Los Reinos de las Himalaya, 2012

 Caminos Asiáticos, 2010-2015

Serie en Color

“This is the worst period in our 2,000-year history. This really is the most serious period. At this time, now, there is every danger that the entire Tibetan nation, with its own unique cultural heritage, will completely disappear. The present situation is so serious that it is really a question of life and death. If death occurs, nothing is left.”

 His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nobel Peace Prize speech, 1989

THE ROADS LESS TRAVELLED

By Héctor Méndez Caratini

 

The Himalayas

The Himalayas are a mountain range in Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau. The Himalayan range, known as the “Rooftop of the World,” is home to some of the planet’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest, the world’s highest, at 29,029 feet. It has over a hundred mountains exceeding 23,000 feet in height. Most of the Himalayas lie above the snow line.

This is one of the harshest regions of the world, with temperatures in winter dipping as low as ‑50 degrees centigrade, with icy howling winds in an arid landscape. The Himalayan desert is a wild, desolate region, a land of great peaks and deep valleys, with precipitous gorges cut by rivers that arise high on the plateau of snow and ice.

At the crossroads of ancient Asian civilizations, the Himalayas are a mixture of Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures, with their adherents of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The range runs west-northwest to east-southeast in an arc 1,500 miles long, separating the Indian sub-continent from the high plateau of Central Asia and the Himalayan desert. The Himalayan range consists of three parallel sub-ranges that cross six countries: Bhutan, India, Nepal, Tibet, the People’s Republic of China, and Pakistan, with the first four countries having sovereignty over most of the range. The severe conditions in remote parts of the region make travel difficult, and for most of history, the people of the region have been largely isolated from surrounding cultures.

The flora and fauna of the Himalayas vary with the seasons, the climate, rainfall, altitude, and soils. The climate ranges from tropical, at the base of the mountains, to permanent ice and snow at the highest elevations. Five of Asia’s great rivers, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, have their headwaters in the Himalayas. Their combined drainage basin is home to some 600 million people. Nearly half the world’s population lives downstream from Tibet.

The locals live their dreams in a sacred coexistence with the elements. The mountains are the homes of gods and goddesses who possess supernatural powers. Many Himalayan peaks are of religious significance in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, the Himalayas have also been personified as the god Himavat, the god of snow, who is mentioned in the Mahabharata. He is the father of Ganga and Saraswati, who became rivers, and Parvati, who married Shiva.

A number of revered Tibetan Buddhist sites are situated through the Himalayan range, including the residence of the Dalai Lama. At one time, there were over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet. The Tibetan Muslims had their own mosques in Lhasa and Shigatse. The mountain range itself is considered sacred land, not an arena for sport and adventure, in harmony with the wandering nomads. The Himalayas have profoundly shaped the cultures of Southeast Asia.

Buddhism

According to legend, one day he convinced his charioteer to take him outside the palace and was shocked at the sight of an old man, a cripple, and a corpse. The realization that there was so much misery and unhappiness in the world persuaded the prince to abandon his luxurious life in the royal palace in order to search for enlightenment through meditation, and he set out on his quest for the true meaning of life.

For many years, Gautama wandered from place to place, teaching and converting hundreds of followers, while looking for a solution to the problems he saw all around him. Finally, while meditating under a pipal tree, he became spiritually enlightened. Thenceforth known as Lord Buddha or “the enlightened one,” the Samyaksambuddha, he began to preach the “Four Noble Truths” to all who would listen. According to this doctrine, people suffer because of their attachment to things and people; in other words, the root of all problems is desire. These desires, and, consequently, all problems and sufferings, can be transcended by following the “eightfold path”—right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.

The Buddha died at the age of eighty. His many disciples, however, continued to spread his teachings. Buddhism, which is based on those teachings, has lasted from the sixth century BCE to the present. The religion evolved as it spread from the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent through Central, East, and Southeast Asia. The history of Buddhism is also characterized by the development of numerous movements, schisms, and schools, among them the Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna traditions, with alternating periods of expansion and retreat.

Buddhism preaches that its followers can attain nirvana (enlightenment) even if they are poor and have no material wealth. Nirvana, indeed, is the ultimate goal of all Buddhists. The attainment of nirvana breaks the otherwise endless cycle of death, rebirth, and reincarnation. Buddhists consider nirvana the supreme state when one is freed from all worldly concerns such as suffering, greed, hate, ignorance, and egoism.

Hinduism

Hinduism is generally regarded as the oldest formal religion in the world. Its origins go back to the pastoral Aryan tribes, spilling over the Hindu Kush from Inner Asia, mixing with the urban civilization of the Indus Valley and with the tribal cultures of hunter-gatherer peoples in the area. Unlike other world religions, Hinduism had no single founder and has never been a missionary in orientation. It is believed that in about 1,200 BCE the Vedas, a body of hymns originating in northern India, was produced. These texts, containing the precepts of the religion, form the theological and philosophical foundation of Hinduism.

Hindus believe that the Absolute (the totality of existence, including God, man, and the universe) is too vast to be contained within a single set of beliefs. A highly diverse and complex religion, Hinduism embraces six philosophical doctrines (darshanas). From these doctrines, individuals select one that is congenial, or they may conduct their worship simply at a convenient level of morality and observance. Religious practices differ from group to group. The average Hindu does not need any systematic formal creed in order to practice his or her religion. Hindus comply with the customs of their family and social groups.

One basic concept in Hinduism is that of dharma, natural law, and the social and religious obligations it imposes. Dharma is the religious law and moral code by which individuals may achieve enlightenment. It holds that individuals should play their proper role in society as determined or prescribed by their dharma. According to Hinduism, cosmic law determines the order of the world, and every human being must accept his or her caste of birth. The caste system provides a code of conduct and the rites to be performed as the individual’s situation merits. The caste, though not essential to philosophical Hinduism, has become an integral part of its social or dharmic expression. Under this system, each person is born into a particular caste, whose traditional occupation—though members do not necessarily practice it—is graded according to the degree of purity and impurity inherent in it.

