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July 1, 2015

Sketches of Northern India: I Took a Street Photo of the Dalai Lama

and I traveled over 2300 kilometers by car and bus across Northern India, starting in Delhi, where I was expertly scammed booking a flight to stay on a houseboat in Kashmir. The feel in Delhi often consists of insects marshaling a garbage dump. But when it comes to India, impressions can be deceiving. This land is a bipolar spectrum, the forced-marriage of the profane to the beautiful. There seems to be dirt and grime everywhere out of which grows some sudden strange magic. More than any other country I’ve been to, India seems like some sort of illusion concocted for the sole purpose of mindfucking its observer.

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In Kashmir, in the mountains outside of Srinagar, there is a small village of Gujjars, an ancient herding tribe, who are now spread throughout the Himalayan alpine forests of the Kashmir Valley. In this village over 50% of marriages are arranged. Many of the people live in stone huts, have no running water, limited electricity, and cook on open wood-burning stoves. Men and women wear robes; the women have nose piercings, and the men have long beards, often dyed electric red. Most people herd animals–there are horses, buffaloes, cows, and sheep roaming along the rushing rapids in the narrow forested ravines guarded on each side by snowed Himalayas. I am an hour’s walk up a mountainside, on a switchback boulder trail. A young girl appears out of the deep woods. She moves steadily up the wall of the steep valley, her hair in a scarf, her hand wrapped around thick metal, chained to a wild-eyed herding dog with a shaved neck. She moves silently with her animals, straight up through the steep forest. She comes out of nowhere followed by her little brothers, skillfully helping the dozens of goats up and along, and just as suddenly as she appeared, she is lost again into the density of trees.

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I can’t help but wonder if she is the freest person in the world; or maybe she’s the most enslaved person I have ever seen. A slave to both the circumstances of her birth and to her strange world. Whatever the case, in that small moment of our lives, she passed along like a ghost from another, more ancient time: a time that just happens to be occurring right now.

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Riding up one of the “most dangerous roads in the world” was uneventful until we climbed along the precipice of a glacier that strangled traffic for 5 hours. There was a mudslide and a rockslide, and the machine that was to clear them both made its decision to break down, sideways, in the middle of the one lane road, where it had been attempting to turn around. A large crowd cheered loudly as they rolled a boulder the size of a car from behind the machine, allowing traffic access to flow around the back of the stranded vehicle. This cheer was a cheer to the futility of human empowerment, however, as the crowd failed to realize not far above the paralyzed “mover” lay the paradox of impassable landslides that could only be moved by our sad crippled machine. When traffic did start moving again there was no fanfare, just people running to their jeeps to press on across and beyond the magnificient and horrifying glacier in fast worsening weather.

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In Leh, Ladakh, watching red-robed octogenarians slowly and repeatedly limp clockwise around the temple in the center of town, where the mountain-tormented air contains 50% less oxygen, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the UrRu, slowly trekking on there long epic journey towards the “Dark Crystal.” It was the first place where it felt somehow wrong to me to take a photograph, as if it would destroy the serenity and purity of these earnest old people’s manufactured reality: the slow moments of morning pacing around and around, of old tired bodies moving through space as circles through time, if only for a moment spiraling into themselves, and their own timelessness. These people had literally decided to spend their time going nowhere, and it was somehow very moving.

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One of the highest altitude lakes in the world requires that you travel over the third highest motorable pass in the world, higher than Everest base-camp. The lake is a salt water lake, but the water looks Caribbean, the majority of which lies in China (Tibet). I fell down an embankment taking photos of the divide in the lake between green and blue water; my shoes and camera were covered in dust. The American in the shared jeep to this lake had been at the Everest Ice fall, above Everest base-camp where the avalanche fell killing 19 people, during the Nepal earthquake. He had cellphone photos of the demolished Everest base-camp, and as I flipped through them there was the bloodied face of a corpse suddenly looking up at me from his phone. The American said he had tried to get people to move the man to help, but there was no help on the earthquaked mountain during those hours. It was because of this earthquake that I had come to India instead of Nepal.

