Tag Archives: Himalayas

To dream

I should actually be working as I write this – there are tons of things that are needed to be attended to, and a to-do list that is long, very long! But I was exchanging notes with someone very, very dear to me last evening (you know who you are), and that has, sort of, triggered this need to write. In a manner of speaking, scribbling my thoughts here, clears out the clutter in my head, metaphorically separates the grain from the chaff, and invariably leaves me happy and content. Come to think of it, I am always happy and content. So scratch that out – it makes me count my blessings. God has been kind to me.

Flashback. About 10 months ago, I had an epiphany, the proverbial Eureka moment. I had a dream. And I decided to chase it, come what may. Trust me when I say, it is larger than anything, anything I have ever even thought of. More on my dream at a later time. But this is what I think – it is not only the Martin Luther King’s, the Gandhi’s, and the Mandela’s who have a right to dream. It is ordinary folk – you and me – who need to dream. Dreams change the world. Dreamers change the world. Dreams make us better people. Dreams bring in the promise of a tomorrow better than today. So look within yourself, find that dream, and chase it – pursue it, and make it come true.

This one time, what makes me count my blessings truly are the people who have come forth to support me, and stand by me. The usual suspects are there, of course – those who have always held my hand – and there are some of my closest friends, but other than them, there are many, many others who till a few months back were complete strangers, as I was to them. These strangers of then are now with me, dear to my heart, sharing my dream, and making it come true. You all know who you are. You all know what you mean to me. To you, I shall be eternally grateful and indebted. Your faith and trust in me means the world to me. I shall never let you down. That is my promise.

They are the ones who remind me of what John Lennon said: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” So thank you for your courage and your indomitable spirit. Thank you for your faith. Thank you for believing in me. Let us change the world, one step, one moment at a time. You make my world a better place. You make this life worth living. You make the sun rise each day.

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There will always be the naysayers, the others who will be filled with disdain and doubt; with scorn and sarcasm; who are jealous and jaded. Don’t let them affect you. Do what you ought to. Do what your heart tells you. Do what is right. Be thankful for your friends, your companions in this journey, be grateful for their support each moment. Trust them with your life. Remember they have trusted you when ALL you have is a dream. Don’t let go of your passion. Even when it consumes you. There will be sleepless nights. There will be doubts. This is normal. Let it pass. Remember the sun shines brightest after the darkest of nights.

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And with no intention at all of being melodramatic (or despondent), I have often wondered what should my epitaph read. Maybe these words of apocryphal origin:

“I am not a star.

There is no halo over my head.

Fate doesn’t like the color of my eyes.

Struggle and strife are old friends of mine.

Who am I?

I am survival. I am guts. I am pride.

I like odds.

Especially when they’re stacked against me.

Because there will come a time,

When I will stare them in the eye.

And smile the smile of the one who’s pulled it off.

I am the guy who will have deep lines on his face someday.

And it’ll make me look good when I laugh.

Because that is the day I will fear no fear.

And taste sweat that is sweet.

And look back for the very first time and say,

I did it my way. The long hard way.”

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But now I am reminded of the words of Charles Lindbergh: “I owned the world that hour as I rode over it. free of the earth, free of the mountains, free of the clouds, but how inseparably I was bound to them.” I am torn. How about Atticus: “I hope to arrive to my death, late, in love, and a little drunk.”

But no, let me keep it short. I think I will settle for:

“He had the courage to dream.”

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On gratitude

Almost a lifetime. That is how long it feels now that I am here finally writing a post. Words don’t come easy. I am stumbling, staring at the blank sheet of paper as I attempt to find expressions that can convey what and how I feel. Nothing yet.

But I know the photographs I want to share, and those I hope will render this easy. For the last 3 months I have been in the deserts of Iraq on work, but yearning for the mountains that I love.  Those are the photographs I have open at this point of time – waiting, hoping that there will be this sudden surge of inspiration. The mountains do something for me. And not going there makes me feel as if I were incomplete. In the same way, photography and writing make me complete. I am different from what I was when I left for Iraq. I have been told that by those who know me. And what I have been told hasn’t been good. I have changed, and not for the better. This is what happens when I don’t photograph, when I don’t write and I don’t find myself in the mountains. These are what I am, this is who I am.

