The story behind the portraits : A few memorable moments from Ladakh 2010

By @Saravana |
One of the things i'am unhappy about myself as a photographer is my reluctance to take more portraits while traveling. There are some good reasons for it. But still, at the end of a trip when i look back at my photos, the ones that bring me the most joy are the ones with people in them.

If i had taken a portrait of someone, then more often than not, it means that i had interacted with that person before taking the portrait and they had shared a small portion of their story with me. It is those stories behind the portraits that make them so memorable for me. Here are a few such stories from my trip to Ladakh in 2010.

Sonam and Karma, two siblings with two different destinies.

I arrived at the Sumdo village more dirty than tired. I had been cycling for 8 straight days without a decent wash and i was longing for one. So when i heard that the stream outside the village was carrying warm waters from the Puga hot springs, i immediately went down to the stream to have a bath. It was there that i first met Sonam.

She came, a tiny thing carrying a big yellow can over her shoulders like a backpack. She was smiling at me, the biggest, the most beautiful, warm, friendly smile that i've ever seen. I smiled back. Without exchanging a word we acknowledged each other's presence and there was a sense of familiarity between us.

If there was ever a moment to be captured and remembered, then this was it. But i realized that i did not have my camera with me and at the same moment knew that the camera would've spoilt this moment, making the divide between us more obvious and apparent. She crossed the stream and walked on by. I did not see her again that day.

The next morning, i was by the stream again taking a few pictures and i met Karma. He was a chirpy little boy studying at the SOS school in the village. He was eager to show off the few english words he knew. The usual, "What is your name ?", "Where are you coming from ?" routine. Once he exhausted all his sentences, we kept the conversation flowing by playing the 'name that object in english' game.

Soon our encounter turned in to photo shoot with Karma eager to pose for the camera. He then took me to his home and there i met the girl from the day before. Her name was Sonam and unlike her brother, she did not know a word of english or even hindi.

I asked their dad about why Karma could speak a little english whereas Sonam couldn't. He told me that it was because she's a girl and that girls dont go to school here. That made me a little sad.

But you have to realize that these are nomadic Changpa people who spend their lives in the high mountain slopes chasing one lush pasture after another. So i generally tend to question the value of modern education to such people, especially when it turns them towards materialistic pursuits. Hmm.. guess thats a  topic for a different discussion.

The Obama connection..

Matho is a large sprawling farming village situated above the flood plains of the Indus river opposite Thiksey. The fields are huge and the houses are equally big but the village had no guesthouses and  i faced great difficulty to find a homestay in the village.

The Lady of the house was a traditional Ladakhi woman, wearing a goncha and spending most of her time out in the fields tending after their cattle. Inside, i was with her son, a unemployed college graduate, sipping tea and watching live coverage of Obama's visit to India on TV.

After finishing her chores in the fields, the lady of house joined us to watch TV. Thinking that she would have no interest in international affairs, I was just about to offer to change channels when she suddenly remarked.. "Is'nt Michelle Obama beautiful ?? I wonder where their two daughters are?". She knew quite a lot about the Obama family and was keenly following them.

Frankly i was taken aback. Appearances can indeed be deceptive.

The Sumdo, SOS and Bangalore connection..

Sumdo, along with Thukje, is most of the most rustic villages i've come across in Ladakh. It is located in the Rupshu valley high on the Changthang Plateau. The villages here are nomadic ChangPa people who rear their precious pashmina goats in the high altitude grassland slopes of the mountains surrounding them.

The look of the village and of its people is more Tibetan than Ladakhi. And the village definitely has a wild feel to it.

So imagine my pleasant surprise to discover that there are not one, but boarding schools here. The one in Sumdo is run by the international SOS charity organization. And 5km down the road in Puga, there is another boarding school run by the local government. While their parents are up in the mountains seeking one lush pasture after other, their kids stay back in the schools and study. The motto of these schools is "Come to Learn. Go to Serve". Very meaningful.

One person i talked to, told me that his son graduated from this school, went on to study engineering in Bangalore and is currently working in Bangalore as a civil engineer for a construction company. He was obviously very proud of his son and i could see why.

Incidentally, the SOS school in Sumdo is the only place you can stay at in the village. Accommodation and food is provided free of charge to the guests but a small voluntary donation is appreciated by the school management.

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