Switzerland 1931
Denmark & Sweden 1932
Germany 1934
Istanbul 1935
Berlin 1936
Norway 1940
Berlin 1943
The Flight - Oslo
Sweden 1944
End of War

India 1953
Nepal 1954
Kathmandu, Swayanbhunath
and becoming a monk
Kali Gankaki 1950
Sugata accomapnied Sherchan
to take photograhs of the
Devil Dances up in Tukuche
2001 Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Goa
Sugata at 90
in Tatopani and returning to
Tukuche and Chhairo

Sugata's homeland

2005 Sugata's footsteps
1940 Norway


Kali Gandaki 1960    


'Why did you come to Annapurna in 1960?'

Not for the first time Sugata begins by describing something with no apparent connection and I wonder how and when we will get to 'the main point'. In this case, he begins with 'a flowing script.'

'I received a letter written in an elegant flowing script - oh yes, it was such beautiful hand writing! I was living in Sweden where I had been since I had returned from Nepal in 1957. The letter was from a certain Shamsher Man Sherchan. I did not know him. He was inviting me to come to Nepal to photograph some so-called 'Black Hat' or 'Devil Dances' up the Kali Gandaki valley at Tukuche, his village.'



'Having made the journey once again overland to Kathmandu, I almost did not make the expedition.

I returned late one evening to Ananda Kuti and in the dark tripped on a rusty petrol canister. The cut got infected and the blood poisoned. Amritananda took me to an ayurvedic compounder but it got worse, and I took myself off to the hospital where a Christian doctor, dressing my wound without anaesthetic, asked me all the time about Nirvana, to turn my thoughts to higher planes away from the pain. The leg took a long time to heal and I was in hospital about four weeks before Shamsher Man Sherchan lost all waiting patience and came to me wringing his hands, saying: the dances are starting and "by hook or by crook, we must go!"


Once in Pokhara, I still could not walk, so they cut a bamboo basket that I could sit inside of with my legs dangling down. And so I was carried on the back of a 1.5 metre high porter. Literally my back was on his head. I felt for my porter, poor man, carrying a heavy Sahib like me. But I felt more for us both as we travelled on a path that dropped precipitously on either side into a steep abyss: as my porter walked, my basket swayed and I was never sure if it would sway back with me in or out. I was really afraid.


After three or four days I tried to walk but it was hopeless so they put me on a horse. I had never ridden a horse before and I don't know which was worse, the basket or the horse; the drop to the left and the right was just as extreme and so were my chances of falling. After two days at Ulerie this poor horse died - they had whipped it so cruelly, poor beast. But they found me a new horse.'




Shamsher Man Sherchan




In 1957 the balance of power in this valley changed dramatically when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Nepal-Tibet border closed and with it, overnight, the salt trade over Mustang ceased.

The Khampa refugees, fleeing from Tibet, made Nepal a base from which to launch their unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese in 1959, and effectively instilled fear up the valley - one of the reasons for the exodus of the indigineous Thakali's from the valley and migration to Pokhara and Kathmandu.

Sugata met no Khampas then, but many refugees. The majority of Sugata's photographs are of porters or refugees, reflecting Sugata's sympathy once again with the underdog, the downtrodden, and the rootless.



One of his most favoured photographs shows two young refugees turning towards the mountains, their backs to Sugata, bidding farewell to their homeland and the peaks before they reach the plains.






Kali Gandaki landscape    

The Kali Gandaki is a river and these spring pre-monsoon days it is a relatively small river that snakes its way in an expansive, half a kilometre wide, flood plane. On either side the massive mountains, Dhaulageri, Annapurna, Nilgiri, rise into the clouds. Rivulets, like hair, fall down their rock faces, funnelling glacier waters into the valley, into the Kali Gandaki. It is the deepest gorge in the world, 35 kilometres from peak to peak.



1960: Crossing the Kali Gandaki

2001: Crossing the Kali Gandaki

Unexpectedly we come across the Kali Gandaki itself, a 15 metre wide river in our path that we will have to cross. 'Last time, bridge here', explains Saligrame, beaten. Undeterred (as is his character) he downs the rucksack, rolls up his trousers and tests the depth. We can cross. He supports me first and I quickly feel the strength of the current and know it will be difficult for Sugata. Stripped to his savage pants, he starts across with Saligrame. He falls twice, but Saligrame holds firm, and Sugata's own determination will, I know, see him through. He is smiling as he arrives, one toe bleeding. 'At least my troublesome toe-nail has completely gone now. Less to carry! Good.'


