At an altitude of 14,000 to 17,000 feet in the western parts of Ladakh lives a community of semi-nomadic herders that have lived a self-sustained life for millenniums. Despite the new found connectivity with the modern world, they have continued their wandering lifestyle that is essential for keeping their livestock well fed.
My first brush with Changpa nomads happened a decade ago, when I spotted their rebo–traditional yak-wool tents–at a distance on the long road from Manali to Leh. They had pitched tents on the famous Morey plains faraway from the road that made them look like black spots in the landscape. But smoke rising from the cow-dung stoves revealed what they are. Until that time, I had heard time and again that there are no settlements in the highlands on the difficult road from Manali to Leh. I learned few years later that they were not here just for the warm summer months, but continue to live at high altitudes even in winters, braving temperatures of -25C and lower.
Over the years, I had many encounters with Changpa people during my wanderings in the high-altitude Changthang region adjoining Tibet. A few weeks after I first saw their tents, I had an opportunity to wander in one of their settlements in a place of spell-binding beauty. The land they had chosen was carpeted with lush green grass on a kind of soft ground where you relish walking bare foot. Small streams–springs that emerged from gaps in the ground–crisscrossed the fresh landscape. When you looked up, mountains in every direction were adorned with thick cover of snow on their peaks. The skies appeared eternally blue. Yaks, cows, a few sheep that had not made their way up the mountains and a handful of donkeys grazed happily on the tender grass.
I was lost in the joy of the landscapes wandering aimlessly, when a freak storm hit us unaware. The raindrops were thick enough to hurt and was so cold that my entire face grew numb in a matter of minutes. But in good time, we were called by a friendly Changpa lady into her tent and were rejuvenated with a cup of hot milk.
In the last decade, I have had many such chance encounters and as many planned visits to the Changpas in the unforgiving landscapes of Ladakh. Friends from the community have always welcomed me to the region and have taken me around to places that doesn’t get much attention from outsiders.
Despite being exposed to their way of life for a nearly decade now, I continue to be amazed by their resilience to the harsh weather and tough terrain they live in. In the last few years, a handful of Changpa have attempted to explore an urban lifestyle that offered better comforts, made possible with a boom in tourism in the highlands. And surprisingly, some of them have returned to Changthang to find comfort in their traditional shepherding lifestyle.
Every year, we spend a week with Changpa people, living in their settlements, learning about their culture and photographing their everyday life. Join us on a photography tour to witness, understand and capture the Life of Changpa Nomads on this Photography Tour. Here is a short video that offers a glimpse of their lifestyle.
Nomadic Shepherds of the High Himalayas - YouTube
See it on YouTube for a larger version. If you are reading this over email and can’t see the embedded video preview above this line, you may have to visit the webpage or see on YouTube.
It was a beautiful winter afternoon in the highlands of Ladakh, when sun was shining bright and everything was going just the way we wanted. Driving through Changthang plateau at an altitude of 14,000 feet, we stopped at a small village to handover prints to people whom we had photographed during a previous visit. We had a whole lot of photo prints, which meant we had a chance to meet many of the village folks. At this moment, a bunch of curious children gathered to take a peek at the beautiful prints and thus ensued another session to create more prints.
The kids were happy to see the prints we had brought that day. They were excited to be photographed and we were more than eager to freeze those happy faces. At the blink of an eye, they were all ready to show their teeth and say ‘cheeees’ to the camera one by one. Not cheese; they all said Tashi Delek (a Tibetan/Ladakhi greeting, roughly translates as ‘good luck’) to our cameras. I had to be quick to make sure we have them at their enthusiastic best, before they got distracted with something else, and completed the entire shoot in less than five minutes. The energy was high and the bounty of joy showed up in their faces. Here is what we managed to capture.
See it on YouTube for an HD version. If you are reading this over email and can’t see the embedded video below, you may have to visit the webpage or see on YouTube.
TL;DR1 – it was nearly impossible for me!
TL;DR2 – may be it was possible, if I had superpowers.
Let’s get into the details. I will make this quick with bullet points and try not to make this into a rant. And if you are up to reading beyond the boring facts, continue reading after the bullet-points to know how much fun it was trying to change a ticket booked on Jet Airways website.
It all began when I tried to change the dates of a ticket I had booked on Jet Airways website.
