It was an auspicious day, and the Jambay Lhakhan was filled with devotees visit here to participate the ceremony and give prayers. Many of them are elderly, who spend all day here to pray. Among a few younger visitors here, I saw a woman who had an eye, clear and mysterious. She was 16 years old, a young wife, accompanied with her husband, visit here on the auspicious day.
I hear echoes of chanting of monks and many devotees from the sanctuary.
Here in a small side shrine, a young wife takes her time in a personal prayer.
A reflection of the light from the courtyard creeps into the shrine, and the room is filled with soft atmosphere.
The chants of the sanctuary slowly drift away, and a deep silence governs the shrine.
In the Cheri gompa, near Thimphu, there are numerous small structures scattered on a mountain. Some of these are the mediation huts, for monks to meditate as long as three years without a contact to the outer world.
The main monastery, with a sanctuary, is built on rock cliff of the mountain.
When I was photographing a monk in the rock terrace, I saw a man with a boy and a baby walked into the monastery. The family wore somewhat pure atmosphere, noticeable even within the sacred Cheri Gompa, where the stillness rules.
After I finished photography of a monk, I went into the sanctuary to pray thanks to the ruler of the place, and found a curious object placed before the altar.
I was told it was a ritual object to send a deceased spirit away, on the seventh day of the death.
A man and a young boy sat there and prayed. The baby, though he may not aware of the ritual, but seems understands he is in the solemn place, and his mother had left forever.
He was looking into the altar, may be into the space beyond the alter, as if he sees something which we would not. I realized the family was the part of sacred air of the Cheri Gompa.
Karchu-monastery is a fairly newly-built monastery in Paro. It is not only a place to practice Buddhism, but it also serves as a school to young monks.
Among dozens of young monks I saw a boy, somewhat standing out from the other. I was informed by a Lama that he was a reincarnated Rinpoche.
He stood in front of my camera, with an authority, unlike an ordinary child. His transparent eyes gaze at me through the lens.
He is destined to lead the monastery, or may be even a sect of the religion in this country some day, and teach people of Buddhism.
The eyes of a little Rinpoche, seems questioning of my spiritual value, through the lens.
In Bhutan, where the entire kingdom seems to be a holy realm, Taksang is the most sacred of all. The name means “tiger’s nest” and it is where a temple was built on the precipice where the holy Padma Sambhava is believed to have arrived astride a tigress. About three hours up from the foot of the mountain, we trekked through forests of blossoming rhododendron and mossy cypress.
From the overlook at a tea house near the summit, we saw the temple looking just as the legends have it, again and again appearing and disappearing in the mist. The first thing that comes to mind on seeing the group of temples from here is the simple question, “why in such a place?”. It appears that the only way to reach the monastery is to scale inaccessible cliffs that one sees all around it. Like the mountain temples in Tibet, this monastery was built in the most difficult, dangerous place. I can’t imagine how harsh life must be there on top of those windy cliffs in winter, when it would be nearly impossible to get enough food and fuel. Only for the sake of something very precious would one abandon the world for such a place.
I have come now because when I came to Taksang for the first time last year, I wasn’t able to photograph as they were rebuilding the monastery after a fire that had occurred several years before. Now, despite being so recently refurbished, the buildings stand in the clouds as though they have been there for thousands of years.
I confirm my idea again, that the “sacredness” of a sacred place is within the geographic atmosphere, and not limited to the architectural objects.
I searched up and down the cliff, looking for a place to photograph, and decided to make an image of the monastery at sunrise the next day from the stairway, which set up for pilgrims. I got the staff up at 4:00 am and had them help carry the equipment to the stairway. The monastery was still dark. A lone lantern was the only thing that indicated anything being there at all.
One by one, I adjusted the legs of the tripod and set up the camera where I’d marked the place yesterday. Just as I got the camera in place, I began to see the silhouettes of temple buildings against a sky filling with dawning light. I couldn’t take my eyes from the sight of the temples in the mist billowing up from all sides. They would appear one moment, then disappear the next. For three hours I was transfixed with tense excitement by the shifting light and clouds.
When it all cleared, the entire scene was lit flat in the late morning sun, as if the intense scene moments ago had been an illusion. I found myself standing there as if mere shadow, with seven exposed films.