After months of travel, I finally got around to editing some photographs of Ladakh where I was in April, and found quotes as I often do for them.

For this one, I thought of what Andy Rooney said: “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” ­

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And this is what Pablo Neruda said in 100 Love Sonnets:

“So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.”

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“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” – Cynthia Hand, Hallowed

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As as I beheld spring, the words of Ernest Hemingway came to mind:  “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

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I feel better now as I write. I know this post isn’t great, but this is just how I feel without having photographed or written for months. I just hope the photographs compensate for my words.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ­– Hunter S. Thompson

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It is much later such as now when I contemplate deeper on what that moment meant to me, do words come out and find their place, intruding as they were on my feelings. It is only in retrospect that I can actually apply logic and creativity and composition and all such things to the frame. Not then.

The feeling of being there, both in solitude and otherwise, is something I cannot explain in words. Not possible, even for me.  But I’ll do the best I can. The feeling is meditative, of being immersed in the here and now, utterly and completely awestruck by the sheer beauty of it all. As I reflect on how I feel then, I realize that more often than not, I have no thoughts. Everything is still. And somewhere in that meditative frame of mind, I put the camera to my eye and press the shutter. I don’t compose. Or let me put it differently – I cannot compose. At least not according to me. I am in a zone.

Sometimes not always, there are those errant tears that run down as I see whatever is in front of my eyes. It is Creation. No, it is the Creator.

And there is only one thought if at all that overwhelms me then:

Of gratitude.

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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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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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A wayside sacrament

I must confess I have some other thoughts in my mind which I’m going to write about later, but as I was trying to place everything buzzing around in my head into some semblance of coherent order, I thought about beauty. And this blog isn’t so much about what I have to say, but on what I’m thinking at the moment. Why is it so difficult for us to find beauty? Why do we need to look in all those hidden corners other than right in front of our eyes to see beauty? Why is it impossible to recognize beauty in all that we call “ordinary”?

I don’t ever remember opening a dictionary to see the meaning of beauty – well, I did just now. I don’t even remember ever using the words and “ugly” and “hate”. And before you think I’m being holier-than-thou, I can use language that would make a salty sailor blush.

beau·ty n. pl. beau·ties

– The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

– A quality or feature that is most effective, gratifying, or telling.

– An outstanding or conspicuous example.

With photography an indelible focus of mine, I have learnt that the only way to recognize beauty in each and every form is to slow down in life, pause and stare unabashedly. What other people find boring, I find interesting, what other people ignore, I find intriguing, what other people pass by, I stop at. Because now I see beauty in truthfulness, a representation of what really exists, as the Lord created. For that you have to scratch the surface, sometimes deep below. And it works the same way in relationships – we hasten to judge. I have. Think about it.

I discovered beauty in these trees as I walked the Himalayas, and I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s words when he said: “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with it fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” So the obvious isn’t necessarily the most important. Sometimes what lies beneath is even more so. 

As those other thoughts of what I should actually be writing on overwhelm my mind, all I want to remind myself is to slow down. And listen carefully to Ralph Waldo Emerson words: “Never lose the opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.”

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A non-zero sum game

I travel. I travel extensively. I photograph. I photograph extensively. I read. I read extensively.  I write. I write extensively.  Nothing about me happens in moderation. And yes, that also means I love deep, and it also means I hurt bad. I am emotional, sentimental and sensitive. That’s just the way I am, the way I am built.

I meet many people on my travels; I talk to many of them, and with almost all I create photographs of. But sometimes even without a conversation in words, we can speak the language of the heart. Each conversation, in words or silence, is a revelation, a story for me of their lives. I come back with many lessons, most of which I call my lessons for life. With this man I needed no words… all I needed to do was smile, and this is what I got in return. Much more than what I gave.

So you see I always come back richer than what I was before.

He reminded me of Cassandra Clare’s words in the “City of Glass”:  And he said, “You could have had anything else in the world, and yet you asked for me.” She smiled up at him. Filthy as he was, covered in blood and dirt, he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “But I don’t want anything else in the world”, she replied.