I went to the website, pulled out my ticket details and clicked on the nice big ‘modify’ button. I was ready to pay the fines, difference in fare, non-hidden costs, hidden costs, everything!
What I received was a warning, stating that a ticket booked on ‘Net Banking, <Payment Type 1>, <Payment Type 2>,…’ can’t be modified on the website. It probably listed every possible mode of payment except credit cards. I had booked using Net Banking, which meant I couldn’t modify my ticket on the website (re-checking as I type, which year is this? 1982?). The warning helpfully said, I can call them, which I promptly did.
The Jet Airways staff (let’s call her S for convenience) who picked up the phone helpfully suggested that I might as well cancel the ticket. I did not understand why she suggested so, until I realized how hard the modifications can be. When we checked the monetary benefits (or losses), it turned out that modifying a ticket would save me a few hundred rupees against cancelling and booking a new one (Either ways, I was loosing a fortune).
I insisted that we change the existing ticket. S said ‘I have no issues’. Great!
So we rescheduled the dates, and she mentioned the amount due. Considering that we are in 2018, and considering that I know how telephonic payments work, I kept my debit card ready (the same one associated with Net Banking payment I had initially made). I asked S to put me through IVR for making payment. I thought I was may be a minute away from getting my modified ticket. Turns out, I was counting for the chicken before the egg…
S asks, ‘do you have your credit card ready?’. I said ‘yes,’ as a matter of fact and then I thought let me be technically correct and said ‘it’s a debit card‘. Anyway, what difference would it make as long as it can draw some money?
S says, ‘No sir, we don’t accept debit cards’. Only credit cards are okay! I grumbled, and unwillingly took out a credit card, which I did not really want to use for this payment. Well, at least let me get this job done and move on with life. So, with the credit card out, am I a minute away from getting the modified ticket? Well, not so soon.
Next question: ‘the card is issued by which bank?’ I thought this question was unwarranted. But remember I wanted to be done with this and move on with my beautiful life? So I gave the name. Just for your information, it was issued by one of the big private banks.
The next thing I hear made it certain that I can’t move on with my beautiful life that easily. ‘Sir, we can’t accept credit card issued from ‘that bank”. Well, no debit cards, no other forms of payment except credit cards, and definitely not the card issued by the bank you use! S went on to provide technical reasons on why they can’t use my bank’s card etc.
After this, I do remember asking S if we are operating in 2018. But this is all not the fault of ‘S,’ whose job is just to answer the phone and do what she is allowed to do, so I decided to take it easy (I need to quickly move on to my beautiful life, remember?) and asked her what are my options to pay. The answers were convincing enough that we are in 1982.
I could go to the airport within the next one hour and make the payment there OR I can of course make payment using a credit card except from the one that I have.
I did consider using my super-human powers to fly across the city and get to the airport in the next few minutes. But DGCA does not permit flying objects (and super-humans) near airports. The law-abiding good super-human that I am, I decided not to take that option. What else was left? Well, when it’s a checkmate, there are no options left. Just bow down, accept your defeat and move on in life. Precisely what I did.
Now, the Jet Airways staff on the phone was polite, professional and did her duty to the extent of her abilities. While I wasn’t exactly super-excited with the professional courtesy offered by the customer service executive, I realized there is little to gain with making an argument. I was reasonably certain that things won’t change in my favour and some CFO at Jet Airways won’t come on the line and change their systems to make things better for me. So, no arguments were made and no humans were physically hurt (either me, or S) during the making of this conversation.
But here is largely how I felt the chatter was like.
Me: I want to change the ticket. Your website isn’t letting me.
S: Of course we will do that for you. First please stand upside-down so that we can continue with this process.
Me: Umm… okay, I am not sure why, but I need this done. So I shall comply. Take this – here is a photo of me to prove that I am now standing upside down.
S: That’s good, sir. But you need to tie your legs to a rope and have the rope dangle from a hook, so some one can pull you up as needed. This is required for modifying the tickets.
Me: Sure ma’m. I comply.
S: Good, you are now on the right path, sir. Almost done. Now the next step: get yourself inside a loaded cannon. That way, if you need to be transported to the airport in a short time, we can blast you off effortlessly.
Me: Of course, sounds like fun. I am now all ready to get the changed ticket. Let’s go for it. You guys rock!
S: Alright then, what you are waiting for, put the phone down and blast yourself off to the airport, or your destination, or may be outer space, wherever. Let’s get done with this.