Karma (universal justice) is at the basis of Hindu belief. Hindus believe that every good or bad action has inevitable consequences. Karma, then, is the balance of action and reaction. Another basic concept is that of samsara, the transmigration of souls. Rebirth is required by karma in order that the consequences of an action can fully play out. The role an individual must play throughout his or her life is fixed by his or her good and evil actions in previous existences. It is only when the individual soul sees beyond the veil of Maya (illusion or earthly desires)—the forces leading to belief in the appearances of things—that it is able to realize its identity with the impersonal, transcendental reality (world soul) and escape from the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth and be absorbed into the world soul. This release is known as moksha.

Hinduism is polytheistic. It incorporates many gods and goddesses, each with his or her own functions and powers, but in the most important and widely held doctrine, the Vedanta (end of the Vedas), gods, and goddesses are considered merely the various manifestations or aspects of a single underlying divinity. This single divinity is expressed as a Hindu triad comprising the religion’s three major gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva personifying creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. Vishnu and Shiva, or some of their numerous avatars (incarnations), are the most widely followed.

Vishnu, whose primary duty is to ensure the preservation of the world and all living forms, is believed to have visited the earth ten times as avatars. He is also believed to have come to the earth as a Varaha, as Prince Rama, as the god Krishna, and as Lord Gautam Buddha. Shiva, the Destroyer, is believed to have three forms—Natraj the god of artistic skill; an anthropomorphic form; and the lingam form. The most famous lingam is situated in the northwest of Katmandu. In front of any Shiva temple, one usually sees a statue of Nandi, the divine bull that serves as Shiva’s mount. In anthropomorphic form, Shiva is depicted with his consort Parbati and usually holds a trident and a small drum. Another popular form of Shiva is terrifying Bhairav, who himself has a number of different forms.

Other fundamental ideas common to all Hindus concern the nature and destiny of the soul and the basic forces of the universe. The souls of human beings are seen as separated portions of an all-embracing world soul (brahma). An individual’s ultimate goal is the reunion with this absolute. Hindus believe in rebirth into a better life.

TIBET

Tibetan history begins with the incursions of the Qiang people from central China into the Tibetan plateau when the Buddha was living in India, Confucius, and Lao-tseu in China (fifth century BCE). The Tibetan state began in 127 BCE with the establishment of the Yarlung Dynasty. The country as we now know it was first unified under King Songtsän Gampo (r. 627-650 CE) and his successors. During this period, many famous buildings and holy places were built, such as the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa (642 CE). During the centuries that followed, Tibet was one of the mightiest powers in Asia, as a pillar inscription at the foot of the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, and the Chinese Tang histories of the period confirm.

In the seventh century, during the reign of Srong-brtsan-sgam-po (d. 650 CE), Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet from India. A century later, King Trisong Detsen (r. 755–797) established Buddhism as the official religion of the state. The history of this nation, as it has been recorded, is particularly focused on the history of Buddhism in Tibet. This is partly due to the pivotal role the religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu cultures, and partly because almost all native historians of the country have been Buddhist monks.

As Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire expanded toward Europe in the west and China in the east in the thirteenth century, Tibetan leaders of the powerful Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism concluded an agreement with the Mongol rulers in order to avoid the conquest of Tibet. The Tibetan Lama promised political loyalty, religious blessings, and instruction in exchange for patronage and protection. The religious relationship became so important that when, decades later, Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), he invited the Sakya Lama to become the Imperial Preceptor and supreme pontiff of his empire.

The relationship that developed between the Mongols and the Tibetans was a reflection of the close racial, cultural, and, especially, religious affinity between the two central Asian peoples. The Mongol Empire was a world empire, and whatever the relationship between its rulers and the Tibetans, the Mongols never integrated the administration of Tibet and China, or appended Tibet to China in any manner. Tibet broke political ties with the Yuan emperor in 1350 before China had regained its independence from the Mongols.

Tibet developed no ties with the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). On the other hand, the Dalai Lama, who had established his sovereign rule over Tibet in 1642 with the help of a Mongol patron, did develop close religious ties with the Manchu emperors who conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The Dalai Lama agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor and accepted patronage and protection in exchange.

This “priest-patron” relationship (known in Tibetan as ChoeYoen), which the Dalai Lama also maintained with some Mongol princes and Tibetan nobles, was the only formal tie that existed between the Tibetans and the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty. This relationship did not, in itself, affect Tibet’s independence.

On the political level, some powerful Manchu emperors succeeded in exerting a degree of influence over Tibet. Thus, between 1720 and 1792, emperors Kangxi, Yong Zheng, and Qianglong sent imperial troops to Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasions by Mongols and Gurkhas or from internal unrest. These expeditions provided the emperor with the means of establishing influence in Tibet. He sent representatives to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, some of whom successfully exercised their influence, in his name, over the Tibetan government, particularly with respect to the conduct of foreign relations.

At the height of Manchu power, which lasted several decades, the situation was not unlike that which exists between a superpower and a satellite or protectorate, and therefore one which, though politically significant, does not extinguish the independent existence of the weaker state. Tibet was never incorporated into the Manchu empire, much less into China, and it continued to conduct its relations with neighboring states largely alone.

Manchu’s influence did not last long. It was entirely ineffective by the time the British briefly invaded Lhasa and concluded a bilateral treaty, the Lhasa Convention, with Tibet in 1904. Despite this loss of influence, the imperial government in Peking continued to claim some authority over Tibet, particularly with respect to its international relations, an authority which the British imperial government termed “suzerainty” in its dealings with Beijing (then “Peking”) and Leningrad (then “St. Petersburg”).

Imperial armies tried to reassert actual influence in 1910 by invading the country and occupying Lhasa. Following the 1911 revolution in China and the overthrow of the Manchu empire, troops surrendered to the Tibetan army and were repatriated under a Sino-Tibetan peace accord. The Dalai Lama reasserted Tibet’s full independence internally by issuing a proclamation and externally in communications to foreign rulers and in a treaty with Mongolia.

Tibet’s status following the expulsion of Manchu troops is not subject to serious dispute. Whatever ties existed between the Dalai Lamas and the Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty were extinguished with the fall of that empire and dynasty. From 1911 to 1950, Tibet successfully avoided undue foreign influence and behaved, in every respect, as a fully independent state.

Tibet maintained diplomatic relations with Nepal, Bhutan, Britain, and later with independent India. Relations with China remained strained. The Chinese waged a border war with Tibet while formally urging Tibet to “join” the Chinese Republic, claiming to the rest of the world that Tibet already was one of China’s “five races.”