A few days later on the same trip in Himachal, I was heading up to the summit of a mountain when I met another shepherd (one of the many with whom fortuitously my paths crossed) who was lying in his tent, or should I say, just an open tarp. For those who have been following my blogs, this was not Dighli Ram as you’d see, but another shepherd. I was fascinated by how he was – an open tent in that cold weather, tired eyes, chapped lips, wearing his patched coat, covered with a blanket, his life’s belongings strewn around, embers of the night’s fire still glowing and smoking. I stopped to chat with him and make a few photographs. I was mesmerized.

As I lay down that night in my tent, I tossed and turned, not because I wasn’t comfortable in my 900+ down sleeping bag, but I was uncomfortable with how I’d been that morning with my shepherd friend. Sure I’d chatted with him for about 15 minutes and spoken to him about what he does, where he is from, his family, his children, but all the while when I was talking to him, my thoughts kept wandering to the summit of the mountain and I didn’t spend as much time with him as I should have – which means to my heart’s content. I followed my head, not my heart. I’d been selfish. I “did” barely enough so that I could photograph him, and nothing more. Our meeting had become transactional, a bargain for me. This happened to me after many years. Even now this bothers me.

And that is when my thoughts wandered – to the innumerable, regrettable times I have done such things in my life in the past, perhaps even worse; to the times I never held an old lady’s hand to help her cross the road because I thought her hand was dirty, to how I’ve only offered a seat in the bus or the tube to those I consider “worthy” of my place, to how I’ve never even given a second glance to that bare-bodied, skeleton of a man pulling a hand-cart in the oppressive heat of an Indian summer, to how I’ve never had any remorse about not finishing the food on my plate without thinking of those scavenging in garbage bins for a few morsels. Yes, I’ve done all that and more, but I’m honest enough to admit it openly. Somewhere along the way, I realized all this, my unfounded arrogance, my selfishness and I resolved to change, and change I did, which is why I still feel guilty about spending maybe five or ten minutes less with my shepherd friend. When there are aberrations of self-centeredness like this, I feel miserable and castigate myself – you could call this blog my confession.

But what is the connection between meeting the shepherd and my past? Lots actually. In all of these instances, I allowed myself to be the center of my thoughts. It would have been no biggie had I spent some more time with him – maybe shared a cup of tea. We could have laughed some more together, I could have allowed him to use my camera – he would have been thrilled. Sure I can still turn around and say “Oh well, next time maybe”, but there is no next time. These moments past will never come back. I need to remember carpe diem. I need to remember that there is a purpose even in why I write this today. I need to remember to thank the Lord for all my blessings. I need to thank Him for something as “taken-for-granted” that I can read, write and express myself here, and there are many who understand where I am coming from. I need to thank Him for all of you, my friends. So thank you God. I need to remember to make you and others all my reasons.

These words “all my reasons” reminds me of the final scene in the film “A Beautiful Mind” when John Nash, (played by Russell Crowe) during the Nobel Prize ceremony, says this to his wife: “I’ve always believed in numbers and that equations and logics lead to reason and after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask what truly is logic, who decides reason. My question has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back and I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I am only here because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”

This wasn’t planned – strange how this blog has ended with John Nash. It reminds me of the Nash Equilibrium and Game Theory. So I also need to remember that my life needs to be:

A non-zero sum game.

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To thine own self be true

I am a fan of Bryan Adams; I admire his music greatly, a few songs in particular, of which “(Everything I do) I do it for you” happens to be one.  Strangely I don’t believe in the lyrics of the song anymore though:  “Walk the wire for you, yeah I’d die for you…”. Why would I want to die for someone if I loved them? I’d do everything that I can to live for them.  The incurable romantic that I was (I still am, and shall continue to be), I’ve used these words in the past without knowing the real meaning because it “sounded good” you see, a declaration, nay a proclamation of my “true, eternal” love which was eventually rather short-lived! And that is the difference now. I don’t use these words anymore, I won’t use these words anymore.  I no longer am who I “should” be. I am just me. But this transformation didn’t happen overnight.

