Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Bhutanese Way

The talk that is now doing the rounds in Thimphu is that the government is likely to change the Pedestrian Day from Tuesday to Sunday. Supposedly, the government is yielding to the popular sentiments of the people. But how can that be true when the reality is that the combined workforce of the private and corporate sectors far out number the civil service? In my view it is a myth that Sunday is a less cumbersome day to impose a ban on vehicular movement. The reason is simple: unlike the civil service who have two full workless days, the employees in the private and corporate sector have only one (Sunday) full day to devote their time to do personal work. Therefore, it would be unfair to inconvenience them by imposing a Pedestrian Day on a Sunday.

Strangely, a large number of people see the Pedestrian Day as an inconvenience and an undemocratic imposition on the will of the people, rather than an attempt to improve our current economic woes. Typically, the Bhutanese people believe that it is entirely the responsibility of the government to solve all their problems while they remain unmindful of the part they must play. With such a mentality, is it likely that the people will stop complaining even if the Pedestrian Day were to be shifted to Sunday? I doubt it. The Bhutanese people are a happy lot as long as the government and the King doles out kidu; ask them to work for their keep and they are an estranged lot.

I am told that the so called “business leaders” have threatened to go on a silent protest if the government did not do something about the Pedestrian Day. They have the gumption to call themselves “business leaders” and yet, pathetically, they do not have the inventiveness and ingenuity and the cunning to rework their work schedule to suit the Pedestrian Day timing. They are petrified about some marginal profit loss arising out of one day of closure in a week, rather than fear the possibility that if they do not buck up and take heed, they may stand to lose their entire businesses.

I am convinced that the Bhutanese people suffer from some acute pathological problem of lawlessness. Look at the following two photos. There is a huge signboard that says NO RIGHT TURN and yet, the driver of the Toyota Landcruiser completely ignores the warning and blatantly enters the NO ENTRY zone. Those of you who live and drive in Thimphu would recognize the diversion point as the one right below the office of the Ministry of Labour & Human Resources in lower Motithang.

Tell me, truthfully, how many of you have been blind to the signboard and made a right turn where that sign is posted? I guess quite of few of you.

There is a notice posted on the gate of the Centenary Farmers' Market that cautions people against parking in front of the gate and yet, cars throng the point of entry - to such an extent that the gateway is completely sealed off thereby hindering access to shoppers wishing to enter the market inside.

This article is posted on a Pedestrian Day.

(PS: I intentionally obliterated the Toyota Landcruiser's registration number plate since I believe that it is not fair to single out the owner when every one else does it. Same thing with the cars parked in front of the Centenary Farmers' Market gate. I cropped off the number plates because they are not the only ones who do it).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bhutan's Third and Latest Domestic Aiprport

Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline successfully conducted its inaugural flight to Gaylegphu day-before-yesterday the 25th of October, 2012. I was among the fortunate few to be on the flight.

The flight time to Gaylegphu from Paro is 25 minutes - too short at any speed!! But the flight was smooth and the reception at Gaylegphu airport was heartwarming. It seemed like whole of Gaylegphu Dzongkhag's population turned up at the airport to receive the Prime Minister JYT who was the Chief Guest on board the flight.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong: Bhutan’s Remotest Dzong

My following article appeared in the annual "BHUTAN" magazine of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, 2012.

Some eighteen odd years ago, while visiting His Excellency Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering, Bhutan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, I saw this stunning photograph mounted on the wall of the corridor of his home. The photograph depicted what looked like a Dzong perched on a low-lying hillock walled in by enormous mountains. I was captivated by the image. As I stood in front of it and examined it more closely, I was overwhelmed by a sense of wonder at the starkness of the location and its liberating expanse of desolation and remoteness. Much later, I was told that the image was that of Lingzhi Dzong and that it was photographed by Mr. Valdino R. Franceschinis, in the summer of 1987.

What compulsions drove people of the time to build these colossal structures in the middle of such far-flung wilderness? How did they transport construction material such as stone and wood to put together such mammoth structures on hilltops and cliff faces? How did they transport few million liters of water from the stream located few thousand meters lower down in the valley? Where did they get such super human physical strength and the mental tenacity to undertake such grueling hardship at extreme altitudes and in freezing temperatures?

As I stood mesmerized by these questions, I made a silent resolution to myself, a resolution I fulfilled more than two decades later. That day, I promised that I would one day trek to Lingzhi and photograph the Dzong myself.

The Dzong’s exotic location somewhere in the unfathomable northern extremes bordering Tibet gives it an aura of mystery and intrigue. Its construction at such a remote and hostile location pays tribute to the indomitable spirit and the tenacity of the Bhutanese people. Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong is testimony to the hardships and toil our forefathers had to go through, in order to preserve the nation from external threats. Being able to photograph the Dzong would not only satisfy my own artistic hunger but it would help document and archive an important piece of history for the present as well as future generations of the Bhutanese people.

