There are no straight lines between any two points in life ever – our paths meander. We get lost, we stumble, we fall, we walk again. Then our journey leads us to a threshold, a destination, not the end, but a mere milestone, an interlude. The end of one chapter, the beginning of another. All the while we place one foot in front of the other, as we fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts. As one foot walks, the other rests. Doing and being comes into balance.

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And in the final analysis, the ultimate meaning, all we need to do is chase our dreams and follow our heart. That makes our story complete, and this makes my story complete.

Of photography and of shan shui.

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Postcards from Himalayas

If there ever could be such a place as Heaven on Earth, it would have to be in the Himalayas… to be there is to feel a “presence” far greater, far more sublime than ever experienced. Magical, mystical, mesmerizing.

I was planning to write a blog on what I felt there in the shadow of the highest mountain in the world, but I thought for starters let me write on what I saw there, lest the photographs remain mere “pretty pictures” with their significance, or what they are, being guessed. For sure, the next post will be on what I felt. I usually don’t do this, write a sort of travelogue or photo-essay, but this time I will. The Himalayas literally mean “abode of snow”, and geologically are the massive mountain system that additionally includes the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and other lesser ranges that extend out from the Pamir Knot. Some of the world’s major river systems arise there, and their combined drainage basins are home to some 3 billion people (almost half of the Earth’s population). The Himalayas have also profoundly shaped the cultures of South Asia, with many Himalayan peaks sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Overall, the Himalayan mountain system is the world’s highest, and is home to the world’s highest peaks, the 14 “Eight-thousanders”. Putting this enormous scale into perspective, Aconcagua, in the Andes, at 6,962 metres (22,841 feet), is the highest peak outside Asia, whereas the Himalayan system includes over 100 mountains exceeding 7,200 metres (23,622 feet)!

Much has been written on the trip into the Everest region, but what I found conspicuously absent were photographs that could even remotely do justice to what I would see in the Khumbu. So when I headed there, one of my objectives was to set this right and return with a few thousand pictures (which I did). And now using just a few of these, let me narrate my story. Well actually it’s not so much of a story as a few photographs which I think epitomize the sights of Khumbu…

After a hair-raising flight into Lukla from Kathmandu, I started walking northwards and after about three hours I reached Phakding just across the Dudh Kosi. As aviators would say, this part of the journey was “straight and level”.

After Phakding comes Monjo, and then the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, which is when the real climb begins – almost vertical leading straight up with steps hewn into the mountains. The ascent brings you to the “Lord of the Rings” suspension bridge in the misty mountains at a dizzying height above the Dudh Kosi after which is another climb to Namche Bazar. This part was the toughest climb: five hours up, up, and up without a pause from 2800 m to 3540 m!

Just above Namche Bazaar is Chhorkung; this is the view of the Great Himalayas from there: Thamserku to the left, Everest in the centre, its 8848 m peak shrouded in clouds, and Ama Dablam to the right of the frame.

Here is another photograph of Ama Dablam – by far one of the most beautiful mountains of the Great Himalayas of Eastern Nepal. The main peak is 6,812 metres (22,349 ft), the lower western peak is 5,563 metres (18,251 ft). Ama Dablam literally means “Mother’s Necklace”; the long ridges on each side like the arms of a mother (“ama”) protecting her child, and the hanging glacier thought of as the “dablam”, the traditional double-pendant containing pictures of the gods, worn by Sherpa women. For several days, Ama Dablam dominates the eastern sky for anyone trekking to Mount Everest basecamp.

And now this is the first view of Everest from Namche Bazaar just before sunrise, with the unpredictable jetstream to the right.

This is a “dzopkyo” – most of the so-called “yaks” around the Khumbu are actually dzopkyo (male) or dzum (female), the offspring of pure-blood yaks and cows or Tibetan bulls. And by the way, a yak is a male, a female is a nak; so actually there isn’t any yak cheese, it’s a misnomer – there is only nak cheese. But then, what’s in a name really?

And a wild horse…

This is a photograph of the natural amphitheatre of Namche Bazaar as seen from Chhorkung, a few hundred metres above it.

