Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Last Aryans

This post is long overdue, I know. Somehow things have just conspired to happen this way. Anyway, I was out in Ladakh for quite a few days in April, then Spiti for a while in May and as I write this post, I am sitting in Iraq on work. So it were the mountains that beckoned me for two months in a row and now the deserts should I say, of Assyria?

And indeed JRR Tolkien’s words from ‘The Fellowship of the Rings’ are for me: “Not all those who wander are lost.” That is what I believe. I am, what can only be described as, an inveterate traveler with a classic case of the wanderlust. I travel to photograph. And write. I travel to discover. And each time I do, I discover more about me than that outside of me.

Let me explain.

I am, as I said, a mountain person. I climb. I trek. Alone. People often question me why? Quite honestly, I can never come up with a one-line answer. But it is just the reason why I headed off to Ladakh a few weeks ago. Just to be in solitude, with myself and my thoughts, in the mountains. And of course, I needed a muse to photograph. Much of my photography is about portraiture. I’d read about the ‘Last Aryans’ in Ladakh sometime in the past, and being with them was part of my ever increasing, to-do bucket list. I needed to tick this one off. It was long overdue.

When I met the so-called ‘Last Aryans’, the words that instantly came to mind are: ‘forgotten’ tribe; a few thousand people who even now speak their own language and worship their own Gods, almost isolated from the world. The Brokpas (or Brogpas (literally meaning mountain dwellers, Brog meaning hillock, and Pa for an inhabitant), of Ladakh are an indigenous tribe of only about 4000 people, and are amongst the smallest ethnic groups in the world. They are, by and large, isolated from ‘civilization’, living in a remote area – the Dha Hanu valley of Ladakh, a region of the turbulent Indian state of Kashmir.

Most people head to Ladakh to the usual suspects of Leh and around, Pangong Tso and of course, Khardung-La for the mandatory photo-op. Now don’t get me wrong – these are all beautiful places, but Ladakh is much more than that. Ladakh’s less visited ‘second half ’ is its northern part – sparsely populated Buddhist Zanskar and the slightly greener Shia-Islam Suru Valley, which have much to offer. En route north to this area from Leh, is the Dha Hanu valley. Across this part of the world, the Indus flows gently, enhancing the romance of a landscape that is otherwise surreally barren, possibly even more than what Ladakh is otherwise known for.

Some of the Brokpas also inhabit the Baltistan region, and pretty much the same, they speak an archaic form of the Shina language unintelligible with other dialects of Shina. I found it fascinating that between themselves they would converse in their dialect, yet with me they were comfortable in Hindi, or even a smattering of English. While Brokpa folklore says that their ancestors migrated to this valley several centuries back, probably due to the harsh environmental conditions, some believe that they migrated from Gilgit during the turmoil of warring chieftains. There is another view, apocryphal perhaps, that they are actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, whose Genghis Khan-like sexual decadence is a matter of legend!

Whatever might be their origin though, the Brokpas are now considered (or conjectured) to be the last Aryans of the Kashmir-Himalayan highlands, and the purest descendants of the ancient Indo-Europeans. This theory is not lost of them. In all my conversations across villages, the young and aged both reiterated that they were ‘true’ Aryans innumerable times. On these lines, it is noteworthy that they are predominantly Caucasoid in contrast to the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh. DNA samples drawn from the Brokpas have been sent to the Genographic Project for analysis, based on which the community has been determined to be “ancient” and “isolated”. There isn’t enough global data, though, to ascribe their true location of origin.

What marks the Brokpas out, however, is that they have lived isolated for centuries in such an inaccessibly harsh terrain (where temperatures plummet to minus 40 degrees in winter) that their “Aryan” DNA “seemingly” remains untainted. Because of this isolation, fraternal polyandry and polygamy was also prevalent. Having read about this, I broached this subject with some finesse after the ice was broken; I was told by the villagers that this was the case about a century ago; however, is changing under the influence of Buddhism and Islam. It has also been documented that in the past, some foreigners had found their way to Brokpa villages to be impregnated by Brokpa men, tantalized by the prospect of exotic Aryan purity.  In my conversations with them, this was attributed to an urban legend, pun intended.  That being said, in 2007, filmmaker Sanjeev Sivan released his documentary “Achtung Baby: In Search of Purity” based on German women travelling to these villages to be impregnated by men they believe to be racially pure Aryans. The Brokpas do qualify as exotic on most counts, beginning with the elaborate floral headdresses that the women wear even when they work in the fields – rather Fridaesque. The headdress includes rows of coins, some dating as far back as the 19th century, stitched together for ornamentation, and bright ribbons. The typical attire of the male consists of a turban with a flower or two, and a long woolen gown held at the waist by a girdle of cloth, and woolen trousers.