Me: Yayy! I am so grateful for this. Thank you very much.
To conclude with a sober note, Jet Airways was one of my preferred airline until recently. This, and a few other things I wasn’t very comfortable with (hint: look at their cancellation/change fees) have now pushed the airline much down the order. I would certainly prefer to see my life being easier than having to make the physically impossible task of reaching the airport within an hour.
The year is almost coming to an end. Here is that customary post with a bunch of images as I look back into the year.
I did not travel much in the first half of the year, but became slightly more active from August onwards. In August, I went on a trek in Uttarakhand Himalayas where the landscapes were just out of the world. In September, I visited Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, driving through its highlands and spending days with the semi-nomadic shepherds. My tryst with shepherds continued in October, this time at the highlands of Ladakh. My next rendezvous was in Andaman islands in November, leaving December for some quiet time at home. Here is a collection of images from these journeys.
Sunrise from Dochu La Pass, Bhutan.
A few more images from Bhutan that I enjoyed making.
For many years now, I have had a wish to meet and photograph the falconers of Central Asia. The falconers, also called Eagle Hunters, train eagles to hunt small animals and are usually found in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries. I was in Kyrgyzstan last September, where I had an opportunity to spend a few hours speaking to and photographing an Eagle Hunter.
The eagles–a golden eagle in this case–are usually picked up from the nest at an early age. A falconer keeps them for about twenty years and subsequently releases them in the wild. This is a practice that perhaps helped perpetuate their population in the wild during the times when eagle hunting was a common practice across Central Asia.
These eagles have a wingspan of about five feet, almost as long as a man’s hands stretched wide open. You hear a powerful swoosh and feel the air currents when they flap the wings and dive into the prey.
Despite their size, they only weigh about five to eight kilos, and yet feel heavy on the hand on which they are perched. I had the privilege to hold this one briefly, and the the bird weighed down heavily on my hands. It must have been some effort for this falconer to raise the eagle high-up, where he held it for quite some time.
Perhaps the eagles develop a good bonding with the falconer as the bird grows up with him. This eagle was very friendly and did not mind us getting closer or petting its feathers. As you get closer, it’s evident how powerful these birds are: the beaks are visibly strong and the talons are tough as metal and as large as human palms. It can easily lift away a fox or a goat with very little effort.
During a hunt, the falconer usually goes up a hill for a better view, and releases the eagle to catch and bring back the prey. A successful hunt is rewarded with a piece of meat that the bird devours eagerly. It’s a spectacle to watch the bird swoop in on a prey at the blink of an eye.
Note: This is just a rant, but I think there are some important safety considerations to keep in mind (and for Uber to ponder about) here. Read on if you have the time.
Let’s first begin with a question that I enjoyed asking, after repeatedly trying to highlight some issues and not getting the answers. You will probably enjoy reading the answer.
29 September 2017 at 16:05
To: Uber Support
Alright. Here is one more question. Since I am receiving the same copy-paste replies without addressing my problem or concern, I was wondering if these questions are answered by humans or robots? Would look forward to hearing on this.
And here is the response from Uber.
I’ve done complete research and can inform that the airport charges on your trip are correct.
Tolls, fees, and surcharges can apply in different situations, but are most common around bridge and tunnel crossings, highways, and airport. You can know more about tolls/airport fees here I was charged a toll, surcharge, or fee.
As the charges are correct for your trip, I’ll not be able to make any adjustments for your trip.
For further questions, please write to us and Uber will be glad to assist you.
Your understanding is highly appreciated.
Sent by <Uber Support Person> on Friday, September 29, 2017 at 10:59:35 AM
Now let’s get into the details.
On my many journeys to the airport and back in Bangalore, I was used to booking Uber for the journey. I once used the comfortable BMTC buses, but due to some logistical inconveniences with it, I got used to plying on Uber in the last year or two. Until a recent experience made me switch again for good.
It was a simple issue of double payments towards the toll (Rs.125), but the complete lack of support from Uber and their ignorance towards some safety concerns that I subsequently raised, made me stop using their services ever since. Here is what happened:
At the toll gate on the way back from airport, the driver asked me to pay the toll. This was a bit of surprise for me, as the toll is usually included in Uber’s bill. But I normally don’t question these things during the ride. I presumed that the rules may have changed recently, or perhaps the driver may have wanted an advance (My payment option was cash). So I paid the toll without further ado. When the ride ended, the driver presented me the full fare, which I paid again without questioning.