A school    



' "I teach, you teach, we will teach', so said an ex Gorkha, who tried to persuade me to return and teach with him in this mountain school. The teachers of course, were not paid in money, but in kind, for example in pumpkins stored on the roof. On the school wall, I remember, they had painted a map of the Buddha's footsteps from Northern India and following the great Saint, Padmasambhvana, to Tibet.'



The American Dalai Lama!    


'I was in my 'basket' sitting on the head of this poor porter, and because I was sitting with my head facing backward I could only see the people we passed after they had passed us. To my astonishment they would turn their heads around to me and then put out their tongues. I knew this was a Tibetan greeting of great reverence but did not understand why. Not immediately but slowly I came to know my host, Shamsher Man Sherchan, was telling everyone he met that he was escorting the American Dalai Lama. The American Dalai Lama!' (Sugata chuckels with laughter) 'Sherchan liked this role! You see I was in yellow robe, like the Geluypa sect that the Dalai Lama belongs to, so it was a good story on his part.'



A customs post at Dana

The Salt Trade

Although the salt trade was a free trade enterprise established by local people both sides of the borders, the respective ruling governments (in Nepal the Rana's), with an eye for a profitable slice, swiftly slapped on a trade tax. On the Nepali side the salt trade was controlled and levied by Customs Officers appointed by the Rana, and these were from the Tamang Thakali people. Through this position, the Tamang Thakali gained ascendancy throughout the entire Kali Gandaki region.

The Subbas became the 'little kings' of the region. Kathmandu, after all, was a long way from the Kali Gandaki. With administrative and judicial authority, the Subbas controlled the law courts at Kobang and Dana and only cases of genocide and of a political nature did not fall within their jurisdiction. For over half a century the Subba family remained in complete possession of the Kali Gandaki trade, social and political life and not surprisingly they accumulated vast fortunes, houses and land. Of the 24 persons from the 5 generations, 9 Sherchans held the post of Contract Subba.

Forty years ago, when Sugata first came, the lucrative salt trade was only three years dead, killed by the closure of the Tibet boarder in 1957.




'After one week, and with much relief, we came to Tukuche and Sam Sher Chand's substantial house. Here I began to see how the land lay, how this man was like a 'little king' here in this remote valley. His family name was Sherchan, but here he was called the Subba - like the 'headman'. He came from a wealthy Thakali family, and one that once controlled the salt trade down the Kali Gandaki.'


Sonaneli Guru

The Dances    

Shamsher Sherchan garlanded as he enters Tukuche

With the salt trade was dead, Shamsher Man Sherchan, the young son of a family whose birthright it was to trade in salt, found his inheritance unpredictably taken away from him. In order to survive he knew he must find a replacement.

He had the foresight to see something unique in this preserved valley, something which the western world could be interested in.

He had the idea not of trading his cultures material goods - which was a certainty a market opening up at the time, Sugata vouches for this, witnessing European homes decorated with Tara lampshades and the like - no. He thought of marketing the unique masked dances, the celebrations of good over evil. Initially he thought of taking them on tour, to do for Nepal dance what Ram Gopal had done for Indian dance - make it known and loved outside the country, and, by the way, make a living out of it. And he also thought of inspiring people to come and visit the valley to see such dances in situ.

Ahead of his tim - he premeditated a new trade in tourism. The very trade we are part of today.

'Yes', Sugata recalls, 'trade was in Sherchan's blood, and he became outraged when I paid double the market price for a Tibetan prayer wheel, crying "You will ruin the market for me!"' (So he did a bit of material trading to keep the wolf from the door.)

With a promotional marketing aim to capture on film these unique dances, who better to ask than Sugata, this camera-ready monk in yellow robe who he had heard about in Kathmandu, and who had returned to the west, according to Amritananda, where he was doing a fine job evangelising Buddhism. What better combination could he find: a Buddhist publicist, a monk, and a cameraman?


Sherchan's brother



' I asked to photograph these three Tukuche women. They not only dressed up for the occassion, they insisted on reading books. They were illiterate. For my part I insisted that their servant be included in the photograph, which they were not altogether happy with, but finally agreed.

So it was I took this photograh of three illiterate women eyes down reading, and their servant, who looked directly out to the camera, backdroped by the great mountains.'


'Everyday I saw and photographed the industrious preparations for the dances: weaving, cookiong, rose painting.'