In 1913, in an effort to reduce Sino-Tibetan tensions, the British convened a tripartite conference in Simla, where the three states met on equal terms. As the British delegate reminded his Chinese counterpart, Tibet entered the conference as “an independent nation recognizing no allegiance to China.” The conference was unsuccessful in that it did not resolve the differences between Tibet and China. It was, nevertheless, significant in that Anglo-Tibetan friendship was reaffirmed with the conclusion of bilateral trade and border agreements.

In a joint declaration, Great Britain and Tibet bound themselves not to recognize Chinese suzerainty or other special rights in Tibet unless China signed the draft Simla Convention, which would have guaranteed Tibet’s greater borders, territorial integrity, and full autonomy. China did not sign the Convention, however, leaving the terms of the joint declaration in force.

During this time, Tibet conducted its international relations primarily by dealing with the British, Chinese, Nepalese and Bhutanese diplomatic missions in Lhasa, but also through government delegations traveling abroad. When India became independent, the British Mission in Lhasa was replaced by an Indian mission. During World War II Tibet remained neutral, despite strong pressure from the United States, Britain, and China to allow the passage of raw materials through Tibet.

Tibet has never maintained extensive international relations, but those countries with whom it did maintain relations treated Tibet as they would have treated any sovereign state. Its international status was in fact no different, for example than that of Nepal. Thus, when Nepal applied for membership to the United Nations in 1949, it cited its treaty and diplomatic relations with Tibet as evidence of its full international personality.

That same year, 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded. The turning point in Tibet’s history came in 1950 when 80,000 Chinese soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army of the PRC invaded Tibet. In May of 1951, after defeating the small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese government forced the Tibetan government to agree to the “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.” Because it was signed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of the immediate occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state left the Tibetan government little choice but to sign the agreement.

By 1959, popular uprisings culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. After China’s brutal suppression of the uprising, between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Tibetans lay dead and the Dalai Lama had fled to Dharamshala, in India, a region free from Chinese domination, where he now resides with the Tibetan government-in-exile. More than 100,000 Tibetans live in exile, mainly in India and Nepal.

In 1963 the Dalai Lama presented a constitution for a democratic Tibet, and the constitution has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the government-in-exile. Two years later, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was created.

In 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution came to Lhasa, and by 1969 not a single practicing monk or nun remained in Tibet. In the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards destroyed nearly 6,000 official buildings, holy places, and monasteries, imprisoned thousands of monks and other community leaders, and burned nearly all the Tibetan libraries and books, in an effort to erase Tibetan civilization and language.

Even so, the religious persecution, consistent violations of human rights, and wholesale destruction of religious and historic buildings by the Chinese occupying authorities have not succeeded in destroying the spirit of the Tibetan people to resist the destruction of their national identity. Some 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives (more than one-sixth of the population) as a result of the Chinese occupation, but today, a new generation of Tibetans is just as determined to regain the country’s independence as the older generation was.

Nepal

Historians and local traditions say that a Hindu sage named “Ne” or “Nemuni” established himself in the valley of Kathmandu during prehistoric times. The word “Nepal” means “the place protected [pala in Sanskrit] by the sage Ne.” In the Pashupati Purana, a sacred text, this wise man is mentioned as a saint and a protector. Ne performed religious ceremonies at Teku, the confluence of the Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers. According to legend, he selected a pious cowherd, Bhuktaman, to be the first of the many kings of the Gopala (“Cowherd”) dynasty. The Silncan Gopal dynasty ruled for 621 years. Yakshya Gupta was the last king of this dynasty.

The Vamshavalis, or genealogical chronicles, are the only moderately reliable basis for Nepal’s ancient history. These chronicles mention the rule of several dynasties—the Gopala, the Abhira, and the Kirati—over a span of centuries. However, no historical evidence has yet authenticated the rule of these legendary dynasties. Around 300 CE the Licchavi, a Hindu people from northern India, overthrew the Kirati. Hinduism became the main religion, and the caste system was imposed.

The documented history of Nepal begins with the Changu Narayan temple inscription of King Manadeva I (r. ca. 464–505 CE) of the Licchavi dynasty. The Licchavi were in power until 602 CE, when the Thakuri took over. The first Thakurian king, Amsuvarman, helped to bridge Nepal’s relationship with Tibet when his daughter married a Tibetan prince. Amsuvarman liked the location of the Kathmandu Valley, tucked away within the towering Himalayas, and he decided to build his palace there. The city of Kathmandu was founded in the tenth century with the building of Kasthmandap (“House of Wood”). This and many other ancient buildings are still standing in what is today Durbua Square, in Kathmandu.

Around 1200, King Arideva became the first ruler in the Malla dynasty. The Malla were Hindus and enforced a strict caste system, but were tolerant of Buddhists. The two religions coexisted peacefully, side by side. Later, in the mid-1300s, Nepal began dividing into many small city-states with feuding royal families. A Muslim invasion of the area during this period left Nepal relatively unscathed, though several Hindu and Buddhist shrines were damaged. It was India that faced major destruction, leading many Hindus to seek safety in Nepal. The new surge in population created even more city-states. At one time during this period, there were a total of 48 separate city-states in Nepal, each with its own currency and army.

In 1372, Kathmandu’s king, Jayasthiti Malla, took over the neighboring city-state of Patan, and a decade later, the city-state of Bhaktapur. This unified the Kathmandu Valley into one large kingdom. The reign of King Yaksha Malla, in the mid-1400s  saw Nepal’s borders extend south to the Ganges and north into Tibet. After the king’s death in 1482, however, Nepal split up again into many small states, which would continue to battle each other for two hundred years. As the fighting continued amongst the Malla kingdoms, a new dynasty came into power, led by the Shah kings of Gorkha, a small kingdom located halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and gradually extended its territory. In 1768, it conquered the Kathmandu Valley. (We might note that before Nepal’s emergence as a nation, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the designation “Nepal” was generally applied only to the Kathmandu Valley.)