I flew from Delhi to Leh, a capital town in the Ladakh region. I was in a plane of a local airline well-known for its irregular service due to the rough weather of the region. Leh is situated at an altitude of over 3500 meters, so I had to spend some time acclimatizing myself—a good opportunity and excuse for “sightseeing”. After a few days spent exploring Leh, I load my equipment into a tiny Suzuki Jeep and together with a guide, set out for the western part of the region. Often, the wheels of our Suzuki skid dangerously on the gravel road close to the edge of 300-meter cliffs but this is a kind of driving experience of the India that I remembered from the past trips.
On the second day, I was suffering from diarrhea and nausea, asked my guide to arrange cooked vegetables without the Yak oil or Yak butter that is invariably added to food throughout the Himalayan region. This gives the food a distinctive flavor that does not bother me when I am in good health, but in my present situation it does not help my appetite. When we stayed in a village named Alchi, our wild-driving but otherwise gentle an kind driver brought me a bowl of apple and yogurt with a thick topping of honey. It is almost enough to bring tears to the eyes of the wimpy photographer.
After several hours of skidding over the loose dirt of winding roads with terrifying cliffs to one side, the scenery begins to take on a surreal aspect. We have reached the Ramayuru area that is famous for its “moonscape”, a landscape that the elements have carved out over in almost eternal time, an unearthly scene… The Ramayuru gompa, a temple that is one of the main subjects of this trip, can be seen in the distance, sitting on top of the mountain as if an integral element of the scene. It emits the prayers and determination of a people, and stands in total harmony with nature.
Using a compass to work out the direction in which the sun will set, I decide where I want to set up the camera. And wait the moment to come. I watch the shadow of the mountains to the west begin to grow, accelerating in every seconds. I can clearly see the movement of the shadow of a mountain behind the gompa but the gompa itself remains shining brightly in the sun.
When the consciousness becomes synchronized to the movement of the light, and the purest state of consciousness emerges, one enable to sense the atmosphere that normally cannot. When the light on the gompa reaches its highest intensity, my consciousness also reaches a peak. As I release the shutter, by it’s own sound, my consciousness slowly descend back to its usual, dim state.
It is said that the holy lake of Yamdrok never runs dry.
I had been told it made a beautiful view so I made a detour to see it on my way from Lhasa to Gyantze. I saw a prayer flag flying over one of the small mountains overlooking the lake and deciding that it would make the ideal foreground for the lake to photograph I distributed the two hundred pounds of photographic equipment between my guide, a driver, a porter and myself and we all set off for the summit. Although it was only a hill of about 300 meters high, the pass where we left the car was 4750 meters above sea level and the air was thin. The lack of oxygen affected not only me, but also my Tibetan crew and when we finally came in sight of the top, my dear driver, who had been leading the way, cried out in his heavily accented English, “Wrong Mountain!”
Indeed, we had inadvertently climbed the hill next to the one we initially aimed for. We descended the “wrong mountain” and by the time we finally reached the top of the “right mountain” we were all drenched in sweat, out of breath and speechless.
Six days of travelling from mountain to mountain, valley to valley, mostly on foot, sometimes on horseback at an altitude of over 4000 meters. I begin to wonder if I am really an ancient monument photographer or mountaineering photographer.
I spotted a prayer flag on top of a distant mountain. From the height of the mountain and its grand location I guessed that it must mark the site of an important Mani mound so I decide to climb up to it.
The equipment is distributed among the porters and my guide then we begin the ascent. For a “monument photographer” , the climb up a partially snow-covered mountain at an altitude of 4000 meters is no easy task, but the porters make the ascent at a steady pace, even though they are only wearing sandals over bare feet. I tell myself that I will definitely start working out at the gym when I get back to New York, although goodness knows how many times I have made the same promise to myself in the past.
We arrived to the peak to find just a simple prayer flag with several small stones to hold it in place. That was all.
But on top of a bald mountain, a flag and several stones emit strong existence of the invocation. I felt I saw the essence of pray.
The mountain, the sky, the sun, and the prayers flag flutter in the wind. I added one more stone to the pile at the base of the pole then begin the long climb down.