There was a bow shooting festival, but the shooters were so drunk no-ones' shot was straight. Oh yes, they had plenty of chang then!



'The preparations were enormous. The nuns came about one week before to make all things clean and prepare the food. I remember one nun weaving who would not have her photograph taken, but she changed her mind; I can remember this only from the photograph I still have.'








'The evening before the day of the dance the masks were hung on the Gompa walls.

They were taken out of their huge trunks where they had been kept under lock and key for the whole year. It was an important ritual. The masks were believed to have special powers and if someone 'unworthy' put one on, they would overpower him with their magic. There were masks of monkeys with crowns on their heads, symbolising our human life hunting after pride and material belongings. There were masks of angels spreading goodness called Gandavas and masks of devils with horns spreading evil, impressive with dark fear.'




Tukuche old Gompa in the landscape of the Kali Gandaki.

'From the first light people started arriving. They came from far away, over 5,000 metre passes, from mountain villages 10 and 20 kilometres away. They arrived dressed in their traditional costume, bright and with gold thread glistening in the sun. The courtyard was full, people clambered on every roof and terrace.'




'The dance began with the arrival of the Guru Rimpoche, protected and at the same time revered, under an umbrella.'


Devil Dances    

'With the dances the whole place came alive with music and masked story.

'Devil Dances' is a European name. Locally they are called Sha Na, or Black Hat. Whatever form they take they all depict the triumph of Buddhism over the earlier 'Bon religion. The triumph of good over evil.

'Originally Sha Na came from a kingdom in Western Tibet called TSHPARANGE / Gunge, where one King Lang Dharma around 842 reigned and persecuted Buddhism, reviving the ancient religion of B'on. A Buddhist monk, disguised as a B'on priest dancer, came to dance before the King. At the climax of the dance, the dancer drew his concealed knife and slew the King. After this came the revival of Buddhism.

The Sha Na dance is a repetition of this event, showing good spirits victorious over bad spirits. These people still today believe that the world is inhabited by spirits and supernatural forces, upon which the monks and specially appointed people, by means of their dancing, perform the rites of expiation and purification to give protection to the people.

In their mask and ritual, the dances enacted all diverse belief systems of the Thak Thakali people: the earliest B'on who worshipped natural phenomena; the White Bon or Bon dKar Lamaist Buddhism that spread down from Tibet in the 12th century; Tantric Mahayana Buddhism, instituted by the Indian saint, Padmasambhava, in Tibet, which in turn influenced by the indigenous Bon Po (Black) faith, becoming a distinct Buddhist religion known as Lamaism, which is still found in the upper Kali Gandaki region.'

'The dancing itself is difficult to describe because neither its purpose nor its form has any parallel in the West.

'Some dances are peaceful and fluid; others violent and so fast the dancers are unable to slow down or control their bodies' trajectory. Some dances are highly ceremonial and stately; others again depict the wrathful protection of specific deities.

In all, the fundamental action is to destroy all obstacles to the purpose of life.

The ceremonies, the eating, the dances, all lasted from sun rise to sun set.

In the evening the masks were ceremonially packed away in the trunks, locked and put away for another year.

Chhairo Gompa    

'While Sherchan attended to his business and prepared for the Devil Dances in Tukuche, he gave me permission to visit other Gompas in the region, and I eagerly took advantage of this opportunity, running here and there with my Leica.

'So it was I came on my own further north than Tukuche, to a small settlement called Chhairo where I found an old Gompa with one old Lama resident.

At the foot of the Earth Touching Buddha were something like 15 beautifully carved wooden and brass Buddha's and Bodhisatvas, some 2 meters high. Painted on the four walls were some well preserved thanka wall paintings. I was deeply impressed and immediately set to photographing them.

'All Gompas have the same square design, with the door always to the east and the main alter at the west, so the first eastern sun ray falls directly on the alter and central Buddha and throughout the day it's beam passes around the Gompa, illuminating different figures or wall paintings. I used this natural light, instead of flash that I always disliked, and passed some days in Chhairo Gompa, sitting waiting for the sun to illuminate each Buddha figure, and then taking my picture. In Chhairo, I remember, I also lit hundreds of butter lamps.'



Chhairo Gompa 2001    

'Ah Rachel, you should see my slides. They have all gone, all the statues and all the wall paintings have gone!' said Sugata turning around in dismay.