Throughout the 1790s Nepal and China were engaged in a constant series of border disputes over ownership of Tibet. Eventually, the Nepalese forces were defeated and pushed out. As the British power on the subcontinent continued to grow, the British arrived in Nepal in the early 1800s. Disputes over Nepal’s expanding southern borders led to a war between the British and Nepal. Nepal lost much of its land, though Nepal’s support for the British during the Indian Mutiny (or War of Independence) gave the British incentive to return the Terai and other areas of land in the south in 1858.

In 1846, an event is known as the Kot Massacre occurred. Jun Bagadur Rana, a noble from western Nepal, invited hundreds of the country’s top political and military officials to a party. He then massacred all of them. Afterward, he gave himself the title of Prime Minister, which he said would be a hereditary position in Nepal. Thus the Ranas became another “royal family” within the kingdom and held a great amount of power for over a century.

In the mid-1900s, King Mahendra Shah set up a constitution and instituted a government based on the parliamentary system. Nepal’s first general elections were held in 1959, and B. P. Koirala became the new Prime Minister. In 1960, however, King Mahendra decided that he did not like the setup of the new government and had the entire cabinet arrested, banned political parties, and regained absolute power. In 1962, Mahendra again changed the form of government, this time to an indirect democratic system. He also appointed the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

King Mahendra died in 1972 and was succeeded by his son Birendra. Throughout the 1970s corruption became rampant, and violent riots broke out in Kathmandu. The king decided to hold a referendum in which the people would choose between the panchayat system (a system well-known in South Asia, consisting of a semi-democratic government with a legislative assembly “guided” by a monarch) and a government in which political parties were allowed to campaign. The panchayat system narrowly won, but the king had already declared that no matter what the outcome of the referendum was, the new government would consist of an elected legislature (with five-year terms) which would elect the Prime Minister. The first such election was held in 1981.

In response to the king’s imposition of a political system on the country, political parties allied to form a coalition that demanded a multi-party democracy with the king as a constitutional head. The coalition held many peaceful protests, but in February of 1990, the demonstrations were met by the government with bullets, tear gas, arrests, and torture. After months of riots and over three hundred deaths, the king lifted the ban on political parties and announced his approval of a constitutional monarchy. Nepal held its general election for a 205-seat parliament in May of 1991. A Maoist insurgence began in 1996, ending with a Communist victory in 2007. Meanwhile, in 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra massacred King Birendra and the royal family and tried to commit suicide. He lived long enough to become king, but when he finally expired, Prince Gyanendra came to the throne. The hugely unpopular Gyanendra was forced to abdicate in 2007, and the Maoists won the democratic elections in 2008.

BHUTAN

The people of Bhutan call their country Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Modern Bhutan is a small country with a population close to 810,000 living on 14,824 square miles—a territory approximately the size of Switzerland. The precise etymology of “Bhutan” is unknown, although it probably derives from the Tibetan endonym Bod, used for Greater Tibet. It is traditionally taken to be a transcription of the Sanskrit Bhota-anta, which literally means the “end of Tibet,” in reference to Bhutan’s position as the southern extremity of the Tibetan plateau and culture. Bhutan is a beyul—a “hidden valley”, a magical kingdom, tucked in among the green forest valleys and towering mountains of the Eastern Himalayas. The Kingdom of Bhutan lies between Tibet to the north, the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west.

The origins of its people can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear because most of its records were destroyed when a fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. Bhutan’s historical period begins at about 747 CE when the revered guru Padmasambhava came from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country.

Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo (r. 627–650), a convert to Buddhism who had extended the Tibetan Empire into Sikkim and Bhutan, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, one at Bumthang District in central Bhutan and the other at Kyichu (near Paro) in the Paro Valley. Buddhism began to take deeper root in 746 under King Sindhu Rāja, an exiled Indian king who had established a government in Bumthang, at the Chakhar Gutho Palace.

By the tenth century, Bhutan’s political development was heavily influenced by its religion. Several sub-sects of Buddhism emerged and were patronized by various Mongol warlords. After the decline of the Yuan Dynasty in the fourteenth century, these sub-sects vied with each other for supremacy in the political and religious landscape, with the Drukpa sub-sect finally achieving ascendancy in the sixteenth century.

Until the early seventeenth century, Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefdoms. It was then that the area was unified by Tibetan lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, who had fled religious persecution in Tibet. To defend Bhutan against intermittent Tibetan forays, Namgyal built a network of an impregnable dzong (fortresses), and he promulgated the Tsa Yig, a code of law that helped to bring local lords under centralized control. Many such dzongs still exists and are active centers of religion and district administration.

Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella and João Cabral were the first recorded Europeans to visit Bhutan, on their way to Tibet. They met Ngawang Namgyal, known now by the honorific “Shabdrung” (“at whose feet one submits”), presented him with firearms, gunpowder, and a telescope, and offered him their services in the war against Tibet, but the Shabdrung declined the offer. After a stay of nearly eight months, Cacella wrote a long letter from the Chagri Monastery reporting on his travels. This is a rare extant report of the Shabdrung. After Ngawang Namgyal’s death in 1651, his demise was kept secret for 54 years. During a period of consolidation, Bhutan lapsed into internal conflict. In the year 1711, Bhutan went to war against the Mughal Empire and its Subedar fighters, who restored Koch Bihar in the south. During the chaos that followed, Tibet unsuccessfully attacked Bhutan in 1714.

In the eighteenth century, the Bhutanese invaded and occupied the kingdom of Cooch Behar to the south. In 1772, Cooch Behar appealed to the British East India Company, which assisted them in ousting the Bhutanese and later, in 1774, in attacking Bhutan itself. A peace treaty was eventually signed in which Bhutan agreed to retreat to its pre-1730 borders. The peace was tenuous, however, and border skirmishes with the British were to continue for the next hundred years.

These conflicts eventually led to the Duar War (1864–65), a confrontation for control of the Bengal Duars. After Bhutan lost the war, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between British East India and Bhutan. As part of the war reparations, the Duars were ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for a rent of 50,000 rupees. The treaty ended all hostilities between British India and Bhutan.

During the 1870s, power struggles between the rival valleys of Paro and Tongsa devolved into civil war in Bhutan, eventually leading to victory by Ugyen Wangchuck, the ponlop (governor) of Tongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his political enemies and, following several civil wars and rebellions from 1882-85, united the country.