The Brokpas are nominally Buddhist; however animist and Bön rituals still survive. And yet the Buddhism they practice is markedly dissimilar from that followed in central and eastern Ladakh. Their customs differ from those of the Tibetan-descended population of those areas; and their cosmic system shows distinct traces of pre-Buddhist animistic religion. I sure hope to see this in full flow in September, which is when I have been invited to their Bonana-na festival at harvest.

This community is relatively more backward economically than the Baltis or other communities of the region, and their general socio-economic condition remains poor. The main sources of livelihood for the Brokpas are animal husbandry, and agriculture with apple, mulberry, apricots, walnuts, cherry, peaches, pears and grapes grown in these villages.

The traditional Brokpa diet is based on locally grown foods such as barley, wheat prepared most often as tsampa/sattu (roasted flour), and potatoes. Other food includes radishes, turnips, and a brewed tea made of black tea, butter and salt, which I quite enjoyed, reminiscent of my travels in the Khumbu in Nepal when I had this with the Sherpas. Religious taboo bans dairy and poultry sources, as the deity venerated here detests cows and chicken, and so both are considered unmentionable. It is a question though as to how this uniqueness gels with the Aryan image, a race popularly deemed to be of cattle herders in ancient times?

The sum of it all remains the indelible truth that no one really knows where Brokpas come from. The confusion is amusingly represented in a blurb on them in a Lonely Planet guide to India. Titled ‘Lost Tribes’, it says in all earnestness, ‘The facial features of the Brokpa (also known as Drokpa or Dards) ‘people of the pastures’ have led to speculation that the tribe has descended from Alexander the Great’s invasion force or even a lost tribe of Israel.’

Possibly that means that the Brokpas could have come from anywhere.

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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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The Perfect Exposure

I never expected my photography and blog to be in the shape and form in which they are today. When I started writing here a few months back, I didn’t expect such heartfelt and honest comments and notes and emails from people. Those took me by surprise and continue to do so. Just a few days back, someone wrote a really nice mail to me and requested me to write every day. It touched me for sure, it made me happy and I said so as well to the person who wrote to me. Apropos the request to write each day,  I could have easily said “yes, I’ll do it”, but in all honesty I said, “I can’t because then it won’t be from my heart, it won’t be the real me, it’ll only be perfunctory.” I’ll then be doing it for all the wrong reasons – I’ll be writing for someone else, and not writing for myself which is what I always do. I photograph and write for myself because then they give me serenity and peace, and those feelings are then what I can reflect in turn. Is this being selfish? There is no easy answer to this, and it all depends on how you look at it, which is what this blog is about – what is the truth?

My writing has changed across the last three months since I started here – you can see the earlier posts if you want. And I’ll confess that some don’t really touch me the way they did when I wrote them. Sure I can edit them and make those “better” by any standards or even delete them but I don’t. On similar lines all my photographs are on Facebook, not just the better ones. I can’t, I won’t, I don’t even want to wish them away. But I let them just be there. They happened because of me. I am the cause. I am the reason.  This is just the way I can’t wish my past away, all the mistakes that I made, all the people I hurt. Is every photograph and word embarrassing, everything of my past regrettable? Not at all in the least – but we tend to live with the guilt of our follies and foibles carrying this burdensome crucifix for ages. So you see, we need to let it be, but we also need to let it go. The past “was” real, the present “is” the reality, the truth.

But again what is the truth? I made these two photographs of butter-lamps at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. I’ve described the scene before, but let me try and recreate it. When I made the images of the lamps, I was standing alone in a darkened sanctum sanctorum, the windows of which were covered in soot, the air heavy with the fragrance of incense and oil, the sound of monks chanting their prayers in my ears. It wasn’t cold but I shivered, and I had goose bumps, as God came to my mind and I felt “faith”. I cannot help but quote Rumi who said: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

On a more prosaic note, both these images might “appear” to be the same at the first superficial glance –but they actually aren’t. Appearances are not reality. As Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother: “One may have a blazing hearth in his soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.”