Chögyal Minjur Tenpa constructed Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong in 1668 - to celebrate Bhutan’s victory over the Tibetans in the war of 1667. He was Bhutan’s third Druk Desi from 1667 to 1680. Lingzhi, at an altitude of 4,003 Meters, lies to the north of Paro. The Dzong is built atop a barren hillock that rises steeply from the center of a narrow valley at the base of which are the villages of Lingzhi, Zombuthang and Misayue. It is Bhutan’s remotest Dzong and remains cut off during the winter months.

Trek to Lingzhi takes four days from Paro. Due to its remoteness and the difficult terrain, a trip to Lingzhi is often a once-in-a-life time affair. Thus, considerable thought goes into its planning. Generally, the trek is undertaken during the summer months when the weather is warmer and there is plentiful grass for the pack ponies. However, summer also means torrential rain, blankets of cloud and swirling mists that obscure everything – not the most ideal conditions for photography.

I am a photographer. My mission is to photograph. For that, I need, clear blue skies; I need the mountaintops to be covered in virginal white snow. I need the atmosphere to be clear and crisp; I need the lakes to be frozen and turned into bluish-tinted pancakes with crazy crinkles on their surface. I need unhindered view far into the vast horizons lined with layers and layers of mountaintops merging into a string of snow-capped Himalayan range. I need the night skies to be clear so that I can see the heaven sparkle and shimmer with the radiance of a billion stars jostling for space. In the morning, as I walk out of the tent, I need to see the brown blades of grass wilting under the weight of frost and ice formed on them. I want to be able to capture the Alpine wilderness in all its natural starkness.

For all that, I need to make the trip in the thick of winter.

I embarked on my maiden photographic journey to Lingzhi during the third week of December 2010. After being on the road for three days, we reached Jangothang (Jumolhari basecamp) on December 21, 2010. After a day’s rest, we were to begin our climb towards Ngele-La and from there on, descend into Lingzhi. Alas, bad news awaited us. We were informed that the trail to Ngele-La pass was closed because of ice. Crestfallen, I made my return journey to Thimphu. It was a wasted effort but there was nothing else any one could do. The unforgiving weather conditions at such high altitudes means that one has to be prepared for the unexpected.

But I am not one to give up that easily. I was determined to make it to Lingzhi – one-way or the other. Upon return to Thimphu, I searched the Internet for ways and means to overcome the challenge. I found the answer in: Ice Cleats. Ice Cleats are a sandal type of slip-ons that one slides over one’s trekking boots. It has steel studs on its sole that grip the ice as one walks over it. It prevents the wearer from slipping when walking over icy surface. I ordered 6 pairs from USA and made my second attempt on January 30, 2011. I also bought two short-handled axes - for breaking ice on the trail surface so that the ponies can tread over them without slipping.

On the morning of February 2, 2011, we were all set to tackle the formidable Ngele-La pass that separated us from our final destination - Lingzhi. Perhaps the most dreaded of all the high passes in Bhutan, Ngele-La pass stands at an altitude of 4,702 Meters or 15,427 ft. Every traveller who has to scale this pass goes through moments of panic and fearful foreboding before he undertakes the climb to the summit. The reason is that the pass is most often battered by very powerful winds. It is said that the gusts of wind are so powerful that even fully laden mules would be lifted off their feet and swept away to be deposited at the bottom of the valley. It is quite believable since one can see that even in the thick of winter, there is not a speck of snow or ice formed on the pass, let alone any vegetation. The strong winds blow away everything. It is entirely naked and not a single blade of grass can be seen anywhere. The pass is covered in a thick deposit of fractured rocks and stone pebbles.

It took us 3 hours of laborious climb to reach the top. In between, we had to break ice at about 5 locations and on a number of occasions we had to unload the pack ponies and lead them by their mane over the icy patches of the road. We were lucky that there was no wind on that day. Once we were at the top, the view was breath taking. As I stood at the summit of the pass, surrounded on all sides by infinite nothingness, I felt so small and meaningless.

The plunging mountainsides converged into frozen streams and rivulets of ice at the bottom of the valley. As we descended into the yawning chasm below, we saw a few hundred Blue Sheep grazing all over the barren mountainside. I began to feel a sense of exhilaration in the knowledge that we were now onto our final push towards Lingzhi, my dream destination. As we traversed ridges upon ridges of barren hillocks, I began to feel the crisp winter air rustling around my ears and nose. A sense of excitement began to build inside me as we approached the last and final ridge beyond which stood my fabled Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong. 

The rhythmic thud of my springy footfalls came to a still as I stepped on to the pinnacle of the last ridge that overlooked the secluded valley of Lingzhi. There, at last, in front of me stood the object of my enduring allure - Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong. As I sat cross-legged on the ridge, I heaved a sigh of contentment. Seeping a hot cup of tea poured me by my assistant, I savored the stunning view of the Dzong surrounded by a vast, fathomless expanse of wilderness. For the next three days, I would embark on a marathon photography session and shoot the Dzong from angles that it had never been photographed before. I closed my eyes and imprinted every minute detail of the scene in my mind’s eye. The clarity of a scene is unmatched when seen with one’s eyes closed.

