Tibetan Buddhism Photography
Tibet is easily one of the most photogenic regions on the planet. The land is filled with glacier-covered mountains, rugged wilderness, yak-filled grasslands, farming villages, nomadic communities, ancient monasteries and traditional Himalayan culture. Photography in Tibet is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, where you can rub shoulders with the Buddhist pilgrims at Jokhang Temple, watch the first rays of the sun hitting Mount Everest, partake of the traditional butter tea with real Tibetan families, and wander around a thousand-year-old Tibetan village. These are just a few of the many reasons why Tibet is a paradise for photographers.
You can rub shoulders with the Buddhist pilgrims at Jokhang Temple
And then there is Buddhism. One of the most mystical religions in the world, Buddhism is the path of practice and spiritual development leading to insight into the true nature of reality. It is the main religion of Tibet and is practiced by almost every living Tibetan on the plateau. Within the Buddhist religion are the monks, devoutly religious people, who have devoted their lives to the search for spiritual enlightenment, and the teaching of the Buddhist scriptures to others. Religious life in Tibet revolves around monks and monasteries, and the Tibetan monks and lamas are the students and teachers of this intensely spiritual religion, playing a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries.
Why Is Tibet the Best Place for Portrait Photography?
Why is Tibet so attractive to foreign photographers? Tibet is such a unique and amazing place that the camera can come alive in your hands, and even the most basic camera can take some spectacular photographs. The clear blue sky and thinner atmosphere make for a better level of ambient light, which makes the photos and images sharper and clearer than at lower altitudes. And what better place to take some portrait photographs. With such stunning backdrops and the beautiful clear sky, there is no better place in the world to have your portrait photos taken, from lakeside to lamasery, and mountain to the monastery. Small wonder it has become the most popular place for many Chinese to have their portrait photos and wedding photos were taken.
With their deeply religious beliefs, the Tibetan people revere their monks and lamas, and the practice of Buddhism is one of intense prayer and deeply spiritual religious practices. Scenes of Tibetans burning juniper branches and wafting the smoke around or casting small pieces of paper with religious scriptures into the air are just some of the amazing sights you can catch with your lens.
The Tibetan monks and lamas is also a subject that photographers like to shoot
Similarly, the Tibetan monks and lamas are also a popular subject for photography, both amateur and professional. In their deep red robes, with their unusual headgear and smiling happy faces, they are unique in the world and set against the backdrop of the stunning Tibetan scenery, these deep and spiritual people show the religious culture of the region in all its glory. From the mountains and grasslands to the ancient, colorful monasteries, seeing and photographing the monks and lamas of Tibet is something many professional photographers can only dream of.
Top Scenes for Tibetan Buddhism Photography
There are many places where you can take photographs of Tibetans in their beautiful land, but for the monks, it is a different matter. While you can see the ordinary people all over the region, to get photographs of the monks not only requires you to get their permission, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. One of the best places is during a monastic debate.
Buddhism is a "wisdom tradition," meaning that it is based on the realizations or insights of the historical Buddha and that it holds that all suffering and even the suffering of death are related to a failure of wisdom. One is freed only by wisdom, by seeing the nature of things. In Tibetan monastic universities, a sophisticated and very dynamic method of philosophical debate is used by the monks and nuns to penetrate the meaning of Buddha's teachings about the nature of reality, and it is a fascinating spectacle to watch.
Debates among monks on the Buddhist doctrines are integral to the learning process in the colleges and monasteries of Tibet. This facilitates a better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy to attain higher levels of study. The debate among monks unfolds in the presence of their teachers, with well-set rules of procedure for the defender and the questioners. The defender has the onus to prove his point of view on the subject proposed for debate. The roles of the debater and the questioner are well defined; the questioner has to succinctly present his case (all on Buddhism related topics) and the defender has to answer within a fixed period.
Sera Monastery is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism. One of the unique things about Sera is its long tradition of debating. As part of their training, monks participate in a series of debates that are held in a courtyard of crushed stone, where the senior monks' grill junior monks on various doctrines. The junior monks are seated, while the monks questioning their knowledge of Buddhist scripture fire questions at them, accompanied by dramatic hand slapping. The hand slapping is a signal for the seated monk to respond. A great opportunity to see and photograph Tibetan Buddhist debates, the occasions are very noisy, and the air is charged with energy.
These debates can be seen in many other monasteries across Tibet, including Drepung, Tashi Lhunpo, and Ganden. At each location in Tibet, the debates are held under eight debating schedules in a year, depending on the rituals and festivals observed during the whole year. Each daily session is held between eight breaks when students debate on issues of Buddhist scriptures and related subjects. Normally, this session starts at around 3 pm, local time, and lasts for 3-4 hours.