I checked the bill next morning and saw that the fare included the toll. I wrote to Uber, indicating that I had paid the toll and yet my bill included the toll, and asked them to credit the excess payment. Even when I emailed them, I was least concerned, as this has happened to me in the past and Uber was prompt to credit my account for the double payment.
But this time, I was in for a surprise. Uber not only did not credit my excess payment, their customer-service repeatedly sent me emails that did not exactly make a lot of sense to me. They not only did not clearly acknowledge the double payment initially, but their emails did not seem to address my concern.
Essential parts of the email-exchange will follow. But this brought me to greater concerns that I wanted to see Uber addressing. When Uber support seemed to not answer some of my questions directly, I wanted to have a phone conversation. But Uber did not offer phone support, and it made me further concerned about potential concerns of safety in using Uber. I took this up over emails below, but most of my questions were ignored. The emails here below. Some repetitive back-and-forth emails that were essential for this story have been omitted:
It all began with my support request on Uber website:
Toll Or Parking Location : Airport Road Toll Or Parking Fee Amount : 125 How Much Did You Pay Your Driver For The Toll Or Parking Fee? : 125 Share Additional Details : I paid this toll
Sent by Arun on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 9:03:27 PM
And here is the response from Uber
Thanks for reaching out. Anytime your driver goes through a toll or travels into an area with a surcharge, that amount will be added to the fare automatically. These tolls, fees, and surcharges are most common around bridge and tunnel crossings, highways, and airports. In this case, your driver may not necessarily have to pass and pay at a toll booth.
On reviewing your trip, I see that the toll/surcharge BLR Airport Toll (12:00 AM – 11:59 PM) is applicable as per the route taken, hence I can confirm that you have been charged correctly. The same was listed in your trip receipt as well.
Hope this helps!
The response was prompt, efficient, and did not resolve my problem!
It was a while since I had had to connect with Uber support, and earlier, I was used to seeing my issues being resolved quickly. This was a surprise. And I did not know this was going to drag for a long time. My subsequent responses:
This was included in the price until recently and the driver used to pay this amount. Is there a change in the way this is done?
Sent by Arun B. on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 9:19:29 PM
Also, my receipt says: toll, surcharges and fees – Rs. 284. Can you break this down into details? I paid the driver Rs. 860 and in addition I also paid the toll of Rs. 125 separately at the toll gate. My total spend is 860+125. I think Rs. 125 is to be paid by the driver at the toll gate but he asked me to pay it!
Sent by Arun B. on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 9:23:54 PM
The response from Uber below. It did not look anything like they were interested in looking at the double payment.
Happy to explain. Generally, anytime your driver goes through a toll or travels into an area with a surcharge, that amount will be added to the fare.
During airport rides to [mention the City] Airport, [pickup/drop], a Airport Convenience Fee (12:00 AM – 11:59 PM) of INR 125.00 is applicable. This fee includes the parking fee, CESS fees and other relative taxes that need to be paid to the Airport.
The driver partner needs to pay this in order to provide service to/from the Airport hence, we have a flat rate which is applied on the trip fare. Since, this is the same for all the riders, unfortunately, we cannot make any exceptions for this.
Please understand that this charge is solely compensate the driver-partner to make sure that his economics is not affected.
Hope this clarifies your concern.
Normally, I stop at this point and not bother to use the service provider again. It wasn’t much money to pursue further and waste my time. But looks like my ego came in the way and I had to keep at it! It particularly hurt me with the part of the message that said: “we cannot make any exceptions for this”. I was seeking an exception to paying toll, according to them?! If you haven’t already noticed it, go back and see how the support person did not even take enough time replace [mention the City] & [pickup/drop] in the above email! Clearly, Uber support staff did not even consider replacing the name of the city in their canned replies!
The conversation continued. Here is what I replied:
I’m not sure if you have tried to understand my issue. Please go through the issue on double payment I mentioned again.
1. I paid the toll to the toll collector at the toll booth.
2. The toll was also included in my bill. So I paid the full fare to your driver which included a toll component. So I paid toll twice. I need this refunded.
If you don’t understand any of what I said, let’s please have a call where I can explain. I think you understand that it would be painful to keep repeating the same story here. Would one of you wise guys resolve the double payment issue, or if you think I have difficulty understanding you, can someone speak to me and explain? I understand if you are no further bothered and send canned replies that have things like [city] not replaced in the response. Just say that you are not interested in handling this any more and I’ll just move on to find my other options and not bother you anymore!