Yes, these were made at the same place, almost the same time, with the same light, yet these are different. Without meaning to get into the technicalities of photography which you know I don’t get into, the difference in them lies in the settings of the shutter speed, aperture (or how much the lens is opened or stopped down) and ISO (or film sensitivity) which form what is called the “exposure triangle”.  I can juggle these into myriad combinations to create different photographs, but as photographers would tell you, only one combination is the “perfect exposure”.  Again perfect for whom?

As an analogy, I’d interpret these terms to be the pace at which we see things around us, how much we open our eyes to observe and not merely see, and how sensitive we are to that which we observe. An imbalance in any of these settings results in a “not so good photograph”, a distortion of reality, a misinterpretation of the truth. So we need to slow down in life, observe deeply and with more sensitivity. Coming back to where we were, again both images are real, you might like one, and I the other.  Having said that, in all these unique combinations of speed, aperture and sensitivity there will be one that comes closest to reality, on which both you and I will agree. The problem lies in reaching that agreement. We are unwilling to let go of our positions, of our dominant (predominant?) ego. Remember how difficult it is to say with absolute brutal honesty: “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I didn’t understand you. Please forgive me.”

I might not agree with you but I must recognize and realize that your perspective is real as well. On my “About” page, I wrote this: “In the continuum of time and space, intermediate finite moments shape our being and our perception, our mental prisms. After passing through our own prisms of perception, each refraction of reality contains only some pure essence of the light, only an incomplete part. So we will always experience some aspect of reality, of the truth, but only from our perspectives. None will see the whole, complete light. These are musings from my own refraction.”

Photography for me is a passion, but it is also spiritual. Just as my writing is. I can’t photograph or write at the speed of my thoughts. So I slow down to think and speak aloud as I type, observing carefully the tumult within me subside, as I become more sensitive to who I really am. And as I’ve said before, I don’t edit, I don’t rearrange. I photograph and write with honesty each time – and by doing that every time with honesty, it becomes easier for me to express the truth, and for me to be me. Rhonda Byrne called it “The Secret” – you can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, psychologists can call it auto-suggestion, I merely say this is the truth. Or if you’d prefer to, you can just call it:

The Perfect Exposure.

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If Buddha taught photography

I am not religious. Spiritual yes, but not religious. If you ask this pseudo-Brahmin to recite a single mantra, he won’t be able to. But that to me means nothing. As I’ve said so myself, I am an iconoclast, but yet I believe there is a Divine Power that brings method to this madness. I’ve read a lot on religion, and deeply respect all of them. But for many reasons, too many to detail here, Buddhism has influenced me deeply, yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I am also a photographer. Just this morning as I was reading “In the Buddha’s words”, an anthology of discourses from the Pali canon, I concluded that if Buddha taught photography, his one and only lesson would consist of two words: “Yoniso maniskara”.

Without claiming to be an expert in theology (just as I don’t claim to be an expert in photography), if I were to distill the teachings of the Buddha, it would, in the final analysis, stem down to these two words. Buddha’s discourses begin by calling us to develop this faculty yoniso maniskara, which has many meanings and many interpretations in Pali, but the one most commonly accepted is “careful attention”. Buddha tells us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives, but instead pay careful attention to the simple truths that are everywhere available to us. If I were to put this in even more simple words, I would only use the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on the principles of mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are”.

For me, this is what photography is all about – careful attention. I’ve changed with the years, evolved maybe in some way, hopefully for the better as there always was a lot of room for improvement in me. With time (a euphemism for growing old(er)), I’ve realized that the best way in life is to be is in the moment. “The Power of Now” as Eckhart Tolle called it. I have an advantage – I can’t multitask, so I have no choice. Yet that didn’t stop me in many years to live in la-la land. But now, I am more conscious. I stare in awe even at the most mundane of things, I am aware, I feel. The only solution I have found to be in the “now” is to slow down. I live that moment. If I am talking to you, I am only there, while I am saying these words aloud as I type. If I am creating photographs, I am only doing that.

