In between leading photography tours in Bhutan and Kashmir, I'm often on the road shooting my own projects or researching new territories for travel photography workshops. Bhutan is one of the countries that I've spent the greatest amount of time in over the last few years; traveling extensively across many different regions. And yet still the Himalayan kingdom holds untold mysteries and surprises for me on each new voyage.
At the start of the year, I decided to make a serious reconnaissance trip - really exploring every part of the country from east to west. This way I felt confident I'd be able to put together the best possible itineraries for the upcoming Bhutan adventure tours and photography workshops I'll be hosting later this year.
Whenever I can, I plan my Bhutan photography tours so that they will coincide with local cultural and religious events. And so it was that in January I found myself in the central Bhutanese town of Trongsa at the time of one of the nation's most important tshechu - or religious festivals - in honor of the present king.
Bhutan is certainly not a populous country, so after several years of visiting I've begun to build up a strong network of friends and contacts. My photos have been used to promote the country and its national airline, Druk Air, so I've started to establish a relationship of trust with many people there, and as a result also begun to gain ever more privileged access to the nation and its culture. But even I was surprised by the fantastic opportunity that awaited me in Trongsa on this trip.
I've attended many religious festivals in Bhutan - often photographing the groups of whirling cham dancers in action, or focusing on the mischievous leaping demons as they goad onlookers. Generally though, the only time it's possible to photograph the dancers is during these public performances. As you can imagine, then, I was pretty thrilled when on this occasion I was invited to accompany the dancers during their rehearsals before the tshechu: providing me with a fantastic opportunity to shoot intimate behind-the-scenes shots of the monks up close as they prepared physically, mentally and spiritually for their grueling performance.
The tshechu took place at the Trongsa Dzong: a stunning medieval fortress set high above the Mangde River gorge and home to several hundred monks. The largest structure of its kind in the country, the dzong is reminiscent of Lhasa's famed Potala Palace and makes for a truly stunning backdrop to the festivities. Inside the stone-walled fortress, the scene was equally mesmerizing.
For anyone not fortunate enough to have witnessed a performance of Bhutan's masked dances, it's hard to describe the intensity of these events. Not only the visual spectacle of movement and color (traditional Bhutanese dress is mandatory for all locals), but also the sounds: the start of proceedings was announced by the deep, resonant drone of horns; then came the hollow clunk of drums, and a languorous crashing of cymbals. This evocative soundtrack filled the mountain air with incredible energy and a feeling of great anticipation.
Back in the rehearsal rooms, the senior monk, Sonam, and his troupe of dancers prepared for their performance by reciting religious mantras. Chanting in a deep tone, they changed from their everyday crimson robes into elaborate and colorful costumes. The dances represent stories from the life of the Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, and the richly decorated outfits are designed to illustrate this. As the costumes are cumbersome and the masks heavy, transformation from monk to fantastical being is a complicated and time-consuming task. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity to take pictures.
Once dressed, the monks rehearsed their moves and engaged in prayer, as I quietly looked on; enchanted by the scene but mindful to keep shooting while I had the chance. It was truly a privilege to witness the dancers' love for their culture, as expressed in the care and dedication with which they prepared for the performance. The photographs I'm most proud of from this series are those that come closest to expressing this feeling of pride in antique cultural traditions.
Outside in the courtyard, the monks began their high-energy spectacle: leaping and twirling in unison at a frantic pace. I remembered the complexity of the outfits and the weight of the masks, and couldn't help but wonder how they could sustain that level of vigor and stamina in their performance while carrying such an unwieldy burden. It become clear to me why so much of the preparation for the dance involved chanting and prayer. To be sure, dancing in this way requires real physical strength and training. But, just as equally, mental discipline and a deep sense of spirituality.
This is an incredible country that has a lot to teach the rest of the world, and on so many levels. It was a real honor to be granted access to such a sacred and moving moment as this. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank YNOTBHUTAN my travel partner, Namgyel Dorji and Tashi for making this possible and for all their support over the years.