'When I came back to Chhairo in 1979 the Gompa was boarded up and uselessly guarded by some Gorkhas. They had bolted the door with the horse gone. They told me that everything that could be moved had been stolen. All the beautiful Buddha's and Bodhisattva's, carved in wood and caste in bronze, all had been taken.

Only the wall paintings and a few fixed altar figures remained, already beginning to deteriorate through water seepage.'






1960 endings    

In once sense, the 1960 mission was a failure. The Lamas did not want to publicise their private ceremonies; they said the dances should never be shown for money.

The hundreds of photographs Sugata took were never sent to Sam Sher Chand. He never saw them. Like the masks, they were put in boxes, where they have remained ever since. Until now that is........

How would it have been had Sherchan's mission been successful? Would he have effectively turned these ancient sacred dances into a touring Gilbert and Sullivan entertainment for the tourists, downgrading their integrity, removing their mystery and mastery of ritual? And would the tourists, dressed like harlots and freaks, come up the valley, invade the sacred spaces to get a good photo, stepping over monks to get the angle they want? Incarnating Buddhism as a tourist attraction and dead as a faith?

Or would the East have been the East, like a willow branch on the Kali Gandaki: easy to bend, easily assimilating all that was thrown at it, yet still remain a willow? In other words, the integrity of the dance, provided it was held this way by the monks, would outlast and withstand any transient passer by, in fact it may enrich those who wandered in its path, teaching us the mystery and mastery of its ritual. Just as Nepalese culture did for Sugata all those years ago, and continues to now.



In Kathmandu rains have started which give a wonderful coolness. Bhuwan is in town. He brings news from Sherchan's widow, who he met at a society wedding in Pokhara. She was so interested to meet Sugata that she has returned early to Kathmandu. I call her the next day to arrange a meeting.

We walk through the tourist packed streets of Thamel, past the Internet cafes, the repetitive shops selling fake North Face Jackets, sweat-shop sewn rucksacks, eager for mercantile business, bustling with activity, and turning into a gateway, find a private garden and house secluded and surprising.

Mrs Sherchan, now 15 years a widow of the entrepreneur Sam Sher Chand who Sugata travelled with in 1960, is an elegant woman of about 60, with a delicate Mongolian face and gentle smile.



Chhairo Gompa circle 2001    

Kamal Dhoj Tulachan, Sashi Dhoj Tulachan's father, in Tukuche, 1960

Sashi Dhoj Tulachan 2001 in front of one of his Thanka paintings in Kathmandu

Sashi Dhoj Tulachan and Sugata discussing pigments.



Early in the conversation with Mrs Sherchan, I'd asked about the Chhairo Gompa, mentioning Sashi Dhoj Tulachan, a name we'd heard from Patrick and Purna in Tukuche. Mrs Sherchan leapt up, found a portable phone, spoke into it, then with no explanation, passed the phone to me. 'Hello?' I said hesitatingly. It was Sashi Dhoj Tulachan, who, of course, was a relation and known to Mrs Sherchan. We must all meet, he said, and we made a rendezvous for the next night at the Kathmandu Guest House.

It was our last evening in Kathmandu. Sashi, Sugata and I sat in the restaurant, as Sash began to tell us about Chhairo. He was a Thanka artist like his father. His father in fact had partly painted and in part restored the original Thanka paintings in Chhairo, so it was with understandable sadness that Sashi witnessed their degradation over the years.

He told us that with a group of others (the Kali Gandaki Foundation Trust) he is raising funds to restore the Chhairo Gompa.

The idea dawns on both of us: perhaps Sugata's unused photographs could be used in some way. Not only as a record of how it was then, but used to help raise some money to restore the crumbling Gompa.

Yes, we both said, let's bring the photographs back to Nepal.

Kamal Dhoj Tulachan and his young son Sashi Thanka painting in Tukuche, 1960

At that point in the evening, Sugata turned to Sashi and said:

'When I came up to Tukuche I visited a Thanka artist. He had two houses: one he lived in and one he used only to paint in, which was little way from his family house to give him isolation and concentration.

I took a photograph of him and another of him with his little son, who was just beginning to lean the art of thanka painting. In the courtyard was a dog and a hen, and I asked if the eggs from the hen provided the yolk for the tempera. 'Yes' said the Lama.'

Sashi's face became more and more incredulous. He lifted his hands in the air, and finally bust in laughter.

'I was that little son!' he said. 'He was my father.'




Part1 in PicturesIndia 1953Nepal 1954 | Kali Gandaki 1960 | Sugata at 90 | Sugata in India 2001 | Norway 1940-2001

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