Ron’s travels in Asia began when he set foot in Nepal in 1966. Having previously studied African arts and culture, he brought with him the resilience and intrepidness necessary for long term stays in the Himalayas. Also to his credit, he brought Dianne, who not only was an equally adventurous travel partner, but an invaluable research assistant. Together, Ron and Dianne traveled extensively through South, East, Central, and Southeast Asia for the next four decades. They visited many sites more than once, thereby providing documentation of its changes over time. As well, they visited places and saw things that no longer exist.
Today’s post is going to focus on a few of those sites, objects, and ephemera that Ron and Dianne captured in the field but that don’t survive into the present. Ron’s images of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, fall into this category, yet those slides await future digitization.
As a specialist in Bhutanese art and iconography, I was surprised and thrilled to find images from around Bhutan dating to as early as his first visit to the kingdom in 1979. Though according to World Bank figures Bhutan is now hosting over 100,000 tourist guests a year, it is certainly safe to say that very, very few visitors made their way into the ‘Land of the Dragon’ in the late 70s. Among the slides is this gem, a photograph of one of Taktsang’s now-lost murals that was destroyed by fire approximately twenty years after Ron’s visit:
Its subject is Guru Rinpoche, the ubiquitous 8th century Indian master credited with establishing Buddhism in the Himalayas, here surrounded by masters, his Copper Mountain Pure Land, and two of his eight primary manifestations. Though Taktsang has since been rebuilt and hosts thousands of pilgrims and visitors annually, this image conveys a Taktsang that few were able to experience. As an art historian, I’m enthralled with how the artist masterfully executed the folds, flutters and designs of Guru’s robes, and the successive layers of gold-encircled curvilinear gems, flowers in various states of bloom, and the scrolled cloud motifs that seem to foam out into space. Hopefully, future research will be able to determine whether this mural dated to the temple’s 17th century expansion under Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (more on Tenzin Rabgye’s role at Taktsang in an article by esteemed scholar of Bhutan Dr. John Ardussi here, and a brief English language biography here), or perhaps a later renovation.
Other images reveal aspects of Himalayan culture that are in decline, such as this image of silversmiths working in Shigatse in 1984:
Or this monk-sculptor working on a Buddha’s ear in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989:
When we speak of change, it doesn’t necessarily involve a material object or place. Sometimes it refers to a past that no longer exists due to any one of a variety of factors: globalization, technological advancement, occupation, oppression, or perhaps the desire to offer something new in place of something old. Sometimes it’s a historical moment, something that will never repeat. Maybe it’s a ritual or festival. Or maybe a moment in a person’s life, or a fleeting expression. Here are a few examples of what Ron was able to capture during his travels: