National Geographic : 2004 Jan
BY KAREN E. LANGE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICWRITER PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTIAS KLUM It's after dark when photographer Mattias Klum approaches the last army checkpoint on the road to Hanle, a little-known set tlement in India's northern Himalayan region of Ladakh. From Leh, the capital of Ladakh, it has taken Mattias 12 hours by four wheel drive to get here. Preparation for his visit took much longer: Permission to visit Hanle and its gompa-a 17th-century monastery on the ancient trade route that once linked the king doms of Ladakh and Tibet-was more than two years in coming. Now he shows the guard his permit from the Indian government and a letter from the Dalai Lama himself. But Mattias's request to pass is met with disbelief. Examin ing the documents, the guard informs him, "This is not true." The guard's reluctance to let the foreigner continue on is understandable. Other than a handful of scientists bound for the government run observatory in Hanle, most Westerners have been denied access since the end of the Chinese-Indian war of 1962. Fearing that spies from China might slip over the bor der into Hanle, which sits just 12 miles from the disputed frontier, the Indian government ,.,,,i declared the area off-limits. But " s '" after a careful review of Mat- om, 50s tias's documents, the guard at okm 500 last allows him to pass. Enforced isolation has slowed the pace of change in the Hanle Valley, which is home to roughly a thousand people-about 300 of whom reside in the village of Hanle. When Mattias arrives at the monastery, the monks are cautious at first, unsure of what a photographer does. But the Dalai Lama's letter, which they place on a throne reserved for a visit from His Holiness, reassures them, and they become more at ease. The monks talk with Mattias and slowly begin to understand why he wants to take their pictures. They wonder what kinds of attention and perhaps help his work might bring the gom pa, a crumbling stone edifice where 10 monks live and another 33 come regularly for prayers. Gradually these sons of local herders allow 90 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2004 Mattias to photograph life at the monastery, which is steeped in the Buddhist ideals of humility, patience, cooperation, and compassion -values that are also embraced at a nunnery across the valley. Indeed, Hanle's high-altitude desert requires everyone to keep a tight reign on selfishness and pride. Survival in the harsh cli mate means family members must put aside individual interests to work together and over come personal conflicts as they endure long winters in close quarters. Of all the monks, Mattias is drawn to Lama Zotpa, who is greatly respected by his fellows. The holy man's presence forces Mattias to reex amine his own life. "He looks at you with kind ness, and then he looks right through you and into your soul," Mattias says. "At times I felt very small, even superficial." Often during his five weeks in Hanle, Mattias was moved by the pro found tranquillity of the community: "There was a stillness about it. I felt as if I was visiting the only truly peaceful place on Earth." Will the peace that Mattias experienced endure? Modern influences are slowly reshaping Hanle. Children once sent to '; tend livestock in the mountains """"" enroll in government schools. Some eventually leave to attend I ' university or look for jobs. Stone houses are replacing yak hair tents, parkas are worn over wool robes, and shops stock manufactured goods trucked in from Leh. When the Dalai Lama vis ited the valley last year, he was whisked away to his next destination by helicopter. Hanle's monks are adjusting to this transfor mation. As Buddhists they expect and accept change in a world they see as transitory. Writes Tibetan lama and author Sogyal Rin- T Li poche: "The realization Hear the chanted prayers of impermanence is that echo through Hanle's paradoxically the only monastery and see more thing we can hold on to, perhaps our only lasting possession." images by Mattias Klum at nationalgeographic.com/ magazine/0401.