In 1907, an epochal year for the country, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the hereditary king of the country by an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families. The British government promptly recognized the new monarchy, and in 1910 Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, a subsidiary alliance that gave control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs over to the British; this agreement meant that Bhutan would be treated as an Indian princedom. The treaty had a little real effect, given Bhutan’s historical inwardness, and also did not appear to affect Bhutan’s traditional relations with Tibet.

After the new Union of India gained independence from the United Kingdom on August 15, 1947, Bhutan became one of the first countries to recognize India’s independence. On August 8, 1949, a treaty similar to that of 1910, in which Britain had gained power over Bhutan’s foreign relations, was signed with the newly independent India.

In 1953, in order to institute a more democratic form of governance, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the country’s legislature—a 130-member National Assembly. In 1965, the king set up a Royal Advisory Council, and three years later he formed a cabinet. In 1971, Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations, having held observer status for three years. In July of 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne at the age of sixteen after the death of his father, Dorji Wangchuck. The young king introduced significant political reforms, transferring most of his administrative powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and allowing for impeachment of the king by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

In 1999, the government lifted its long-standing ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. In his speech announcing the change, the king said that television was a critical step to the modernization of Bhutan, as well as a major contributor to the country’s Gross National Happiness (Bhutan is the only country to measure happiness), but he warned that the “misuse” of television could erode traditional Bhutanese values.

Bhutan’s political system has developed from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. In 1999, the fourth king of Bhutan created a body called the Lhengye Zhungtshog (Council of Ministers), which exercises executive power, while the Druk Gyalpo (King of Druk Yul) is head of state. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the former Grand National Assembly. Judicial power is vested in the courts of Bhutan, and the Chief Justice is the administrative head of the Judiciary.

A new constitution was adopted in early 2005. On December 17, 2005, the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced to a stunned nation that the first general elections would be held in 2008 and that he would abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son, the crown prince. King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck took the throne on December 14, 2006, upon his father’s abdication, and on November 6, 2008, was invested with Bhutan’s Raven Crown at an ornate coronation ceremony in Thimphu -becoming the world’s youngest reigning monarch and head of its newest democracy.

The new political system in Bhutan is comprised of an upper and lower house, the latter based on political party affiliations. Elections for the upper house (the National Council) were held on December 31, 2007, while elections for the lower house, the 47-seat National Assembly, were held on March 24, 2008. Two political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by Sangay Ngedup, and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), headed by Jigmi Thinley, competed in the National Assembly election. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa won the elections, with 45 out of 47 seats in the parliament.

It is estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the Bhutanese population follow Vajrayāna Buddhism, which is also the state religion. About one-quarter to one-third are followers of Hinduism. Other religions account for less than 1% of the population. The current legal framework, in principle, guarantees freedom of religion; proselytism, however, is forbidden by a royal government decision and by judicial interpretation of the Constitution.

THE SEARCH OF THE MYTHICAL SHANGRI-LA

(A photographer’s impressions of a journey to Southeast Asia)

The photographs for this project were taken in the course of my second visit to Asia. During what I call my Asian Period (2010–2011), I traveled to ten countries. After I completed the photographs for my exhibit and book Visions of Ancient Angkor (2010), which documented the architecture of forty centuries-old Hindu and Buddhist temples in the jungles of Cambodia, I realized that I was missing a key element, the human element—the Buddhist monks inside these iconic monuments, at prayer in their monasteries. A year later came the surprising opportunity to photograph just that subject: monks living inside the monasteries of Southeast Asia. I received a personal invitation from Harvard University, where my wife Annette had done her Ph.D. at the School of Education. They were sponsoring a three-week trip to the Himalayas. Thus came to fruition my personal photo essay on the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.

The name Shangri-La evokes an image of exoticism, the Orient as a mystical, harmonious valley. It has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, particularly as a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. “Shangri-La” most probably derives from the Tibetan word “Shang”—meaning a district of Ü-Tsang, north of Tashilhunpo—plus the word “ri,” which means “mountain,” plus “la,” meaning “mountain pass.” Thus, “Shangri-La” is a distant place in the mountains, behind a mountain pass. “Shangri-La” is also frequently cited as a modern reference to Shambhala, a mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, much sought-after by explorers both Eastern and Western.

We might speculate that because Tibet wished so determinedly to live peacefully by itself, it became known to the outside world as Shangri-La—a mystical country, magnetizing to those who became fascinated by its remoteness, inaccessibility, and tales of a people living in complete harmony with themselves and nature. Tibet experienced a significant historical change from a militaristic to a monastic society, from kings to Dalai Lamas. Its religious philosophy of doing no violence to others affected the entire history of the Himalayas. The monks in the monasteries were a peaceful counter-culture trying to restrain the military order. They set an example to others, one that might be followed by the rest of the world’s nations.

Tibetans bury their relatives in breathtaking sky and water burials. So, even with all the beautiful turquoise-colored lakes, the natives do not eat fish: the fish eat the corpses, and the natives respect their ancestors. Sky burials, in turn, are carried out on the tops of snow-covered mountains bearing the names of legendary gods. The corpses are cut into pieces and devoured by hawks and vultures. After all, Buddhists believe, once you are dead your body is no longer needed; the spirit moves on and reincarnates into other living organisms. There are no cemeteries like we are accustomed to in the West.

Prayer flags could be observed fluttering in the wind everywhere—on the side of the roads, outside temples, at holy sites, at crossroads, over bridges, on the shores of lakes, on mountain summits. They are a colorful way to ensure that prayers reach the skies, and they create an atmosphere of peace, serenity, and hope wherever they are flown. They invoke compassion, harmony, peace, and strength, and they offer protection against the dangers of evil. Each of the five colors of the flags has a meaning: blue is for the sky, white for clouds, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for the earth. They are always flown in this order. All have prayers written on them, mostly in Sanskrit. There were also painted ladders leaning against the sides of cliffs so that the souls of the dead can climb to heaven.

There were arid, rugged, Mars-like landscapes of varicolored terrain, with dust storms in the distance. Peasants plowed the dry land with the help of yaks and horses. They were cultivating barley, while flocks of sheep and yaks were tended by herdsmen. Abandoned houses could be glimpsed everywhere in isolated fields. Men and women manufactured clay bricks outside their houses, near small rural villages of sixty homes. Chinese flags were flying on the roofs of humble peasant huts, many constructed of stone and plastered with dried yak excrement, which in winter is used as fuel for heating.