You may need to control the shutter speed when taking dynamic photos of the monks. A large aperture and high sensitivity can help you shoot better still and clear moments, but sometimes, in order to highlight the dynamics of movement, you need to slow down the shutter speed to achieve the desired effect.
Tibetan Monks’ Costume
Tibet has the largest number of monks in the world and most of its people are followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan monks or lamas play an important role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries. Therefore, the costumes of Tibetan monks are also a significant part of Tibetan culture.
Monks live as simply as possible and follow the model of the Buddha, who traded in his clothing for simple robes. Tibetan monks shave their heads and faces to discourage vanity, and have traditionally lived a cloistered existence. Traditional costumes of monks include a waistcoat, a monk skirt and a kasaya, which is simple and grave. Robes are the most common costume of Tibetan monks.
Monks usually wrap dark red kasaya, twice the body's length, obliquely on their shoulders. When monks pray, they wear a red cloak made of wool, which is called Dagang in Tibetan. After the monks are promoted to Gexi (the highest academic degree of Tibetan Buddhism), their waistcoats are rimmed with satin borders, and they hang satin water bags on their waists, in which is a small bottle for mouth-rinsing. Monks who are responsible for blowing suona horn and monastic bugle may also wear these things as ornaments. In daily life, a monk wears a shawl with the front and the back decorated with yellow cloth, and a long skirt, and drapes another long shawl that is approximately 2.5 times the length of his height.
Tibetan Monks’ Costume
Hats are also an important costume for Tibetan monks and distinctive feature of different schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Monks of different sects can be distinguished by their coronary caps. For example, senior monks of the Nyingma Sect wear lotus caps shaped like thrones. Monks of the Sakya Sect wear heart-shaped caps called the "sakya cap." The golden-rimmed red caps, which were also said to be granted by an emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, but were later changed to yellow caps by Tsong-kha-pa. Monks' attire is determined by rigid rules, while nuns' attire is determined mostly by their financial situation. Their waistcoats may be rimmed with satin, but their skirts and kasaya are usually made of tweed. Sometimes they patch a piece of satin on their shoes to represent their different status.
Tibetan monk’ boots are made of leather on the bottom. Ordinary monks wear "summer summa" boots, while monks in high status wear thick satin shoes. When monks pray, they don’t wear shoes from ordinary monks to eminent monks in order to express their devotion.
Monks’ costume with minimal change is the most complete and traditional in the whole Tibetan costume culture. With the economic development of Tibet and its gradual opening to the outside world, the style of Tibetan costume is undergoing changes. They try to keep pace with the fashion while maintaining its ethnic features. Now it is not unusual to see Buddhist monks and nuns wear sports shoes and watches.
While the monks in the far reaches of Tibet often wear the simple robes of their order, in Lhasa, and especially during festivals, the monks and lamas are often seen wearing their finest robes, with clean, well-adorned hats and the colorful leather boots and silk or satin shoes.
Best Tibetan Festivals for Photographing Tibetan Accessories
During many of the festivals in Lhasa, you can see the monks parading in their best dress, especially around the areas of the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, and Barkhor Street. The kora for Jokhang, which follows Barkhor Streets all the way around the temple, is filled with monks, lamas, and ordinary people, all dressed in their finest clothes, as they perform the ritual walk around the temple.
Festivals are the Tibetan way of celebrating historic events and significant religious ceremonies. This is a great time to explore much more of the Tibetan way of life, the fancy festival costumes, and the religion and culture of the Tibetan people. There are many holidays and festivals in Buddhism, which have evolved and gained great popularity among Tibetans, such as Tibetan New Year, Butter lantern festival and Shoton festival.
Chamo Dance in Tibetan Festival
Held every year at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, the Shoton is the great Thangka Unveiling ceremony, which is one of the most important rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover, it is a great place to get photos of the monks and lamas in full ceremonial costume, carrying and unrolling the giant Thangka painting on the hillside behind the monastery.
Saga Dawa at Kailash
Another of the great festivals of Tibetan Buddhism, the Saga Dawa celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha Sakyamuni, and is an excellent opportunity to get photos of the ceremonial dress of the monks and local Tibetans. Set against the backdrop of the holy Mt. Kailash, this makes one of the pinnacles of Tibetan photography.