Pak Wo Cave #18
The journey from the ancient capital of Luang Prabang to the Pak Wo cave was supposed to take two hours by boat up the Mekong river. But before we had gone very far, the engine quitted and we found ourselves drifting slowly down the Mekon. The boatman jumped into the river and dragged the boat to shore. Sock, my young Laotian guide, runs to a nearby village and charters a speedboat which resembles a race boat with very low profile, just larger.
It is fast—terrifyingly fast. During the dry season the Mekong river is dotted with numerous boulders and there are others hidden close to the surface. The boat fly down the river, its hull slapping the surface of the water as we swerve to avoid the rocks. It feels as if we are flying and although I shout desperately to the driver, “No Rush! No Rush!” he does not take any notice. Though I was confident with swimming, but my custom made camera which is only one in a world…
We arrive at the cave in forty-five minutes, after a journey that normally takes two hours. For the next three days we use this boat to commute to and from Pak Wo. The cave has been considered sacred for 2500 years, an indigenous spirit having been worshiped there long before Buddhism was introduced to the area. It is said that at one time it contained over 8000 figures of Buddha, ranging from those that would fit in the palm of the hand to those that were larger than life, but approximately half the figures were stolen or destroyed during the Vietnam War.
To photograph deep inside the cave, I have to wait for the mid-day sun to be reflected into depths through the front entrance. No wonder my guide, Sok, appeared so relaxed that morning when our boat began to drift away, while I was nervous of missing the morning light.
I position the camera to capture the numerous figures of Buddha in a three-section panorama. I started to expose one section at a time. Every hour a fresh boatload of pilgrims arrives to worship and when they enter during one of my thirty-minute exposures, I have to close the shutter and wait for them to leave. By the time I get to the last section of the deepest and the darkest, the sun has lost its intensity and I end up exposing the film for two hours. The total exposure time for this panorama was approximately four hours.
It is said that Sarunath (the Deer Park) was the first place that Shakyamuni preached Buddhism after achieved his enlightenment. As the sun sets beyond the great stupa, that has watched people for more than a thousand years, the lively Deer Park in daytime with tourists and local people, this sacred place reclaim the silence it knew a twenty-five hundred years ago.
As I felt a gentle breeze, clouds drifted across the deep navy sky.
I watched the cremation of a body for the first time in my life.
It is said that devotees of Hinduism, all dream of being cremated on the banks of the holy River Ganges at Varanasi (Benares).
It took three hours and thirty minutes from the time that the body, covered in colorful fabric and flowers, was carried out until one of the family elders threw the last small remnants into the river. After the family left, chatting cheerfully, a caretaker came and swept away the last of the ashes from the ground where the cremation was held.
Nothing has left.
That evening, I stood by an abandoned Hindu temple that leant out over the river while I waited for the sun to set. A cow which considered Holy in India, slowly came, and gone. A few small boats drifted by on the river. As the last rays of the sinking sun hit the leaning temple, I experienced the “atmosphere” once more.
The noise from street behind me faded as it came.
I can never get over my amazement at the number of ruined pagoda and stupa that stand on the Pagan plain. This day, I once more set my camera up and waited for the right moment, on a hill overlooking a ruin that exerts a fascination over me.
The sun moves and the shadows drift. As the clouds flow slowly I started to sense a delicate shift of the atmosphere. My mind goes blank and I experience a sensation of floating within the microcosm that is Pagan.
My Burmese guide, U Aye Thwin, who I first met two years earlier, sits quietly and patiently behind me. He says, “I have worked as a guide for many years but I have never seen such a big camera before and I have never seen anybody who can wait as patiently as you.”
U Ahe Thwin must be in his fifties, he has a slight limp and is highly respected in his village. I heard that he takes care of orphans or poor families and that he even paid for surgery for a child suffering from a cleft rip. I realized that this must be true after witnessing the respectful attitude of the villagers who come out to greet him and offer him tea.
Waiting for the sun to set, he begins to speak quietly of his past; during the war, the Japanese army came in and chased the British army out, then left. Until recently, one of the Japanese soldiers who had been stationed in Pagan then, has been sending gifts every new year for the Burmese children. He told me about one of his sons who had died after being bitten by a cobra. He spoke without any prompting from me while we sat watching the ruin as it gradually returning to the earth.
When I encountered this tree, standing upon the temple with such authority, I was filled with thoughts that surpassed such mundane notions as life or death. I felt that when I encountered a moment, wondered of my own existence, this tree may have an answer.