Sent by Arun B. on Saturday, September 16, 2017 at 4:45:28 PM
Response to this, is where things turned bad! Uber was bold enough to indicate that the money I paid to the driver is my problem and Uber has nothing to do with it. Read below.
Happy to explain. Generally, anytime your driver goes through a toll or travels into an area with a surcharge, that amount will be added to the fare.
During airport rides to Bangalore Airport pickup, an Airport Convenience Fee (12:00 AM – 11:59 PM) of INR 125.00 is applicable. This fee includes the parking fee, CESS fees and other relative taxes that need to be paid to the Airport.
Please understand that this charge is solely compensated the driver-partner to make sure that his economics is not affected.
Unfortunately, any amount that is paid above the trip fare is considered an exchange outside the Uber system and so, we’ll not be able to make a refund in this case.
I understand that you would like to speak on the phone about this concern. Though we don’t currently provide phone service, I’ll be happy to work with you via email to fully resolve your issue as quickly as possible.
I request you to please share the details via email for me to be able to help you this will also ensure that the right team gets in touch with you for the resolution.
Hope this clarifies your concern.
Appreciate your understanding.
This is where I felt some concerns for safety of the passenger. If I had refused to pay the toll when asked by the driver, it could lead to a potential altercation with the driver. I think we all agree that at times these things may even turn violent. The other option would be to call Uber to resolve this. But Uber doesn’t provide a way to reach them. If a passenger ends up with some kind of an altercation with the driver, the above response seemed to indicate that Uber will not take any responsibility and never bother about it.
It is time to remember from the past: severe safety concerns were raised with Uber in an incidence of serious crime associate with an Uber driver in 2014 (See http://bit.ly/2AaGriH – Indian Express).
I decided to extend this further and question Uber about my concerns of safety riding with them. I also decided it may be a good time to work on a story for this blog, considering that I am spending so much time on this. It was no more about the Rs.125 that I believe needs to be returned to me.
I have studied your response carefully and it looks like this is turning out to be an interesting story. Based on your response, and especially in concern with the statement mentioned in quote below, I would like Uber’s views and response regarding a few questions I have.
The statement in question: “Unfortunately, any amount that is paid above the trip fare is considered an exchange outside the Uber system and so, we’ll not be able to make a refund in this case.”.
With reference to this, I have the following questions. Kindly state your response to these. For your reference I have also attached a copy of toll-receipt, which was paid by me.
1. I presume that you acknowledge that the toll is included in the fare (Rs.860). This has been acknowledged by you already. I also presume that the driver is aware that the toll is included in the fare. In the event the driver is not informed by you that the toll is included in the fare, please state so. If the driver is informed by you that the toll is included in the final fare presented to the customer, please state so. Kindly let me know which is the case.
2. In the event that the driver is aware that the toll is included in the fare, and still asks the customer to pay the toll, this indicates that the customer has paid the toll twice, which should not to be the case. Do you acknowledge this? Please let me know a yes or no, with any substantiation if you want to add.
3. In addition, assuming that the driver is aware that the toll is part of the fare, and still asks the customer to pay at the toll gate, I would like to understand how Uber expects that customer to handle this situation. A possibility is that the customer can refuse the payment. This may also result in an altercation, potentially compromising the safety of the customer. From your statement above, I understand that Uber doesn’t acknowledge to take any initiative or responsibility if the driver demands money that shouldn’t be demanded from the customer. Can you please acknowledge this? And also, can you please state what is Uber’s stand in protecting the customers (a) money AND (b) safety in such situations.
Your response would be helpful in better understanding your stand in such (and similar) situations. My refund claim itself, we can look at it later after knowing your response on the above situation.
Also please note: since you do not provide any phone support, I recommend that you respond to this email in detail and with full clarity without leaving room for assumptions. As email communications aren’t simple for getting clarifications and counter-questions, a detailed response will help me make a clear understanding and work on this further. In addition to the above, also kindly answer to the question below: Your support is signed with the following footer: Uber B.V. Vijzelstraat 68, 1017 HL Amsterdam, Nederland Kindly let us know if Uber Support is provided by Uber in India, or all communications with Uber and customers is handled by an entity in Netherlands.
