Monday, 12 October 2009

Bhutan Photo Expedition: The Verdict

(Gangtey Goempa). Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

On completion of every photo expedition I undertake, I publish a verdict on what worked and what didn't. I'm probably the only travel photographer and photo expedition leader who does that so publicly, but it's a transparency ritual in which I believe very strongly. It's designed to assist those who intend to visit (in this case) Bhutan, and provides an insight at how and what my photo expeditions are all about.

Bhutan: The Land of the Druk Yul photo expedition was designed to provide its 8 participants with photo opportunities during the early fall festivals, or tsechus, which required us to travel from Paro to the west to the Bumthang region, its central heartland over a time frame of about 15 days.

Festivals: We attended and photographed a number of these festivals. Here I have to stress that I designed the itinerary of the photo expedition to include local and regional festivals only, bypassing the largest tsechu in Thimpu, which is held in a stadium-like area. The smaller tsechus offered us an enormous amount of photo opportunities, as I made sure we were in the very heart of the activities as well as behind the scenes.

The Wangdue tsechu was spectacular as always, and we were perfectly placed to photograph the dancers and performers coming out of their dressing areas. We also photographed them in these areas. I also consider the smaller Tamshingphala festival in Bumthang to be the most accessible in terms of photographing behind the scenes, and it has virtually no restrictions on what and where we could photograph.

While the Gangtey Goempa (temple) was on our itinerary, it was pure serendipity that our visit coincided with its annual consecration. This involved hundreds pilgrims streaming into the courtyard, seeking to be blessed by the presiding young lama. One of the rituals performed by the lama was breathing into small jars proffered by some of the pilgrims, who then sealed these jars to preserve the breaths.

Due to a mix-up in the Buddhist calendar (even Druk Air magazine got it wrong!), the Thangbi Mani tsechu actually took place a day later than we expected. This error confused many travel agents who had set their itineraries accordingly. We nevertheless managed to attend about an hour, after I delayed our departure from Jakar for a while. Here again, just like last year, we photographed the dancers' preparations and had total access to whatever we wanted to photograph. However, we missed the main dances of the Thangbi Mani tsechu due this Buddhist calendar anomaly, and because our itinerary called for us to depart the area on that very day.

Monasteries: Many monasteries were included on the itinerary I set for this photo expedition. Some of them involved uphill treks such as the obligatory Taktshang Goenpa in Paro (strenuous), the Thimpu Tango Goenpa founded by Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa (strenuous), the Chimi Lakhang (easy) and the Ugyencholing palace (strenuous). Apart for brilliant landscapes, the latter trek is not worth it.

Other: We attended and photographed various other events; some of which were serendipitous and others planned.

1. Buddhist monks debates. We spent many hours photographing (photo-journalist style) two Buddhist monks' debates at the Kharchhu monastery in Chamkar. Apart from us, there was no other visitors and we had unfettered access to photograph the debates that are held in Sanskrit, and are accompanied by hand-clapping to punctuate the points made. None of us had seen such debates before, and we were thrilled to crouch and stoop to capture the action as it unfolded. Around 300 monks meet in the Kharchhu monastery's main courtyard and heatedly debate philosophical issues of the Buddhist tradition.

2. The Sacred Thread ceremony. By pure chance, we attended a funerary ritual at the Ura monastery. It appears that a prominent judge in the Ura valley region had died, and funerary rites were being held at the ancient monastery and goempa, as we arrived. Having secured the permission from the head monk of the temple, we trooped in the main chamber along with around 30 monks, who started chanting. The ritual was the first of its kind that I've witnessed in Bhutan. It involved monks stretching a sacred string from the altar where the holy statutes are kept to the seat of the head monk. This string is designed to facilitate the transmission of the deceased soul to the heavens.

We were told that we were the first photographers to document this ritual, but I take this with a grain of salt.

3. The pow (or traditional exorcist). In the general area of Thimpu, we had arranged to photograph during a traditional exorcism held in a farmhouse. The pow was called in to exorcise evil spirits out of a child and a middle-aged woman, and we were within a few yards from where that happened. Trances, shaking and incense-burning were all part of the traditional exorcism. Here again, we were told by the on-lookers than they had never seen non-Bhutanese attending such ceremonies.

Photography Gear: I used all of my lenses except for the 17-40mm on this photo-expedition. I used my 24mm 1.4L quite a bit, especially during the exorcism and other interior shoots, whether in monasteries or dancers' changing rooms. I used my flash sparingly, and only during the Wangdue tsechu as fill flash on the pirouetting dancers.

One of my favorite photo shoots was at the Jambhey Lakhang where I was able to spend a few unhurried hours photographing the pilgrims circumbulating the temple.

It was gratifying and a testament to the efficiency of our land agent Adventure Travel Bhutan that we were never bumped from our hotel rooms. We were never asked to share our rooms, nor were we split over two or more hotels. Our guide Ugen, and Norbu our driver, always had their rooms as well.

Group Synergy: Similar to the cast of a successful sitcom, the 8 photographers' disparate personalities meshed well and created a truly enjoyable and, on many occasions, a hilarious environment especially during the long bus rides, and at meal times. Invariably, there were some moments of friction during photo shoots when one photographer intruded on another's line of vision...but these were quickly diffused or resolved. There's no question that this was one of the best groups I've led over the past 10 years.

Favorite Non-Photographic Event: I bet if I conducted a poll amongst the 8 photographers, our favorite moment was when the staff at the Kingaling Hotel invited us to a disco evening at its premises. Kingley Yangden (the manager) and her all-female staff of Tsering, Lekden and Kumari taught some of us traditional Bhutanese dancing to the tunes of local hip-hop.

Conclusion: Except for missing out on the full Thangbi Mani festival due to this Buddhist calendar mix-up, and for Druk Air's cancellation of our outward flight for 24 hours due to thunderstorms (but putting us up at no expense), the photo-expedition exceeded our expectations. Our travel agents Samdrup of Jachung Travel in San Francisco, and Pema (along with Sonam) of Adventure Travel Bhutan in Thimpu, closely monitored our progress and made available everything we asked for at a moment's notice. Naturally, special thanks are due to Ugen, our fixer-guide, and to Norbu, a knowledgeable and careful driver, who were our baby-sitters for more than 15 days.

Bottom Line: I returned with about 180gb of raw (unedited) images.