But the happiest times of my life are when it’s just the Three Musketeers in blissful solitude out of “civilization” as we know it, and the camera. We have no BlackBerry, no laptop, no internet, no newspaper to distract us. It is just the three of us – I, me, and myself. And the closer we three get, the more content we are. We live that moment – it’s called the joie de vivre. And when you live that moment, you see differently. And since this is about the Buddha, the single word that comes to my mind when I think of Him and reflect on His teachings is “compassion”.  Sure I can make a photograph with His face, as I so often have (in fact, you’ll find them on here too), but compassion can even be expressed through these images, which I made at the Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh, when I saw and felt it differently.

William Blake’s words from the “Auguries of Innocence” came to mind when I made this photograph: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, And Eternity in an Hour.”

I love to quote because like there are many more photographers better than me, so are there many more writers. This image reminded me of some more words that I believe in deep within my heart. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Yes, I do. Whatever I am, is You and Yours alone.

I stared unabashedly at the obvious, the Buddha’s compassionate eyes, feeling the serenity radiate, but from there, I went lower to his lips, always curved in that all knowing half-smile, amused and bewildered at our foolishness, yearning for either the past or the future, forgetting the present.

By the way, yoniso also means, literally, “to the womb”. The meaning is, getting to the core or essence of the matter, doing something with understanding of the pith and substance, understanding cause and effect, and maniskara simply means to keep something in mind. I interpret this to see and feel everything with childlike innocence and wonder and awe. Try it. You’ll feel the difference. You’ll live that moment. And when you live, you’ll create.

Tomorrow I am again off to the Himalayas again. I live, don’t exist. I am alive, not living. I am attentive, not absent. May my epitaph never read “He lived as if he were never going to die; he died as if he never lived”. I know now what He would have said. You know now what He would have said.

If Buddha taught photography.

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A Brief History of Time

I read this book many years ago, but for some strange reason, suddenly this book came to my mind this afternoon as I was working on my photographs. How and why I don’t know really. What Amazon has to say about this #1 New York Times Bestseller is this: “A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God – where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.”

But what are the secrets at the very heart of this creation, where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected?

Without meaning to compete with either Stephen Hawking (or God), I believe that there are only two secrets to every creation. If you’ve just thought of “imagination” as being one of them, no it isn’t – imagination is obvious, a given, not a secret. Without imagination, there is no art. I could have quoted Picasso here, but I’d much rather use Einstein’s words who said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” And I know, I’m rambling.

Getting back to the secrets – the reason why it is so easy for me to say that there are two with utmost conviction is because I have just been arranging and rearranging my images in folders to better manage them, and so I’ve had a quick look at the tens of thousands I’ve made. As I viewed those photographs, especially the contrast between the ones I had made at the beginning of my image-making journey to how I make them now, I had this epiphany.

To illustrate those secrets, I went through my photographs and finally settled on two; I wanted two images: monochrome, simple, and stark, which could convey these secrets. So stop, observe, reflect – and think of just one single word which could convey the meaning of these photographs.

Here is the first photograph:

This photograph of butter-lamps was made by me at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. When I made the image of the lamps, I was standing alone in a darkened sanctum sanctorum, the windows of which were covered in soot, the air heavy with the fragrance of incense and oil, the sound of monks chanting their prayers in my ears. It wasn’t cold but I shivered, and I had goose bumps, as God came to my mind and I felt His presence. I thought of “faith”. I cannot help but quote Rumi who said: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

And here is the second:

The second image is of the mountainside en route to Phyang Gompa on the outskirts of Leh. Phyang was one of the villages affected by the flash floods of 2010, detritus of which still remains testimony to the havoc and destruction wrought, and on which I stood attempting to balance my tripod in futility. The monastery itself is just about a few hundred meters from where I made this photograph, and was untouched. A matter of faith perhaps? As I stood there in that valley of barren fields staring mesmerized at just granite, dwarfed by rock and mountain, the icy wind whistling past, I could only think of “endurance”.

