Renowned adventure and travel photographer David Carlier describes his experience at Kalachakra, a festival of teachings and meditation in Ladakh, India. The festival, which last 5 days, is hosted by HH the Dalai Lama who initiates over 100,000 people from all over the world into this important and complex tradition in Tibetan Buddhism.
Where is Ladakh and how did the landscape contribute to the feel of the festival?
This place is very high up in the Himalayas, and the beauty and peace that I found in these mountains in addition to the people I met was really amazing. I saw 150,000 pilgrims travelling by different means from far away to come there and listen to the Dalai Lama’s teachings. This was a very intense experience and a very memorable place.
What was the day-to-day like?
Every day, we went to attend the teachings of HH the Dalai Lama. I do not understand Tibetan language but a positive energy was palpable, and the peacefulness of the pilgrims from so many different ethnicities was something really special. The pilgrims were coming very early every morning, and in a very quiet and calm fashion. They were grouped by villages or valleys in a huge field, facing the main stage where the Dalai Lama was standing. Everybody was walking quietly, without any kind of stress. In a corner a few hundred Westerners had an area reserved for them to attend the teachings. So everyday, I spent a lot of time in the street leading to the official ceremony location just to shoot people walking in and out.
This must have been an exceptional place to photograph.
Yes! I spent most of my time zigzagging among the crowd to find good spots to seat in good company, share the Tibetan tea offered by the monks and of course take some photos. In the middle, the Dalai Lama was reading the Kalachakra teaching from very early morning until mid afternoon everyday, for 12 days straight! What a blessing to be able to witness this, learn from his speeches, and feel the energy of the place.
What were the attendees like?
People from Tiber, Nepal, Ladakh, Zanskar, etc. were attending. It is rare to be able to meet so many different ethnicities all in the same spot. I loved to look at their dresses or their hats and try to understand where they come from, how they travelled for days just to be there for this key commemoration. I was really impressed that all of the people I met, young or old, were smiling and seemed so happy to share that moment all together. This is something we do not really feel in our “modernized” western civilization I believe.
Besides people’s evident optimism and calmness, what are some other characteristics that you noticed at the festival?
The amazing organization of the whole event drew my attention. We were in a very high and remote place, in the middle of a desert (weather is very dry at this altitude), and everything was perfectly organized, from the public fountains everywhere with fresh “clean” water was flowing, to the huge outdoor kitchen where monks were cooking rice and 3 different kinds of tea for everybody, for free!
What was the most challenging part about shooting at this location?
Getting to Ladakh. The NH1, a road crossing the Kashmir Province that leads to Ladakh has quite a bad reputation due to two main factors: first the region is considered unsafe as it is the oldest conflict registered by the UN, opposing India, Pakistan and China. And secondly, because the road section up to the Zoji La pass (11’575ft) can lead to a very unpredictable journey. Remoteness, constant landslides, mud, monsoon, trucks traffic jams, very narrow unstable sections and huge cliffs can have the ability to transform the NH1 into a traveller’s nightmare. Obviously as an adventure photographer and an avid traveller, this is a kind of dream scenario and a great opportunity to shoot epic situations. Even when shooting with a very precise brief, I always try to catch the atmosphere around, transcribing the intensity of a situation. I am not looking for the ultimate individual shot, but a visual story.
All images courtesy of David Carlier