Sent by Arun B. on Monday, September 25, 2017 at 12:38:46 PM
It is at this point that all the responses from Uber became just repeating the old statements, and none of the issues that I raised here were responded to. Their answer, below, simply ignored most of my concerns on safety.
Instead, it even had strange references to the possibility of the driver paying the toll I not having seen it!
Thanks for writing in. Totally understand your concern here!
I’ve verified that the charge of INR 125.00 was correctly charged on your trip. The charge is applicable to pick ups and drop offs
The toll paid and it shows up on your Uber receipt, rest assured – all fees applied are valid. In certain cases, these charges are directly paid to the airport authorities.
Also, if you don’t see your driver paying the toll he may have paid the toll before picking you up. Only on provision of a receipt on their end, do we make their payments. Please do not worry, you’ve been fairly charged and the toll will be promptly paid for.
Hope this helps. See you in an Uber soon.
I followed up again, hoping to get answers on 26th, 27th and 29th September, and again on 1st and 6th October, repeating and reiterating the same questions. I also clearly stated that I am working on a story and your answers may go into the story. Yet, the responses were just reiteration of the same above statements or something similar. My safety concerns were never addressed and were completely ignored.
The responses, it also appeared to me, often did not even tally with my request. For example, one of the responses said:
At Uber, we aim to provide a seamless service to our riders. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case here and I’m sorry to have heard about your experience on this trip.
I completely understand your frustration and if it were me, I would not have felt any different.
Always know, your feedback is really important and we are here to ensure that we resolve every issue you encounter. We ensure that with every concern raised to us, improvements are being made to better the rider experience.
Rest assured, your feedback has been recorded.
As always, please feel free to let us know if you have any further queries and we’d be glad to assist you.
I finally ran out of patience and quit this communication game. And needless to say, my days of using Uber for commuting to airport were over. This is a superbly genericresponse that can be used for practically any complaints or queries without ever addressing the problem!
At some point in time, such non-relevant responses were all that I was receiving for my questions and I had another doubt. This is where the ‘robot question’ that I mentioned in the first place came into picture.
More on Uber and Safety
I did not really encounter a safety issue while on an Uber so far, but was concerned about a genuine possibility of running into problems, and was trying to understand how Uber would respond in such case. Perhaps I was becoming more aware of them; but between the time this exchange happened and now, I saw several more people having run into genuine safety issues when booked on Uber.
And then there was another incident with Uber at Hyderabad.
What is concerning here is not just the incidences of violence, but also how Uber responded to it. If Uber SOS says ‘we can’t help, call the police’, it is certainly something to ponder about.
It concerns me that Uber doesn’t have a way to reach out them immediately in case something needs to be resolved on the road. In addition, the kind of customer service I experienced in the above situation doesn’t warrant much trust.
I am no longer using Uber for my frequent airport trips. I have found a better, cheaper and very helpful service from home to airport. On the way back, I have returned to using BMTC buses. I am still using Uber occasionally for some short-distance travel, only when they are the last available option. Hopefully, I can stop using them altogether.
At global level too, recent incidences about how Uber has been in news, including paying hackers to bury a data breach incidence doesn’t instill much confidence in the company.
Unless Uber does something significant to reinstate the trust, they will not be among my first options as a means of commute in the city.
There are some spectacles of nature that make you loose your senses and gasp in utter wonderment. I was witness to one such moment a month ago – an unmatched show of the Himalayan might and grandeur as the sun shined on the Panchchuli Peaks and clouds wandered around the body of the mountains, dancing to create a spectacle of light and shade that left me breathless. If I were to die that moment, I would end in utter happiness with an expression of winder permanently etched in my eyes. It was a feeling beyond happiness that falls hopelessly short in words.
The previous day, we had walked through relentless rain and thick blanket of fog that appeared to be endless. Raindrops lashed on our umbrellas making loud enough spatter to drown our own voices. The trail was magnificent nonetheless, taking us through carpets of wildflowers in all of the rainbow colours, and rocky wastelands where the brahmakamala bloomed snowy bright. We were often on a no-more-than-a-foot wide walkway that dropped into gorges with invisible depths vanishing into the fog. Each step reminded me the scale of the mountains, shifting my moods from wonder to terror from moment to moment. Small flowers caressed my feet and filled me with joy, forcing each step into a careful act of love while the giant boulders we crossed incited instants of anxiety. We walked all through the day along wet, foggy landscapes without knowing where we were and not seeing where we were headed, without even a glimpse of mountains across the horizon, blinded by the white blanket and wishing to get on the other side of it.