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17 hours South across the Himalayas through the night does not allow for sleep. The jeep constantly shakes your body, like being in a three-dimensional version of Atari’s “Moon Patrol.” But even on the darkest of nights, the mountains can be seen as a towering black and jagged emptiness against a million stars. While the Himalayas at night are just the silhouettes formed at the border of night’s darkness and starlight, they look just like shadows of mountains covering the stars, so as you ascend up them it’s as if you are climbing upwards from darkness into outerspace. The rocketship constantly shaking, you pray not to get a flat, until you finally arrive at morning.

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In Manali, marijuana grows everywhere wild. It proliferates even along the sides of the roads and gets blackened, covered in car exhaust. I had never seen this weed growing in nature. It definitely appeared to be very natural to be there, even beautiful in its forbidden wildness. The air smelled fresh and great, and nobody seemed to even notice what would be considered by many simple or small-minded idiots as a dangerous infiltration of plant. But I sure as hell did notice it. It was all over.

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So i decided it might be interesting to take the 6$, 10 hour, local bus ride to Dharamshala. I don’t know what I was smoking. After the first 5 hours of what would be a 12 hour bus ride I could no longer feel where my leg bone goes into my hip joint, commonly referred to as my ass. It simply did not exist anymore. In it’s place was an enormous space of pure constant pain, needier of my attention than a newborn child. My newborn pain would not stop no matter which part of the two inches of legroom I shifted into. I guess this is why India invented meditation (and Charas).

In Mcleod Ganj, I was walking down the street in the morning, wandering aimlessly, and a loud siren came fast up the street. A car stopped on the road next to me and I looked in the front seat. Right in front of me, to my amazement, a very strange and animated looking guy was staring and smiling at me from behind the car window, merely a foot away. It was, in fact, the Dalai Lama himself. Naturally, I pulled out my camera and pointed it right at his face. He put his hands up in the surrender position, smiling, and I snapped two shots. I dropped the camera down and he was still there for a few more seconds, both of us just staring at each other, smiling, waiting for his car to continue to move up the road. I can say he had a very big face, and what was even bigger was his smile. I have seen Robert Deniro before in person, or maybe it was Al Pacino, and I have stumbled into Drew Barrymore in New York City; but this felt somehow much different than just bumping into a celebrity. This was a major religious figure, a cult leader, a cult of personality; and to me in that moment he seemed somewhat like a cartoon, a carefree fool, and a happy child. But what struck me the most was how he seemed to be very present even when staring out the window of a car at a stranger. Maybe he thought I was going to shoot him? But I know when I’m staring out the window of a car, or an awful bus, I generally like to just space out with my zombie stare, and to me everyone else is a zombie too. I guess I’m too lazy to stay focused and engaged with the physical world unless I’m mentally prepared to accept whatever may come from interaction with real life: which is not very often.

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In Upper Dharamkot and Bhagsu, a small commune-like scrabble of guesthouses and cafes, populated by a large majority of possibly hippie, possibly shell-shocked, somewhat Indian-costumed Israeli tourists, the modern pop versions of Kumbaya enchant the night from a neighboring cafe. It is a cliched soundtrack for them to get high on hash and their own company to. I make no friends there, and there is fog everywhere.

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The next day, I saw the Dalai Lama again for his 80th Birthday celebration. As I walked to his temple at 6:00 am it poured rain. As I walked down the road getting drenched I was flocked on all sides by Buddhist monks and nuns with umbrellas. None of whom offered to share their umbrella with me, nor even stop to give a rupee to the elderly leper women begging by the side of road with no fingers. Cameras are not allowed in the Dalai Lama Temple. If they were, they would tell the story of how Buddhists crush one another to get closest to the Dalai Lama like a female preteen stampede at a Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber sighting. I can’t remember the last time I have been stepped on repeatedly, smeared with mud a dozen times, bumped into for hours, slapped in the head with a hand, slammed in the head multiple times with an umbrella, had water poured on me, and had to sit for hours in the mud in a tiny space with my legs crossed, when I was not at a heavy death-metal concert. For all the pleasantries about compassion, and the Dalai Lama’s most resonant point of the day–that as human beings we are all equal–Tibetan Buddhists in exile turned out to be a bunch of hardcore pushy motherfuckers when it comes to getting close to their spiritual leader. For them, the journey isn’t the way, but rather the journey is the place where you kick ass to get to the front to see the Dalai Lama. At least things calmed down when the Dalai Lama began speaking. The crowd relaxed and people silenced and listened. Of the thousand or so people that appeared to be there, probably about 200 were white, nouveau-hippie-ish tourists: and what struck me more than the American pro-wrestling fan attitude of the exiled Tibetan Buddhists was the fact that these white tourists had likely come half-way around the world to the home of the Dalai Lama, to his temple on his 80th birthday, waiting 4 or 5 hours in the rain, mud, and hot sun to hear him speak, and not one of them had bothered to bring an FM radio with headphones to hear his speech in translation. They all seemed to be dressed like bohemian mystics from a far off land, and apparently I was the only non-Tibetan language scholar among them. They just stared at him like some sort of ancient blind proto-mammals washed up on the rocks hoping for anything that might save them. As the 14th Dalai Lama gave an extemporaneous speech summarizing a lifetime of his thoughts about himself, Buddhism, and Indian philosophy, he did it all in his native Tibetan tongue, and not one of them understood a word of it. And so what was the point of going to this faraway temple, if not to listen to the thoughts of the Dalai Lama?

