I have a fascination for Buddhist Monks. I have watched, interacted, admired and photographed practicing monks for many years during my travels in Ladakh, Himachal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. They have a genial smile that quickly puts me at ease, and their photogenic faces and ochre-robes seem to attract my camera. My last encounter with monks happened at a remote village in Central Myanmar, where curiosity led me to a Buddhist monastery.
This was at Ywama Village in Inle Lake region, where I was with my guide-cum-boatman to visit a market. The monastery was at the entrance to the market and I wasn’t going to miss a chance to exchange smiles with monks.
I walked into a large hall of the monastery cautiously, hoping to find some cues about where I may be permitted to enter and which places would be out of bounds for me. There was no one to be seen in the hall, but a smoke coming from a corner-room indicated that someone was cooking in the kitchen. I peeped into the kitchen to see an old man who did not seem to mind my presence. He was wearing colourful clothes, indicating that he was a volunteer here and had not entered monkhood.
As I waited, I saw monks walk in and out, first to help cook the noodles and later to serve themselves a helping. A young monk, perhaps a novice, was the first to become subject of my photographs. His bright robes shined in an otherwise dark surroundings of the kitchen, whose walls were blackened with years of soot. With a language barrier, our communication was limited to a few glances at each other. But he clearly did not mind my presence or his being photographed.
A while later, I followed three little lads in ochre robes to the first floor, where a large hall housed an altar and the learning spaces. The lads were enjoying their free time just before their classes were to begin, and invited me to their living quarters. There, I spent a few minutes photographing them against a brilliant window light, when they were torn between playing with their toy (a cell-phone) and posing me for pictures.
Another thirty minutes passed while I silently watched the life in the monastery. Senior monks occasionally appeared on the scene, quickly moving on to complete whatever activities they had planned for the day. Later, an older monk appeared and gathered the younger lot for the day’s lessons. I watched them for a while, and photographed the gathering from a distance without disturbing the class.
On that day, I had had several activities planned and places to visit lined up, but much of that had to be altered because I decided to spend too much time at this unscheduled stopover.