Maybe you got the same (or similar) words, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you think differently. But these are my secrets, for photography, and for life. Faith and endurance. But does this mean, I won’t (or don’t) fail? I never said so. Of course I’ve failed often…at almost everything I’ve tried, work, relationships, photography, writing, but I never give up. I learn from what I did wrong, and I try, and try yet again. It’s frustrating, yes I know, but if I am to be true to my craft, my art, and beyond everything else, to myself, then these are my mantras to creation. Keep the faith. Keep walking.

And because I don’t give up, because I believe, because I have faith, as I go along that journey of creation, sometimes weary, sometimes not, I find myself truly blessed to witness and capture “a brief history of time”.

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P.S. I love you

Why would I want to write a love letter for the world to read? Why should I, an intensely private person with my feelings, declare undying love on my blog? Why must I, the doubtful one, say that yes, I do believe in love now? Only because this time, it is different, I feel it within – I am in love with my muse.

It was love at first sight with Ladakh, where on clear mornings, peaks of mountains part cirrus clouds and rise into azure blue skies. Beneath those skies lies a lost kingdom, Ladakh, which literally means “land of high passes” and is part fantasy, part reality. Out here the forces of nature conspired to render a magical, unrealistic landscape, a smorgasbord of extremes – both desert and blue waters, burning sun and freezing winds, glaciers and sand dunes – a veritable, primeval battleground of titanic forces.

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Ladakh is a forgotten moment in time, an anachronism if you must, with villages carved out of mountainsides, stupas reaching for the sky, chortens in fields, monasteries virtually hanging from cliffs and crags, their interiors filled with priceless antiques and art. It lies is isolated from the modern world, almost insular. Authentic to the core, it remains faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterized by intense spirituality. Rich traditions of Buddhism flourish in their purest form here, and it oftentimes has been referred to as Little Tibet. On most days as the first rays of the sun cast their crimson-gold hue on the mountains, monks sound large copper trumpets from the rooftops of monasteries, while in the courtyards below, still others in maroon robes and masks prepare for rites and performances. The music slowly rises to a crescendo; wafts of incense fill the air with fragrance, as another group of monks in ceremonial attire comes out to unfurl the “thangka” – a large painted scroll. Just another “ordinary” day in paradise, where the doorway to Heaven lies.

But I am straying from what I want to say. This isn’t a travelogue, but a photoblog. So now getting to business – why did I say “I am in love” in my opening proclamation, and not use the contemporary, “I’ve fallen in love”. Because the word “fall” implies that the process is in some way inevitable, uncontrollable, risky, irreversible, or that it puts me in a state of vulnerability. I only agree with the first adverb, not the others, as I am not really contemporary. In ways more than one, I am classical in my thought and belief, a purist at heart who bought his digital SLR much after the world had transitioned to bits and bytes, because I believed that photography is either about film, or it isn’t. I still much rather prefer the expression of B&W. Even today, I rarely, if ever, crop the images I create because I believe composition is within the frame, not in the digital darkroom. Strange, yes I know.

So in the classical world which I believe in, “love at first sight” was understood as passionate love, a kind of madness or, as the Greeks put it, theia mania (“madness from the Gods”), and was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover. Which is just what happened to me with my muse. Now a muse either exists in a photographer’s life, or she doesn’t; she ignites passion, infuses fire, ignores rules, embraces abandon. Without this freedom and desire, I can’t create. In a sense, my muse is the stone from which my sculpture, my art is created. She is there, everywhere, but yet not. To recognize her needs time, patience, a deliberate slowing down to see your own art; when that art comes from within, when it is the creation of your soul, your entire being, when each time you see it, you feel something stir inside, then you have found your muse. So now go forth, wander, and find your muse, whoever, whatever, wherever she might be. It is only then you will discover the meaning of creativity (I also wrote about this in small measure in my earlier blog “Explore. Dream. Discover” http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/explore-dream-discover/).

And by the way, the word “muse” itself comes from the ancient Greeks, who started with three muses and then went to nine. Eventually Plato named Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, as the tenth muse – the poetic muse, as she was known. (I also think of photography as poetic, visual poetry so to speak, which is why I write). Much after the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 invoked the Tenth Muse:

“Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth, Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.”

Well Mr. Bard of Avon, I found the eleventh. So there.

P.S. Ladakh, I love you.

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Who am I?