To be fair, it’s not like listening had any profound effect on me: obviously it’s clear from my choice of observations about the event that I’m still a despicable asshole. As the Dalai Lama said, all you can do is try to show people the light through kindness and compassion, and by using your intellect. This clearly doesn’t mean blind people will see. Ironically for the blind of us, he described Dependent Origination, a Buddhist tenet, simply by stating that for there to be a thing, there must be an observer: but he did not say what happens when the white tourist observers do not understand the thing, because they didn’t bring a radio or speak Tibetan, or in the case of myself, really care. For me, in observing the Dalai Lama at his temple, I chose to focus on the dirt and grime of the place and the behavior of the people all around me. I’m not sure there will be any beautiful lotus flowers growing from this mud. I went back to my room bitter, forlorn, and the world a giant caricature.

Imagine winning a vast lottery. That moment. The feeling of winning in that single moment. That moment was the next day when I picked up my camera. I had left it on. I looked at it, really looked at it for the first time since driving through the mountains. In the jeep I showed an Argentinian guy how the camera could lock focus is manual mode so you could shoot at a fixed distance: 0.56 meters was the distance I had set. 0.56 was the number glowing on the top on my camera now. Imagine looking down at that lottery ticket and realizing what you thought was your winning number is wrong. Every photo I took for the last 500 kilometers, the seas of wild marijuana, the cows in the second story of an abandoned building, the tallest mountains, the cloud cities at night, and the candid photo of the Dalai Lama: they would all be out of focus. If the stars of the night sky were the many eyes of India, each looking on with a different perspective, they would see that we never really observe anything. The observer sees what the observer is ready to see. I guess its the same with photographers. Fate and stupidity can be crueler than insects. Or perhaps this is what exiled Tibetan Buddhists refer to as “Karma.”

Spending some time in this place I realized that Gujjar culture, Indian culture, Ladahki and Tibetan culture, as all tribal cultures that once were, or like those that continue to struggle on towards disintegration, will inevitably and eventually disappear. The diversity of human cultures, just as the biodiversity of plants and animals on the planet, will inevitably continue the death march towards extinction, until there is only one shining large mammal left, one large homogenous culture to suit it, and a series of caged zoos and museums housing the faded and eviscerated remains of the rest of the other living beings of Earth that once thrived. The colonizing that was once done with military and police and the brutality of a rapist is now done with enchanting ideas: the enticing mirage of representative democracy, the illusion of personal freedom, the seduction of endless consumerism. Those who tend to bee colonies know bees are most attracted to the sweet sweet honey. In our case, we will find that our quest for honey has led us to a prison colony of our own making: our bright future colony will be the end result of a myriad of cultural genocides, where we will all speak the same language, wear the same clothes, eat the same things, follow the same desires, we will have the same tastes, the same dreams, the same thoughts, we will be the same, all of us the same. Maybe it’s not possible: maybe it can’t happen in a wide world so different and full of uniqueness. But maybe it’s already happening, and it will continue to happen with no end in sight, until the end is in sight. Like insects, human nature crawls to its dark rhythm, into its unthinkable completion. We cannot stop it.

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