I clearly remember it was the summer of 2001. I had just begun reading Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller “The Power of Now”. I flipped open the book and there on page one, these words stared back at me: “I cannot live with myself any longer. This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with. Maybe I thought, only one of them is real”.

I stopped there. Page one. This book didn’t need to be read anymore. I felt a sense of déjà vu, not perhaps as extreme as Eckhart Tolle felt, but still.  As I thought about the meaning of these words, I realized I’d been on a journey becoming someone I wasn’t really, and for many reasons. I also realized I had to find myself, the “self” I had lost along the way.  There began my journey, my quest.  Many years, many miles down this path, photography happened to enter and become the center of my life in 2010. And that’s when there was focus, that’s when I saw light (pun intended).

What photography has allowed me is a retrospective, a means to reflect. The photographs I have made, the images I have created are milestones along this road of discovery I have traveled. My photographs are the essence of how I felt at that time, of who I was then. And I am my most critical, my harshest critique – not only of my images, but also of myself.  I’m not being self-deprecating here; merely factual and honest.

For instance, about two years ago when I’d just about started photography, I happened to be selected as an official photographer for the Audi Fashion Festival at Singapore. This was also at a time when I needed an identity; I wanted to be called a photographer. All my profile pictures on Facebook were with a camera, some with a bazooka-sized lens. Obviously to be in the middle of gorgeous women photographing them made me thrilled, absolutely ecstatic.  Sure I was attracted to the glamor, the glitz, the bling. We just don’t say it, but this was every man’s dream come true – to be a fashion photographer! It was a recognition of, should I say, talent but I didn’t even think about that. Far from it. All I could think of was the amazing models I’d be in the center of. Here are some of the photographs from that evening:

Now these are technically sound, not perfect, but sound photographs. You’re free to disagree though. I was delighted with the results then, but not any longer. You know why? Because today I look for something else in a photograph which these don’t have in the least. These images are ersatz, plastic, and artificial. They have no soul, they don’t strike a chord, they don’t touch me deep within, they don’t make me laugh, they don’t make me cry, they don’t make me feel.  I don’t remember them, and I won’t miss them when they’re gone.

Along these years, I also learnt the meaning of solitude. Being alone allows me to be reflective, to be meditative, to see all that I’ve done wrong, to find out what matters to me most, to figure out what should I do with my life. These are not easy things to do, easy questions to ask – believe me; sometimes you get answers you never wanted to hear. But someone did say “bitter truth”. These moments of solitude are primordial. As the Upanishads state succinctly in Sanskrit: Tat Tvam Asi , which can be translated as “Thou art that,”. The meaning of this is that the Self – in its original, pure, primordial state – is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the origin of all phenomena in this cosmos. I simply interpret this to mean that all the answers are within, not without. I’ve just returned from the Himalayas slightly less than a week now. These are some photographs with soul I made while I was wandering in such solitude:

Having seen it all, there is determination, yet a twinkle and mischief in the eyes.

And here is steely grit, purpose and perseverance writ large.

And now vulnerability, tenderness, compassion and care.

These people, these photographs remind me of JRR Tolkien’s words from “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.” 

Give me these “ordinary” people to photograph any day, every day. I’m happier with them. This is who I really am, and yes you can call me “ordinary”. I’m just being myself, not how I “should” be or how you’d rather have me.

To thine own self be true.

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The Lord is my Shepherd

In our high-speed and high-tech world, walking has sadly and unfortunately fallen out of favor.  “Pedestrian” is almost derogatory – a euphemism for something prosaic, rather ordinary and commonplace. Yet, walking with intention, walking for a purpose has deep roots. Australia’s aborigines walk during rites of passage, while Native Americans conduct vision quests in the wilderness; for many centuries, millenia perhaps, people have walked the Camino de Santiago, which spans across the breadth of Spain. I recollect having read someplace: All these pilgrims place one foot firmly in front of the other, to fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts. As one foot walks, the other rests. The fact of doing and being comes into balance. Remember “The Pilgrim’s Progress” written by John Bunyan?