The answer isn’t on the “About” page, no it isn’t. And just in case you’re wondering, I don’t intend to become a philosopher and even remotely attempt to answer this question which has troubled many more illustrious sorts from Aristotle to Albert Camus. And no, I won’t be a New Age Guru either.  This question actually came to my mind when I was merely wondering why people should, or would want to, read my blog. What would they be thinking? Am I a Pulitzer award winning photographer or a Booker prize author? Am I delusional? Related to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or is this a prolonged Prozac moment? If your answer to my rhetoric is “none of the above”, then do continue reading.

I am just the regular guy next door who had not a cent when I bought my camera. I was in business school at that time. It was just after I graduated and I was doing research at Singapore with a Professor whom I requested for advance on my stipend and then used it for an SLR. And because I spent my entire stipend (it wasn’t much you see) on a measly camera (yeah right) I missed meals because I had no money to eat. How many people would do that? I am just this regular guy next door who after he got his camera studied (deliberate use of the word) photography and proceeded to win a competition within a month of my “miss-your-square-meal” acquisition. Of course, I promptly used the prize money to buy some more photography equipment. I am just this regular guy next door who in the middle of an Indian summer when it’s pushing almost 50 degrees Celsius steps out to photograph because the color of the sky is absolutely amazing. If I confess that I am this regular guy, what then is my claim to fame?

My claim to fame is this passion of mine, my burning desire to create images that are an indelible part of the inner me, which are from, and of my soul. My claim to fame is also my openness to share this journey with you, my trials and tribulations both, my angst and happiness in equal measure, so that you can see the world through my heart but as it appears through my lens. My claim to fame is that I am a voyeur as a photographer but also an exhibitionist because I am unabashedly naked with my feelings in my images and what I have to say here.

Yes, there are many better photographers than me, I agree. Also an equal number of writers, but I daresay that list gets rather pruned only because I do both with passion and honesty. On 14th March 1839, Sir John Herschel, in a lecture before the Royal Society of London, made the word “photography” known to the world. But in an article published on 25th February the same year in a German newspaper called the Vossische Zeitung, Johann von Maedler, a Berlin astronomer, had used the word photography already. The etymology of the word photography derives from the Greek photos, genitive of phos, “light” and graphé “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “writing or drawing with light”. So in a matter of speaking, I am writing as I create, and I also create when I write. Sometimes though my writing may not be legible even to me – this photoblog is an attempt to set things right.

A recurrent theme in my writing will always be “creation” – the process itself. What I felt, what stirred within me. It is that emotion which I will share. My website is in itself a classic example of my passion; I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t make money from either my photography or writing, far from it. But I have done this only because I believe that it’ll help me create better, and maybe a few others along the way as well. As an aside, I had a business blog (still do in fact) but I stopped writing there because my heart really wasn’t in it. As you can see, it wasn’t because I can’t write.

Now for this photograph – sure I can describe it using the golden mean and rule of thirds and diagonals and converging and leading lines etc., but more than that I should be able to express what I felt at that moment and describe it to you.  I believe I can, and I believe you can too, if only you learn to see with your heart.  As I crossed Choglamsar just off Leh, I passed by these chortens in a field. I paused and stared – which is what I always do when I am awestruck. What I witnessed was raw beauty, barren, yet pristine and pure. A dramatic sky. I felt and believed that the presence of God is everywhere you go, His beauty manifested in many forms. The paths along the parched earth in the photograph are all in different directions yet moving towards the chortens, the Universal Truth in many shapes, of many names. What I also felt was that as you move along this path, you will grow in stature from a small bush to a stoic tree as they are in the photograph. It is then that you see and experience the real expanse of the Universe, the vastness of the sky, the size of mountains. It is then that you’re closer to the Self, closer to your own being.

And for this photograph, I only want to use the words of Hermann Hesse, “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being”.

Isn’t it much better than saying “Oh, this is a nice snap”. I detest the word “snap” by the way. It is just too frivolous for something as beautiful as an image. It trivializes creativity. It reminds me of snapping my fingers or worse still, snapping at someone. So when I write about photographs that I’ve made and which have really touched me within, it helps me think, lets me see my images over and yet over again, allows me to introspect and figure out in words what was it that moved me within, what stirred my soul, what stayed with me. It is then that I get an inch closer to the answer.