Every bridge is eventually crossed and every storm has to subside. Our wait lasted a full day before the mountains revealed their meridians next morning. We had spent a night camped in the wilderness without realizing the magical landscapes we had arrived into. On the day-break, a shining Mt.Maiktoli smiled at us and blessed us with all that we had longed for. The morning sun cast a pink glow on the soft-white peak, sent a battalion of clouds to dance around the lineup of snow peaks, and asked if he can be of any more service.
More service, I did ask the sun for! Accepting an unusual insight that dawned into me, I climbed up to a steep ridge behind me struggling more than a half-an-hour on a steep ascent where a small slip could well be my last, and landed on another wonderland of light and shade created by the master craftsman that was unmatched to anything that I had seen in all my life’s wanderings. The Panchachuli peaks stood there, right under the sun, in all of their glory exposed. Clouds formed all around them, swiftly changing locations, each time creating a jaw-dropping formation. They formed many varied constitutions and each time seemed to ask me how do they look, and if I wanted more. Of course, I wanted more. And I had no answers to the ‘how do we look’ question; I was numbed by the beauty, my mind had long since stopped working and there was nothing left for me to say or think. I could stop living that moment and never ask for anything more than what I witnessed that resplendent morning!
A mountain madness that took me through endless rains, ridges that passed through absurdly steep edges and magical high-altitude landscapes. We walked relentlessly, often through pouring rain and blanket of fog without knowing where we are and what was around us. But what we could see–trees that appeared eerie in the fog, fertile high-altitude meadows that supported an army of livestock, spooky high-altitude landscapes and endless fields of colourful flowers–kept us going. One morning, goddess Nanda Devi was pleased with our endeavour and decided to lift the clouds and show us her magic. Magic, it was!
Here is a short time lapse movie of what unfolded in front of our eyes.
High in the mountains - a magnificent morning in the lap of mother Nanda Devi - YouTube
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About three years ago, when I was last in Hampi, I made a few images of the place with a cell-phone camera. I thought they aren’t bad, although they were technically inferior. (See earlier post on Hampi with cell-phone camera).
I was back in Hampi last week, leading our photography tour with a bunch of high-energy folks. I continued to shoot with phone-camera. The technical quality of images have improved, but continues to be a long way from DSLR-like image quality. But they are now perhaps reasonably good for small-screen viewing, and you may not find evident technical issues in a small screen.
Here is a collection of images I made. The important trick shooting with a phone-camera, I realize, is to not go after challenging situations, avoid tricky lighting, keep it simple and pay more attention to composition. For those who can’t stop asking ‘what camera?’, this is a new not-yet-in-the-market phone-camera devised through cutting edge research on a project conceived by a consortium of phone makers and camera companies to create unparalleled next-generation high fidelity mobile imaging solutions, provided to me on early access. For those who have feet on the ground (which is pretty much everyone who is reading this, including you, I am sure): the last set of images in 2014 were shot with a Samsung S3 and the ones below are made using a Xiaomi MI 5.
This tour was fun. It was open exclusively to people who had attended our tours and workshops in the past. Interacting with all the regular travellers, three days flew-by in no time!
Among all the places that I photographed in Hampi, Hemakuta Hill was probably the most photogenic and yielded well for photography with a fixed focal-length lens. Above image of one of the much-photographed two-storey Mantapa was made at Hemakuta.
Another structure now in vogue with photography enthusiasts, also at Hemakuta Hill.
The passage around queen’s bath, a rather opulent swimming pool for it’s times are very photogenic.
The lotus Mahal–a hangout for the women in the palace–glows beautifully during sunset. Only, we did not have so much of a very good sunset this evening. A beautiful orange sun filtered through a thin veil of clouds, and wasn’t strong enough to bask the orange walls of Lotus Mahal.
Many of the temples in Hampi aren’t live and the deities aren’t worshiped as most of them have been destroyed to certain degree over time. Here is one of the few temples that are still active.
The above temple is also one of the few that has an intact, undamaged gopura. Walking down the hill where the temple is located, we played a small game, trying to portray the temple gopura with difference interesting foregrounds.
Landscapes of Hampi.