As I reluctantly stood up to descend into the valley where our camp had already been set up, I felt a singular sense of achievement - and a dire need to cry.

Friday, October 5, 2012

World Smile Day

Your smile is inexhaustible - so pass them around freely and as often as you can.
The happiest smile is the one you give to someone who has none to offer you.
You wont be taxed for smiling … so go ahead and smile with abundance! It lights up your face and makes you look pretty.

Wishing all my readers a VERY HAPPY WORLD SMILE DAY!


It is amazing how I can remember the people in the following photos so vividly – even when some of them were taken 8-9 years back.

I had gone to the Prime Minister’s zimchung to shoot his portrait for use during the SAARC Summit. After the portrait was done, Loenchen wanted me to photograph him and Aum Rinzi together. That took some doing! Even after having been married for over 30 years, Aum Rinzi is still very coy in the presence of her husband.

 PHOTO #2:
I photographed Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering about 5 years back at the Paro Tsechu grounds. It is obvious that he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Among Bhutan’s most respected personalities, he served the country with utmost loyalty and dedication for the past four decades. Given his medical condition, I am afraid that he may not contest in the coming elections. That would be an irreplaceable loss for the country.

I am told the ladies are Bhutanese movie actresses. I spotted them about 5 years back during the annual Paro Tsechu (festival).

This novitiate monk posed for me shyly from behind a Lhadar (large/tall prayer flag) post. It was taken 5 years back at Dechenphodrang Monastery, Thimphu.

This oldman was photographed at Thangbi Mani in Jakar, Bumthang. What attracted my attention was his immensely strong, bull-like build. He looked very lean and yet stout and muscular. Very healthy old man indeed.


This little girl is from Laya village. She was photographed at Punakha during the annual Dromchoe. At that time she was only 6 years old. Seven years later, I met her once again in her village in Laya when I had gone there for a trek. But this time I did not photograph her.

PHOTO #7 & 8:

These two children were photographed at the Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse.

The lady in the photo was seen crushing stones by the roadside above Doksum on the way to Trashiyangtse. The radiance of her smile tells me that happiness is a state of mind and not a condition determined by one’s affluence.

PHOTO #10:
These giggling bunch of little girls were photographed in Zhemgang about 7 years back.

PHOTO #11:
I photographed this young student in Dungkar, Kurtoe in Lhuntse Dzongkhang. He was eating his lunch, a bowl of pre-packaged noodles. When I trained my camera on him, he promptly turned the plastic bowl upside-down on his head and gave me a beaming smile.

PHOTO #12:
This smiling little girl was photographed in Punakha. She had a younger brother who was even more cute … but was so grouchy, I excluded him from the photo.

PHOTO #13:
This is the only RAPA girl I have ever photographed in my many years’ career as a photographer. This photo must be about 8 years old. The girl had just joined the RAPA and thus her eyebrows, her hair style, her lips, her face .. they were all still intact. I am told that she left the profession after about a year or two.

PHOTO #14:
I am told that this lady is from Chapcha and last I heard, she is supposed to be in the US of A. I photographed her in Paro Tsechu – under the staircase of the VIP cottage at the celebration grounds of Paro Tsechu.

PHOTO #15:
This photo of Aum Karma and Aum Damchoe Lhamo was photographed at Langjopakha about 6 years back. They are great friends which is obvious from their body language.

Aum Karma in the front is the daughter of the famous late Chapda and Aum Damchoe in the back is the wife of Dasho Tshering Wangda, Bhutan's Council General in Kolkatta, Inida.

PHOTO #16:
This is Ms Kencho Dorji – a tour operator. When she saw this photo posted on this Blog, she sent me a SMS saying: “How come I do not know of this photograph? LOL”.

PHOTO #17:
This portrait of a mute was photographed inside the Changangkha Lhakhang few years back. As I asked him to pose for me, his friend began to make a series of faces to mock and amuse the mute. The mute loved it so much that he burst out laughing. What a laugh! I am convinced that he who laughs the loudest loughs the truest.

PHOTO #18:
I photographed this silver haired beautiful old lady somewhere close to Kelikhar in Wangduephodrang. As I was driving down from Nobding, I saw this serene old lady sitting on the doorsteps of her home by the roadside. She held a rosary in her right hand.
Few weeks after I took the photo, it was reported in the papers that her own relatives, in a bid to rob her of her cash, battered her to death.

PHOTO #19:
A shy school girl in Dungkar, Kurtoe, Lhuntse Dzongkhang. She wanted to be photographed and yet you can see that she is very shy about the experience.

PHOTO #20:
This photo of two little girls thoroughly enjoying themselves was shot at the RAPA grounds. I think they were students from either Druk Private School or Little Dragon Private School. It was during their annual concert that was being held at the RAPA Hall.

PHOTO #21:
This photograph of a young mother and her two small daughters was shot at the Memorial Chorten a few years back. The mother looked on with joy and satisfaction while her little girls bantered around the open lawn. But for some reason, I got the impression that everything was not quite right. There was an air of melancholy about her that she couldn’t quite suppress. I hope life has been treating her well since.