Oh, what was the question again? Who am I?

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Explore. Dream. Discover

After a week in Ladakh, I feel the magic! I am happy. I was thrilled to hold my camera in my hand in Ladakh, morning, afternoon, evening. Yet I had been despondent same time seven days back, really miserable. Everything seemed right with photography, yet all wrong with my photographs (or at least so I thought). I was feeling blue when I wrote my last blog post, and promised to write about what worked for me, what allowed me to get into the creative groove from the creative rut, a subtle but evocative turn of phrase (and mindset).

All I needed really was to get out of where I was – the physical space. My environs had made me mentally claustrophobic, emotionally constrained. I’d stopped feeling. For me, the process of making a photograph, of creating an image is heartfelt…it’s not just about putting my viewfinder to my eye and pressing the shutter release button to capture whatever fills that frame. A photograph for me is a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But I’ll write about the photographic story some other time. For now, let’s return to what happened. When I kept visiting the same places, seeing the same people, the same things where I was, over and yet over again, I suffered from cognitive blind spots. I was inured, and for that reason, “trigger shy.”

I literally needed to get out for some fresh air. In the rarified high-altitude atmosphere of Ladakh, my brain may have been oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated. I felt everything with innocence, without thought, logic or reason, but through the awestruck eyes of a child seeing that brand new toy. My singular goal was to engage “photographic gears” of the heart, the eye, and the mind (in that order) so that better photographs could follow. I needed to feel again.

Working in unfamiliar territory (literally) often provides insights to me and offers new ideas and challenges. Again, this gets my brain working, solving problems, and leads to new approaches. For example, I don’t focus on any specific genre, but I rather create images of people, places, and things that stir me within, that make me feel deep inside long after I have made that photograph. But in Ladakh, I spent a long time photographing locals, talking to them, and that almost compelled me to look at photographic composition in ways that I hadn’t before.

On my first day in Ladakh, I was driving by when I saw this old man sitting on a broken-down chair in a junkyard by the roadside. I crossed him and went past for maybe about half-a-kilometre or so when I felt something tugging at my heart and wanting me to go back. So I turned around, went back, smoked a cigarette with him, and made a few photographs of Mr. Twinkling Eyes. Isn’t it strange how the eyes don’t have to be wide open for the universal language of an indulgent smile to be recognized? This place was en route to where I was staying in Leh and I crossed it each day. Every single day after that I watched out for this old man, but never saw him again. I’m glad I went back.

Lesson learnt – shoot at sight!

I experimented. I made some great images, and I daresay some masterpieces; and that was just because I felt free, felt liberated – there were no limiting boundaries of the “same old, same old”. I talked to people, listened to their stories. I created pictures of the same subject in many ways – over- and under-exposed, black-and-white and color, in focus and out of it. I had no rules, but for an imposition I placed on myself – I wouldn’t crop any images later. This ensured I walked (and slowly at that) to get the composition right, which also meant I saw and felt much more. When I moved physically, I saw my subject with a more open mind and fresher eyes. I approached the entire process of making a photograph in new ways and along those ways I learnt much about my photographic vision. My idea was to remember that there are a million ways to look at even the most “ordinary” subject. Having said that, I actually don’t believe that there are any “ordinary” subjects, just photographers with ordinary vision – I’d used that word, figuratively speaking, to put across a point. As Emerson profoundly observed, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament”.

Of course it helped that I was surrounded by conventional and classical beauty. And also beauty in the form that photographers with visual acuity see – the wayside sacrament variety. I had found my muse. I had discovered Ladakh. As an illustration, this photograph of prayer flags is possibly “ordinary”, but for me it has a meaning as it would for everyone who has been to places such as this. Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally woodblock-printed with texts and images, they have Buddhist Sutras inscribed which were then transmitted to other regions of the world by the wind. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by devas against their adversaries, the asuras. These horizontal prayer flags, called lung ta (meaning “Wind Horse”) in Tibetan, are in five colors representing the elements, and arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolizes sky/space, white symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. But for me the meaning is rather simple. Serenity. Belief. Faith. Hope

And so yes, that too did pass. All because I stepped out. Thank you Mark Twain for telling me that. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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