I am one such pedestrian, one such pilgrim, and I am just back from walking in the Himalayas across a week and more, where I met another pedestrian, albeit slightly different. This is the story of Dighti Ram, a shepherd. At about sunset, I saw him standing in front of his dilapidated stone wall-and-tin roof shed staring out at the pasture; having nothing left to do but settle into my tent for the night, I walked up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few photographs with him. As I usually always do with the people I photograph, I chatted with him for a while even before I pressed the shutter. Why do I talk to people before I photograph them? One for reasons of photography: it puts them at ease and makes for more natural portraits, and two for selfish, personal reasons: always, each and every time without fail, I have walked away from such conversations with “so-called ordinary” people having (re)learnt invaluable, indelible lessons of life.

Dighli Ram is a 69 year old man who has tended to his goats and sheep across the last six decades in the sometimes verdant, mostly freezing, but always beautiful mountains of the Dhauladhar, the outermost fringe of the Himalayas. He has about 300 goats and 400 sheep, large tracts of farmland, and a house leased to a company, bringing his net worth to $120,000, wealthy by any standards in India. But this isn’t about Dighti Ram’s balance sheet or his assets – I’m just putting elements into context.  As we got conversing, I questioned if he ever got tired of doing the same thing day-after-day, walking the same stretch of land for sixty years, or for that matter did he compel himself to do it so that he could get more wealth, more property? His answer was to quote the Bhagavad Gita: “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.” Lesson #1.

He invited me into his shed to share a cup of tea, and later made me promise to come and stay at his farm whenever I am there next – a promise I shall abide by. Now Dighti Ram didn’t invite me because he assessed me by my business card, my professional network on LinkedIN or my salary. His innate simplicity allowed him to invite me without questioning: “What’s in it for me?” Most of us believe that to give, we first need to have something to give. This is paradoxical and the trouble with that is, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” We have forgotten how to value things which don’t have a price tag – things (or feelings) such as empathy and care and compassion and love.  When I’m reminded of this, I realize that true generosity doesn’t start when I have something to give, but rather when there’s nothing in me that’s trying to take.  The more I am with such people, the more I learn to love unconditionally. In our dominant paradigm, Hollywood has insidiously co-opted the word, but the love I’m talking about here is the kind of love that only knows one thing – to give with no strings attached. Purely. Selflessly. Lesson #2.

His face lit up as he, the proud father, told me of his sons – one a shepherd like him and the other a TV-and-radio technician. Then with a forlorn, longing, faraway expression he told me of his wife who tends to the farm and harvest all alone, as he roams with the herd in search of pastures and how he misses her whenever he is away even at this age (which of course was utterly romantic). It reminded me of Kuan Tao-Sheng’s evocative and expressive words: “ You and I have so much love, That it burns like a fire, In which we bake a lump of clay, Molded into a figure of you and a figure of me. Then we take both of them and break them into pieces, And mix the pieces with water, And mold again a figure of you and a figure of me. I am in your clay, You are in my clay. In life we share a single quilt. In death we will share one coffin.” Yes, for all of us, our love, our happiness, our pride is alike; we share the same fears, cry the same tears. The more I spoke with him, the more I became convinced how in the tangle and weave, warp and weft of the Universe, we are all different yet just the same. Lesson #3.

Somewhere down the line in the course of our conversation, we started talking about wildlife in the mountains and he told me of the number of times he had sighted bears and leopards. So I asked if his herd had ever targeted by wild animals to which he said: “Yes, but I am safe as I have a rifle” upon which he proudly brought out a battered and bruised worn-leather rifle case, assembled his rifle and posed with it.

My smartass attitude got the better of me and I said: “But do you really think this small-caliber, muzzle-loading rifle is good enough to protect you against mountain bears or leopards?” – to that he just smiled at my ignorance, looked down at the ground briefly and then to the sky for a bit, and said softly almost in a whisper, “But He is always there for me.” Which is when the 23rd Psalm of the Old Testament came to my mind:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

So thank you Mr. Shepherd, for reminding me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd”.

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