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
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
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
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.
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.