Mani stone – these are stone plates, rocks and/or pebbles, inscribed with the six syllabled mantra of Avalokiteshvara (Om mani padme hum, hence the name “Mani stone”), as a form of prayer in Tibetan Buddhism. Mani stones may also be used in a loose sense to refer to stones on which any mantra or devotional designs are inscribed.

Above Namche and Chhorkung is Khumjung at an elevation of 3,970 metres. A monastery here houses a purported Yeti scalp. This is a photograph of the Khumjung school, built courtesy Sir Edmund Hillary. It took me about two hours to get here from Chhorkung, above Namche Bazaar, and would have probably taken the same time heading down. And young children from Namche come here to study daily making the trip up and down 45 minutes each way!

After this the next stop was Tengboche for which I first needed to descend to  this point at Phunki Thenga, cross a river and then another two-and-half hours to Tengboche – straight up.

All the climbing up and down is worth it for a sight such as this: framed by the valleys of the lower Khumbu, Everest is to the left with the fourth highest peak in the world – Lhotse, to the right as seen from Tengboche.

This is Tengboche Monastery with Machermo behind it. It is also known as Dongak Choling Gompa, and is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Sherpa community. Situated at 3,867 metres (12,687 feet), the monastery is the largest gompa in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

After Tengoche, the next stop is Pangboche. This is the kani (or a stupa-shaped arch over a trail, usually with paintings or murals towards the inside) at the entrance of Pangboche.

After Pangboche comes Pheriche via Orsho – this is looking at the Imja Khola from Orsho.

And here comes the mist rolling in along the ground…

I was almost at 4000 metres now and the only thing that can be cultivated at this altitude is the hardy potato – believe it or not, even potatoes taste different between villages!

Next halt after Pheriche is Dughla: again a climb that literally leaves you breathless…straight up on unbalanced rocks and moraine. This is a photograph made at Dughla of Ama Dablam at sunrise framed by the prayers flags – possibly amongst my favorites of the thousand-plus that I came back with. What beautiful shades of blue.

From Dughla onwards to Lobuche: this is looking down the valley.

En route to Lobuche is this memorial to Babu Chiri Sherpa (June 22, 1965 – April 29, 2001) at the crest of the spur between Dughla and Lobuche – Chiri was a Sherpa mountaineer from Nepal. He was a legendary guide who reached the summit of Mount Everest ten times. He held two world records on Everest. He spent 21 hours on the summit of Everest without auxiliary oxygen, and he made the fastest ascent of Everest in 16 hours and 56 minutes. Such memorials are all along the trail to Everest…ample testimony to the dangers of the mountains.

And this was while I was lying down on the trail from Lobuche to Gorak Shep for this shot…it was freezing cold, but of course well worth it.  It’s really tough walking on a trail which is moraine and boulder strewn – a twisted ankle or knee might end the journey right there! And oh yes, there is no hospital anywhere near.

This was en route from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp – what an absolutely spectacular sight! What beautiful, brilliant colors contrasting with the terrain of the moon! Sadly I’m not a botanist and so can’t tell you the name…

The mighty and majestic Himalayas… all natural colors of the dawn breaking over the horizon: ethereal really.

I was hanging off the edge of the mountain to lean down and create this photograph of glacial lakes…at almost 6000 metres, a tumble from here is certainly not advisable.

And now this is Tabuche at sunrise – it almost seems as if the mountain is on fire with the rays of dawn.  I can’t even explain the feelings that overwhelm you when you witness such a sight, as night changes into day and this magical moment appears…

And finally, up close and personal with Mt. Everest in English, Chomolungma in Tibetan or Sagarmatha in Nepali.

My next post will be on what I felt there. These were just a few:

Postcards from Himalayas.

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In the empty moments

I’ve often wondered what is it about mountains that calls me there. I’ve thought about why is the lure of the wild irresistible to me. I’ve reflected on why do I yearn for solitude, why is it that I choose to be alone. I’ll write about that soon.

But what I want to share this time are just some words from Oriah, and my photographs from the Himalayas. Eloquent. Expressive. Emotional. At least I think so.

“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain! I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

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It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it’s not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

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It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”

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Which is why I go to the mountains. These answers come to me. In the empty moments.

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