The year 2002 was one of great anticipation. A new destination to be explored. ‘Purposeless travel out of a great sense of fun and adventure’. Bhutan was on the anvil in October that year — a journey that was to be shared with friends. I had recently invested in a Hasselblad medium format camera and this trip would be the perfect opportunity to flirt with it and to capture unexplored territory on film.
We were to go on the seven day Druk Path trek, which in days of old used to be a punishment trail for Bhutanese soldiers. It turned out to be a fiasco for us as well. On day two of our trek, we lost thirty three of our forty horses, and along with them we lost our tents and camping supplies. Someone in our group developed altitude sickness, and the trek had to be aborted after we reached our second camp at Jangchulakha. With sad hearts we returned to Thimphu.
Despite this challenging first experience, at Jilli Dzong, on the first day of our trek, I had an epiphany — this was the land where I was meant to be, and where I would find my way. It sounds esoteric, but it is what I clearly felt at that moment.
I was inexorably drawn back to Bhutan. I finally closed a flourishing textile export business to return to my love for photography and writing. Everything fell into place. Sangay Om, whom I had met in Thimphu found me the perfect guide, and I began my travels in Bhutan with my trusty Hasselblad. I spent all of five years trekking into the remotest parts of the country. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Her Majesty, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who encouraged and supported my self-proclaimed journey. I was given permission to venture into regions that foreigners were restricted from and was even able to live with protected semi-nomadic tribes.
Each time I returned home to Delhi, to process films and edit my contact sheets, I would be itching to go back to Bhutan. Back to the rawness, the untouched quality of the landscape and the people; their way of life and their faith in all that is humanistic in the Buddhist philosophy — reflected in the imposing architecture of their monasteries and temples, often constructed mysteriously, centuries ago in impossible places where only angels did not fear to tread. I became immersed in a country, its myths and its people. Even the capital city Thimphu, and the larger towns of Paro and Jakar, seemed to be suspended in time.
Yet, I did witness the advent of modernisation and western values creeping into this virgin kingdom. It was slow and insidious. The lack of good schools and universities in Bhutan sent the well-heeled to India or to Western countries for their education. Aspirations changed. Even in remote regions, primary schools and Basic Health Units created a need for jobs. Pastoral lifestyles were slowly abandoned and an influx into Thimphu, in search of further education and employment, began.
In 2007, at a very significant juncture in the history of Bhutan, I chose to display my photographs in an exhibition titled Bhutan: A Certain Modernity in New York, Delhi and Thimphu. This was the year that spearheaded Bhutan into becoming a multi-party democracy. The Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated the throne in favour of his son, the crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who became the fifth Dragon King on the 9th of December 2006, and was coronated on the 1st of November 2008 — an auspicious year that marked a hundred years of monarchy in Bhutan. It was also in 2008 that Bhutan became the youngest parliamentary democracy in the world.
My passion for, and association with the country continued. I had deep mis-givings and wondered what would happen to the Bhutan I had come to love. A decade from now, would it survive the onslaught of global infiltration?
I consider myself fortunate to have travelled and photographed this kingdom, when it was still in essence, true to itself and culturally intact. At a time when its protected forests and environment spoke volumes about the sanctity of life. The photographs I took more than a decade ago, will hopefully always be a reminder of that which is too precious to lose.
*Excerpted by permission of the author and Tasveer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the author or publisher.
Serena Chopra is a Delhi-based photographer, whose first body of work on Bhutan led in 2007 to solo shows held at New Delhi, New York and Thimphu. A wider selection of her Bhutan work was also later published alongside extracts from her personal journals — as The Ancients (2015) by Academic Foundation. Chopra has since explored the lives and times of resident Tibetan exiles at Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi; and Naga sadhus at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and during Shivratri in Varanasi. She has also participated in a photo exhibition at the Bonjour India Festival (2013) and produced a picture notebook, Along the Ganga.