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!


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.


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).


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”.


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.


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.


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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  1. Sandy August 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Please turn your photoblog into a book! I hate to read such reflective stuff online. I want to be able to turn the pages at leisure, contemplate, go there, wander and return to it every now and then when I want to.
    You know what I mean.

  2. Letizia Cortini August 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Dear Debesh,
    give me your story. Every word is more ‘useless :). You are a great researcher and at the same time a quiet contemplative. Very deep is your soul, and I greet you with admiration. Thank you for your gifts. Maybe you could write posting pictures and thoughts on the book. In the West there is a great need. Today the gallery Sword I felt great heaviness and sadness for a dark history, often dark. There was no air in the paintings, there was no breeze. Yet it is the history of my country, my story, even though I love the East and his philosophy, his mysticism. How I wish that God really existed. Sometimes I feel it in me, I call it, I seek it, in nothing, forgetting everything, leaving everything behind, I find there, as well as the beauty of creation. there is humanity, another wonderful creation, evolving, despite the evil. Perhaps the enlightened people like you have to help to make this life at this time. Maybe you can dilute your thoughts with your photos, such as small strokes of Chinese painting that you refer to. I greet you with hands on heart :)

  3. sonny August 22, 2012 at 5:49 am #

    nah….your story is far from being complete…picture abhi baaki hai…grins…

    once again….its a gorgeously beautiful essay to read…..everything resonates , with the reader —and the writer. The pictures as if fresh from the palette….

    though i know i am gonna spend a lot of time today chewing on the notion of climbing, conquering, wanting, doing….something…….”because its there “………..:)

  4. Cyretha August 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    “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.” This passage is a perfect summary of life and motivation to keep goin. The beautiful photos compliment the sentiment.

    Debesh, this is yet again an extraodinary entry.

  5. Debesh August 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Thanks so much Sandy for being so gracious. I appreciate it. Yes Insha Allah, someday I will write a book. Till then I’m quite content with putting “pen to paper” here. I know I’m not ready for it at this present moment. I still need some critical mass, but soon, sometime soon…

    Many thanks Letizia for such lovely thoughts. Like I just mentioned to Sandy, I will someday write it all down.

    Sonny, often we don’t need a reason to do something, sometimes we need one just to justify not only to ourselves but also to the world why we’ve done what we have. When you find something, someone without a reason, that is love. It has no reasons.

    Cyretha, thank you for writing in. I really appreciate your being in touch. Good luck and keep walking.

  6. Emily Mabee August 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    I have no words to explain how deeply your words and images touch me.
    I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s words
    “Follow your bliss”.

  7. Debesh August 26, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Thank you so much Emily – appreciate your words, and I am happy that whatever I have shared has touched you. I’m most grateful.

  8. Daryl L. Hunter August 27, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Stunning imagery

  9. Helen August 28, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    Amazing story from the heart. Stunning photography.

  10. Debesh September 9, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Thank you so much Daryl and Helen – I appreciate your time in “stopping by” and commenting. I look forward to exchanging more notes with you.

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