Buddha Exhibition Festival
Tashi Lhunpo Monastery has been the center of this festival for over 500 years, and it lasts for three days. Every day the monks and lamas exhibit different Buddhas, including Amitabha, to remind the people to cherish the memory of the past; the statue of Sakyamuni, to encourage people to pray for a life of happiness; and a statue of the Maitreya, the future Buddha, to urge people to hold onto their expectations of the future. Culminating with a huge Thangka unveiling, the whole exposition is a delight for photographers, both in the ceremonial robes of the monks and the delightful costumes of the locals.
Losar in Lhasa
Tibetan New year, also known as Losar, is the most important festival in the Tibetan calendar. It is mainly celebrated over a period of 3 days in late January or February, according to the Tibetan calendar. On the day before Tibetan New Year's Eve, monasteries hold a special kind of ritual in preparation for the Losar celebrations. On Tibetan New Year's Day, Tibetans get up early and put on new clothes after having taken a bath. They then worship the gods by placing offerings in the front of their household shrines. Losar is an amazing celebration, and a great opportunity to see the best of Tibetan festivals and costumes.
Gyantse Dama Horse Racing Festival
Horses have been good companion of the Tibetan people for generations. Therefore, festivals themed in the horse race are imperative. The horse race festivals are held in many areas, among which, the Gyantse Horse racing festivals are some of the most famous. The festival begins with religious events such as mantra reciting, holy dancing and displaying images of Buddha between the 30th day of the third Tibetan month and the 18th of the fourth month each year. Then it proceeds to the horse race on the 18th and 19th and archery contests on the 20th and 21st. Both monks and locals dress up for the occasion, as it is an important event in the Tibetan calendar.
Tibetan Festival Attire
Most of the Tibet festivals are closely related to Tibetan Buddhism and historical incidence. It is a very good opportunity for visitors to explore the Tibetan way of life, costume, religion, and culture. There are many holidays and festivals that relate to Buddhism, which have evolved and gained great popularity among Tibetans, such as Tibetan New Year, Butter lantern festival and Shoton festival. The festival attire is also a highlight, which will give you an ethnic fashion feast.
With the development of the society, traditional Tibetan costumes do not suit today's pace and lifestyle, but they try to keep pace with the fashion while maintaining its ethnic features. They take advantage of modern things to keep alive the traditional culture. For example, they make modern clothes but decorate them with traditional cultural elements, such as Tangka and some beautiful pictures.
Tibetan Pilgrims’ Prostration
Winter on the Tibetan plateau is cold, and for Tibetans, it is the best season to travel around and make their pilgrimages, and many of them choose a special way of doing their pilgrimage. Prostration is done by laying down flat on the ground, extending the full length of the body. Then you stand up to where your hands reached, and perform the same thing again. Tibetan pilgrims often travel in this way, as a way of gaining extra merit for their pilgrimage and countering any bad actions by performing the wholesome spiritual practice of prostration, and can prostrate themselves over hundreds of miles on their pilgrimage, taking many months to complete it.
The best place to see pilgrims prostrating on their long journey is at the site of the holy Mt. Kailash
The kora routes around Potala Palace and Barkhor Street often see people prostrating themselves as they walk the kora, but the best place to see pilgrims prostrating on their long journey is at the site of the holy Mt. Kailash. The 52-kilometer kora route around Mt.Kailash normally takes three days to walk, but for the devout Tibetans, who believe their merit is gained a thousand fold by prostrating, can take up to three months to complete the distance.
Photography Gear Recommended
Specialist equipment for taking photos on a Tibet tour is not really required, but if you are into photography in a big way, then there are some things to remember when packing your camera equipment. And it depends on how much hiking you will be doing. A good lens for distance photography will be useful, especially since many great sights are a long way away, such as Everest. A 70-200mm 1.4 lens covers just about everything, although a 135/2.0 would be useful for wide-angle shots. DSLR bodies are better for outdoor photography since they can carry more data on several data cards, and possibly a small Stylus-type point-and-shoot digital camera for those all-important selfies in front of the Jokhang temple. Dimming filters are useful if the weather is very clear and the sky bright, or if there is a lot of snow, to reduce the glare from the sun and snow reflection.
Dos and Don’ts for Photographing Tibetan Monks
Please respect the local Tibetan customs. In some areas, people believe that it is inauspicious to have their photo taken, so ask first for permission of the people you want to photograph. Giving presents sometimes works well to show your friendliness.
In some monasteries, it is offensive to take photos, especially photos of statues in the shrine. Sometimes, a certain amount of money should be paid, which amount depends on the popularity of the monastery. Do not take photos secretly in these places, as it may bring about unexpected trouble and may even be against local regulations. Finally, remember not to take photos in sensitive military areas.