In the countryside, I contemplated several destroyed monasteries on desolate mountaintops. Most had been razed in the 1970s by the soldiers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This type of feudal society, a monastic society with serfs and large parcels of land, is in danger of extinction. The transfer of low-income Chinese citizens threatens the survival of Tibet’s unique culture. In some Tibetan provinces, Chinese settlers outnumber Tibetans seven to one. In those places, and others, Tibetan culture is close to being eradicated. Historically, religion was one of the major unifying forces among the Tibetans, as was their language, literature, art, and world view, which developed out of their life at high altitudes under harsh conditions. It was a pity to watch the destruction of ancient Tibetan cultural and religious traditions and their replacement by recent, and foreign, Chinese customs.

However, I must say that even though I do not in any way approve of Tibet’s invasion by China and the genocide of the Tibetan people, I was very impressed by the progress the Chinese government had brought to this remote nation. Centralized urban planning could be seen all over Lhasa. Newly built housing villas and superbly constructed cement highways were kept in perfect condition. There were no major potholes in the streets. There were police checkpoints on rural roads, to monitor the speed of vehicles from point A to point B. I noticed several life-size fiberglass figures resembling police officers. Military convoys could be spotted on the rural roads, but there was very little private vehicular traffic.

Also, I saw security cameras everywhere. It was as if Big Brother were constantly watching you. The major roads were monitored, as were the monasteries, inside and out. At the Potala Palace (the former residence of the Dalai Lama) we had to show our foreign passports and pay a substantial tourist fee to be allowed in. The ancient dust and foul smell of the monasteries were unbearable at times. People pee everywhere. Inside the cold, dank monasteries, most of the cloistered rooms were very dark. Photography was not allowed except by permission and in designated places, and then only after paying a hefty fee. We ate yak meat every day while we were in Tibet, along with vegetables and rice.

Chaos could be seen all over Kathmandu. Lying in a small sheltered valley, the historic center and capital of Nepal is actually two cities in one, the historical capital and the modern city. It was stunning to see hundreds of motorcycles running rampant, out of control, through its crowded streets. There were many slums, with piles of garbage and poverty all around. The Indian influence—mostly via Hindus from Nepal’s southern neighbor—could be seen and felt all over, and it contrasted greatly with the Tibetan influence, which was more subdued, and more related to Buddhist religious activities.

The three most important cities in the Kathmandu Valley are Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan. Each has its own “Durbar Square” downtown, where the temples are located. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has more Newari (that is, traditional Nepalese) architecture than any other city in Nepal. The Newari structures include the Royal Palace and a complex of four stupas, built over 2,500 years ago. Bhaktapur was founded in the medieval period, though most of its architectural landmarks date only to the end of the seventeenth century or later.

Temples are usually of three different types: pagodas, sikharas, and stupas. Stupas are Buddhist funeral mounds. Pagodas and sikharas may be Buddhist or Hindu. Pagodas are usually square or rectangular with a geometric design. The base of the temple holds an image of the god honored by that particular temple. They have several roofs, usually, an odd number, which decrease in size as they rise. Sikharas (the word means “mountain peak”) are tower-like in form and similar in design to Indian temples; they can be recognized by their majestic dome roofs.

The Boudhanath stupa is the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, and one of the largest stupas outside Tibet. It has a cubic base with a spherical body and a towering roof. The design, like a mandala, is a representation of the cosmos, as though meant to guide the believer’s meditation. The cubic base symbolizes the earth’s solidity; the spherical mound symbolizes water; the tower is fire; the ring above is air, and the crowned top is ether. The thirteen steps between the mound and the tower represent the number of steps to attain perfect knowledge.

Stupas are always painted white. On top of every stupa in Nepal is a square gold-colored block, from which the omniscient eyes of the Buddha gaze out in each of the four directions. The Buddha’s eyes remind us to have compassion for all living creatures: they watch over the universe. The symbol between the two eyes is the third eye, which sees beyond and inside oneself. The symbol in the place of the nose is the Devanagari script’s sign for the numeral one, a symbol of the unity of all things and also a reminder that there is but one way to reach enlightenment, through the Buddha’s teachings. Stupas were original, as I noted, funeral monuments designed to hold the remains or relics of the Buddha, his disciples, and lay saints, and pilgrims visit them to show their reverence. The pilgrims circle stupas clockwise, spinning prayer wheels as they walk. Boudhanath and Swaymbhunath are the largest stupas in Kathmandu, and they are both approximately 2,000 years old.

The Pashupatinath temple lies on the banks of the Bagmati River in eastern Kathmandu, and in a sense opposite the Swayambuhunath temple, which is located on top of a hill west of Kathmandu. Pashupatinath is the country’s most important Hindu temple, and one of the most significant Shiva sanctuaries in the world. It draws devotees, sadhus (Hindu ascetics), and holy men from around the world. Originally, only Hindus (born as Hindus, that is) were allowed inside, but today there has been some relaxation of this stricture. The Bagmati is a holy river, and bodies are cremated on the ghats, or river steps, in front of the shrine. It was here, at the Pashupatinath stupa, that for the first time I saw several corpses being cremated by the sacred river. The burial ceremonies were striking, as was the colorful body paint of the sadhus, holy men who live on the donations of the people.

Among the many incongruences difficult for an outsider like me to comprehend was the way that the Living Goddess Kumari, a twelve-year-old virgin Indian girl, was adored by masses of Hindus. I was also impressed with the colorful thangkas, silk paintings with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.

While in Nepal, we hired a private plane so that I could take photographs of the Himalayas themselves, at close range, and from a higher vantage point. A couple of months after reaching home, I read in a local newspaper that the small plane we had flown in had crashed and everyone on board had been killed. Miraculously, our trip had fared well. No one died, as had happened in remote Borneo in 2010, on one of my previous photographic adventures, when a European tourist dived into a pond and broke his neck.

