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Ladakh - Prabuddha Das Gupta

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We had no common language. She spoke no Hindi or English and I spoke no Tibetian or Ladakhi. But the communication we had, just by touch and through our eyes, was more real, more significant than the communication I've had with many people with whom I have shared a long-term relationship. We held hands, I took her pcitures, she blessed me and I left with tears in my eyes and a few photographs of her face against the luminous desert sky...

Buddhist boy in Ranbirpura, about 20 kms from Leh, pictured in black and white

I've just finished reading "Ladakh" by Prabuddha Das Gupta for the second time. An engrossing book on the landscapes and people of Indian top eastern end. Having grown up close to the foothills of the northeastern parts of India myself I feel a sense of nostalgia with Prabuddha's work.

The north-eastern plains of India are still relatively warm in the winter months. During this time the foothills of Himalayas were completed frozen over and locked from all forms of life. A lot of the people from the neighbouring countries, particularly from the hills and valleys of the Karakoram ranges take shelter in the relatively warmer climate of India.

This temporary but mass exodus is an annual ritual for most people that live within a day's journey to the Himalayan ranges. During winter we'd await their arrival in our cities and towns and see them set up life on the go!

Life on the go

We would get to see a lot of Bhutanese and Nepalese people come down to India during the colder months. They would set up shops in parks and street corners and sell their goodies, making a living from it. Life is hard for them and these hardships seem to make them such endearing people. They never stop smiling, are polite and have good business acumen. The hardships of life taught them to be grateful and agile.

Imagine having to pack up your life and move for three months with your loved ones every year. With no definitive place or destination in mind. All you know is you have to go to survive the bitter chills of the mountain air.

As a kid, I did notice how different their kids looked to most of my friends, how they always smiled and waved at me. I loved their facial features and how they have mystified quizzical eyes that seem to ask a lot of questions. I remember having many a chat with mum about why they visit India and then disappear.

Some of them found jobs and would stay back for good. But a majority of them were and I guess still are transient travellers exploring the tepid plains of India when the icy cold winds stop everything in their tracks.

Prabuddha’s Ladakh story taps into my childhood memories. When I look through his imagery it takes me back to my alma mater! It evokes nostalgia on every page and frame!

The Mountain calleth

There are quite a few striking frames in the Ladakh series. I'm equally blown away by Prabuddha's diction, his conflicts, his semblance of life and love for the stoic mountains. The parallels he draws from his own life to relate the desolate yet connected world in the high altitudes of Tibet.

The photographer's devotion to turning himself around from portrait photography to capturing moments of the wide sweeping mountain plains and the hardships of life recreated him and gave him a new lease on life. In the western world where we have so much and yet want more — this book draws a clear message through his imagery. In his own words.

For the Ladakhi, the entire philosophy and practice of life is based on the connectedness and unity of all things, big and small. Nothing has an existance of its own. Everything is inextricably linked. The land, the elements, the fauna that roams the valleys, men and women, body and spirit...

Two striking images

There are many stunning black and white frames in Ladakh series but two of these are absolutely adorable and I felt a connection deeper than normal. These are:

  1. Muslim shepherd near Kargil. The first indication that we were leaving the domain of the Buddha and entering that of Islam
  2. Sumdo village, on the way to Tso-Mo-Riri. As we stopped to rest this little girl came up to the jeep window. There was neither curiosity nor hostility in her gaze, just the calm detachment of an observer.

"High on India's northern frontier, at the edge of Tibet, lies Ladakh, a desert wilderness that is the final stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism. Sparsely populated, it is a place of extremes of climate and inhospitable terrain, but it is also one of spellbinding beauty. Prabuddha Das Gupta, one of India's finest photographers, first went to Ladakh in 1995 and has since returned eight times, in thrall to the magnificence of its landscape and its compassionate, serene people.

In this book, he allows his camera to range over forbidding views of snow and stone, expanses of sand furrowed by the wind, mysterious conjunctions of water and earth and endless vistas of sky and cloud. The photographs also reflect the vitality, dignity and calm of the exceptional people who inhabit this vast and empty landscape. together they depict an unforgettable portrait of this ancient and enigmatic land..."