The Virupaksha Temple, boasting the tallest gopura in all of Hampi, is surrounded by boulder-strewn hills all around it.
Another view of the two-storey mantapa at Hemakuta Hill.
A bunch of my images in 2016… A year when I did not travel much, and did not shoot much but immensely enjoyed whatever little photography I did.
A genial monk from Dhankar Monastery in Zanskar region. He was a delight to be with as he showed us around the prayer hall of the ancient monastery. The hall was barely lit, with a skylight in the center providing a diffusion of light. The drooping decoratives all around created interesting variation of light, which was not easy to identify for an untrained eye. At one point where he stood and talked, there was such a joyous gradient of light on his face that my heart skipped a beat! There was a bit of anxiety: what if he moved before I pressed the shutter? The moment would have never come back. Fortunately, it was frozen before it was too late!
Theyyams are tough to describe in words. There are many words to pick from: celebratory, eerie, scary, adventurous, pious,.. They are all right in their own way. There are a variety of Theyyam too, and each one comes with its own charm. The Kandanar Kelan Theyyam has the artist jumping over fire several times. And each time the artist makes him move, the blaze is made stronger by the assistants who facilitate the whole thing. It’s a treat o watch: there is fear, there is awe and there is a deeply ingrained sense of devotion.
This shoot took its share of planning. We would just have a handful of occasions to get it right; the setting and the crowd wouldn’t permit a lot of moment. This meant making all preparations: finding the right place well before the performances began, putting on the right lens and pre-imagining the shots that can be made. Thanks to some excellent, meticulous guidance from a local photographer who had been shooting Theyyams for a long while, it was all much easier.
It’s easy to fall in love with rural Rajasthan. The turbans, the smiles and the generous dose of colours! It helps when an old king sets up an extraordinarily enjoyable accommodation in a nondescript village. Somewhere in the heart of Mewar, where time hasn’t advanced fast enough.
Zanskar is raw! I was out in the open, against the howling wind, completely immersed in the beauty of the mountain-landscape and barely conscious of anything else in this world. This is probably how heaven feels. I was warm in my down jacket even when the wind-chill much have made the ‘feels-like’ temperature below zero. I was standing in amazement for good half-an-hour after everyone went into the comforts of their tents. When it was finally time to call it a day, I realized that my hands, exposed to the wind, were so numb that I had great difficulty folding the tripod and get it back to my cocoon.
Villages of Nagaland is where one can easily fall in love with people. Everyone is so enthusiastic, everyone is so bubbly. You can’t but get carried away in the moment.
Their houses are as cozy as their warm hearts. Speak a word and you are immediately dragged into their homes for a cup of tea. Or do I call it a cup of joy?
Even as much as I loved the light in the image, I was rather unhappy with the outcome of this photograph: I wasn’t able to capture that exuberant spirit of a Naga household, which I so wished for!
The mother-and-son pair were so beautiful, so calm and so endearing, they gave me a heart-ache. In a small village surrounded by thick woods, in Nagaland.
The chief of a small village in Nagaland. He knew he was the boss, and had the style to justify his position.
An absolute gentleman on the streets of Varanasi. Our eyes met, and he smiled, smiled and smiled until we filled our cameras with unlimited number of images. As if he knew we were coming, he was sitting in gorgeous light and a perfect background. Just what the photographer could order.
It always amazes me: people who pray for the wellness of themselves, their people and perhaps for all of the world. I do not know if faith moves the world, but their faith is very moving. And it is visible and apparent how the faithful draw their strength from it. Varanasi, for me, is an eternal engima. I always have more questions than answers. And I am always happy to have it that way!.
I have heard big about the rush in Mumbai local. Being claustrophobic, I am glad I haven’t been a witness to it yet. An early morning in CST, it was still empty. And as you can see, there was a dash of colour that livened up the otherwise grey space.
Somewhere outside Bangalore, one of those kind of places where you can forget yourself.
The waves came and went, and they were very consistent at what they did. It was plenty of opportunity for me to get the precise image that I had drafted in my mind. A few dozen images later, I was finally happy with what I saw registered in the camera. At Gokarna, on a beautiful winter morning.
The blues of blue-city–Jodhpur–can sometimes become an excess. But you will always find relief. There is no shortage of colours in Rajasthan.
And the river continues to flow… freely down the mountains, without all the impressions that are encountered along the way. Near Rangdum Village, Zanskar.