On the flight from Nepal to Bhutan majestic views of the tallest snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas could be observed. They were simply breathtaking! When I arrived at Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, I was deeply stirred by the Bhutanese people’s fervent devotion to their religion and their monarchy—moved by the harmony between the Buddhist religion and the secular power of the king. I was also struck by the color photographs of the former Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in 2006 in favor of his eldest son, the charismatic Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The older king had married four gorgeous sisters in their early twenties. His image, along with that of the Buddha, adorned the interior walls of every house and establishment in the kingdom. Unlike in other countries, the people’s adoration of these two powers, religion, and state, helps to maintain the nation’s unity. While I was in Bhutan, no disruptive forces could be perceived anywhere. All I could feel was joy, bliss, a reflection of the nation’s policy of Gross National Happiness.

The Bhutanese training in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society can take place when material and spiritual development occur side by side, to complement and reinforce one another. The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and good governance.

Everything about the Land of Happiness impressed me. Bhutan has traditionally been a feudal society, and it seemed as though in traveling there I had traveled, rather, backward in time five hundred years, to a kingdom in which the people dressed according to a sort of national dress code. Men wore a heavy knee-length robe, called a gho, tied with a belt, or kera, along with black socks and black pointed shoes. Women wore colorful blouses over a large rectangular folded cloth called a kira, which forms an ankle-length dress. Most people wear earth-toned or checked garments. Nowhere were to be seen Western designer jeans, except on the children of influential government officials who were studying in European universities and had returned home on vacation.

The lack of twenty-first-century technology astonished me. Without this technology, the country remains in its “natural” state, a state of timeless suspension. Television and the Internet are recent acquisitions, permitted only since 1999. TV fare is mainly from Indian channels to the south. The lack of tourism, due to both the controlled number of tourists allowed into the country and the steep price they have to pay to be allowed in, helps to protect the nation from contamination by foreign powers and outside novelties. The Bhutanese may seem to be isolated from the rest of the world, yet keeping out extraneous influences and preserving the nation’s culture has proven to be a boon to the well-being of its people.

The greenness of the valleys could be seen everywhere. The pristine state of much of the country’s natural landscape is due in large part to the government’s decision to maintain at least sixty percent of its land area under forest cover and to dedicate more than forty percent of its territory to national parks, reserves, and other protected areas. The use of natural materials such as wood and stone, with an almost complete absence of cement, in the construction of buildings distinguishes Bhutanese architecture, which remains distinctively traditional. It is an architecture of rammed earth and wattle-and-daub construction, stone masonry, and intricate woodwork around windows and roofs. Traditional construction techniques use no nails or iron bars. Lingams painted penises, symbols of fertility, adorned the exterior walls of some houses and temples.

The Taktsang monastery (commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest) was first built in 1692 near the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave, where legend holds that in the eighth-century Indian Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours. He had flown to this mythical place from Khenpajong, Tibet, on the back of a flying tigress and landed at the cliff, which he anointed as the place for building a monastery. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country. The monastery is located about six miles to the north of Paro and hangs on a precipitous cliff at 10,240 feet above sea level. To reach it, you must climb about 3,000 feet above the Paro valley.

After a couple of hours of climbing up the mountain, and almost reaching the top of this remote, magical monastery, my wife suddenly became ill. She was out of breath and had to be attended by the sherpas, the local guides who accompanied us during the trip. Apparently, she was having an attack of altitude sickness. Even though we had scheduled our visit to this remote site on the next-to-last day of our journey so our bodies would be acclimated to the altitude, and had ridden horses through passes with pine forests colorfully festooned with moss and prayer flags, rather than hiking to the top of the mountain, the altitude was just too much for her. Reaching this landmark is the equivalent of ascending two and third Empire State buildings!

If ever there was a legendary Shangri-La, I found it high in the snow-covered Himalayan mountains. This is a place whose people live in perfect harmony with nature and the elements and are almost entirely secluded from the harmful outside influences of the twenty-first century.

CAPTIONS TO THE PHOTOGRAPHS

Front cover:                 Buddhist monk, Drepung Monastery, Tibet, 2011
Back cover:                   Taktsang Monastery, Paro, Buthan, 2011
Frontispiece:                Mount Everest, Nepal, 2011
Interior back cover:      H. Méndez Caratini at Taktsang Monastery, Paro, Buthan, 2011

TIBET

7.         Mount Everest, Nepal, 2011
17.       Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
18.       Dharma wheel and deers, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
19.       Roof, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
20.       Devotees, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
21.       Entrance to Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
22.       Pilgrim prostration, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
23.       Butter lamp and statue of the Buddha, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
24.       Drepung Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
25.       Prayer wheels, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
26.       Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
27.       Monks having tea, Drepung Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
28.       Monks constructing a mandala, Palcho Monastery, Gyantse, Tibet, 2011
29.       Mandala, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
30.       Monk, Drepung Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
31.       Palcho Monastery, Gyantse, Tibet, 2011
32.       Palcho Monastery, Gyantse, Tibet, 2011
33.       Offerings, Palcho Monastery, Gyantse, Tibet, 2011
34.       Kumpum Stupa, Palcho Monastery, Gyantse, Tibet, 2011
35.       Altar, Ta Shi Lhun Po Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet, 2011
36.       Thangkas, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
37.       Monk, Ta Shi Lhun Po Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet, 2011
38.       Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
39.       Monk, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
40.       Monk, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
41.       Fire, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
42.       Monk, Drepung Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
43.       Mural, Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
44.       Mural, Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
45.       Woman with her altar, Shigatse, Tibet, 2011
46.       Eleventh-century mural of the Historical Buddha, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
47.       Painted ladders on the face of a mountain, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
48.       Drepung Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
49.       Woman spinning a prayer wheel, Barkhor market, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
50.       Chinese currency, Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
51.       Country girl, Shigatse, Tibet, 2011
52.       Woman with spinning wheel, Barkhor market, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
53.       Tibetan girl, Lhasa, Tibet, 2011
54.       Lake Yamdrok Yumtso, Tibet, 2011
55.       Woman with her sheep, Gampa Pass, Tibet, 2011
56.       Yak, Gampa Pass, Tibet, 2011
57.       Herdsman, Gampa Pass, Tibet, 2011
58.       Monk, Lake Yamdrok Yumtso, Tibet, 2011
59.       Kharola glacier, Tibet, 2011
60.       Prayer flags at Kharola glacier, Tibet, 2011
61.       Woman with yak, Gampa Pass, Tibet, 2011
62.       Woman and her house, Kharola glacier, Tibet, 2011
63.       Glacier, Tibet, 2011
64.       Prayer flags along the shores of a lake, Tibet, 2011
65.       Prayer flags along the Gampa Pass, Tibet, 2011

NEPAL

67.       Mountains, Nepal, 2011
68.       Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
69.       Painting, Patan Museum, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
70.       Signs at Thamel bazaar, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
71.       Signs on the façade of a building, Patan, Nepal, 2011
72.       Mountains, Nepal, 2011
73.       Hindu teachings, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
74.       Woman, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
75.       Women, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
76.       Woman and child, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
77.       Woman, Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
78.       Two women reading the scriptures, Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
79.       A woman performing a ceremony, Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
80.       Siblings, Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
81.       An artisan painting a mandala, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
82.       Woman, Bodnath Stupa Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
83.       A woman spinning a prayer wheel, Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
84.       A woman selling leaves, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
85.       Durbar Square, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
86.       The crowd circling Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
87.       Bodnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
88.       A monk, Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
89.       Hindu altar, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
90.       Stone engraving at Kumari Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
91.       A monk at the Tibetan Refugee Center, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
92.       A monk at the Tibetan Refugee Center, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
93.       Kumari Chowk, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
94.       Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
95.       Entrance to Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
96.       Kala Bhairab statue, Durban Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
97.       Sadhus at Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
98.       A man with his face painted, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
99.       A woman with her face painted, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
100.     Saddhu, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
101.     Saddhu, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
102.     Saddhu, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
103.     Saddhu, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
104.     Hindu burial ceremonies by the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
105.     Cremation, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
106.     Hindu altar, Patan, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
107.     Lingam, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
108.     Blindfolded Hindu deity, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2011
109.     The Himalayas, Nepal, 2011

BHUTAN

111.     Rice fields, Punhaka, Bhutan, 2011
112.     Rice fields, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
113.     Miniature chortens along the Paro Chu River, Bhutan, 2011
114.     Woman with traditional headdress, Bhutan, 2011
115.     Man in front of a golden door, Bhutan, 2011
116.     Phallic wall painting, Bhutan, 2011
117.     Adolescent girl, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
118.     Detail of a wall, Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
119.     A tsechu dancer, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
120.     Laya dancers wearing the traditional conical bamboo hats, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
121.     A tsechu dancer, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
122.     A boy, Bhutan, 2011
123.     A guide, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
124.     Dechencholing school children praying to the Buddha, Bhutan, 2011
125.     Four school children wearing traditional dress, Bhutan, 2011
126.     National Memorial Chorten, Timphu, Bhutan, 2011
127.     Three women circling the National Memorial Chorten, Timphu, Bhutan, 2011
128.     Kyichu Lhakhang temple, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
129.     A man wearing the traditional gho, Punakha Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
130.     A young man wearing the traditional gho, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Buthan, 2011
131.     Detail of a wall at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
132.     Traditional Buddhist mural, Kabesa, Thimphu, Bhutan, 2011
133.     Stupa, Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
134.     Rinpung Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
135.     The structure on the trail to Taktsang Monastery, Paro, Buthan, 2011
136.     Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
137.     Young monk, Chimi-Lakhang, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
138.     Young monk, Paro Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
139.     Tashichoedzong, Timphu, Bhutan, 2011
140.     Young monk, Chimi-Lakhang, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
141.     Rinpung Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
142.     Nun at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
143.     Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
144.     Detail of a wall, Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
145.     Buddhist monk, Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
146.     Monk, Chimi-Lakhang Temple, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
147.     Detail of a wall, Kyichu Lhakhang Monastery, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
148.     A monk, Changgangkha Lakhang Monastery, Thimphu, Bhutan, 2011
149.     Monks, Changgangkha Lakhang Monastery, Thimphu, Bhutan, 2011
150.     Punakha Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
151.     Monks chanting at the Chorten National Memorial, Timphu, Bhutan, 2011
152.     Nuns at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
153.     Dzong, Punakha, Bhutan, 2011
154.     Kabesa Mountain range, Timphu, Bhutan, 2011
155.     Monk, Paro Dzong, Paro, Bhutan, 2011
156.     View of the Himalaya mountain range, Dochula Pass, Punakha, Buthan, 2011
157.     Taktsang Monastery, Paro, Buthan, 2011
158.     H. Méndez Caratini, Taktsang Monastery, Paro, Buthan, 2011
166.     The Himalayas, Nepal, 2011

Text for the inside cover, left-hand side.

Himalayan Kingdoms

The word “Himalaya” most probably derives from the Sanskrit word “hima” (“snow”) plus “ālaya”(“abode”). Thus, the Himalayas are a place of residence high in the mountains, covered in snow. The very name “Himalaya,” then, evokes an image of exoticism, a mystical, harmonious mountain range isolated from the world.

The Himalayas are a mountain range in Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau. The Himalayan range, known as the “Rooftop of the World,” is home to some of the planet’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest, the world’s highest, at 29,029 feet. It has over a hundred mountains exceeding 23,000 feet in height. Most of the Himalayas lie above the snow line.

At the crossroads of ancient Asian civilizations, the Himalayas are home to a mixture of Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures, with their followers of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The range runs west-northwest to east-southeast in an arc 1,500 miles long, separating the Indian sub-continent from the high plateau of Central Asia and the Himalayan desert. The Himalayan range consists of three parallel sub-ranges that cross six countries: Bhutan, India, Nepal, Tibet, the People’s Republic of China, and Pakistan, with the first four countries having sovereignty over most of the range. The severe conditions in remote parts of the region make travel difficult, and for most of history, the people of the region have been largely isolated from surrounding cultures.

Himalayan Kingdoms is a compilation of stunning color photographs taken by Héctor Méndez Caratini during his major trip to Southeast Asia in the summer of 2011. During his pilgrimage, Méndez Caratini photographed over two-dozen major monasteries and convents high in the mountains. The images explore the cultural diversity of the region and evidence the artist’s communion with the ancestral deities dwelling inside the dark, mysterious monasteries. This book contains 143 fascinating color photographs of monks living inside the monasteries high in the Himalayan range, as well as scenes from exotic and rarely visited sites in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.

www.hectormendezcaratini.com