Tibetan Buddhist prayer books

We photographed these Tibetan Buddhist prayer books in 2010 when Tamara and I travelled across northern India.

We started from New Delhi and made our way east. After two months travelling, we arrived in Darjeeling, in the north-east of India in the hills of West Bengal.

The state of West Bengal covers a large lowland area around the state capital Kolkata and a narrow ribbon of land that stretched north and opens out onto the highland area where Darjeeling is situated.

Around Darjeeling and ‘just across the border’ there is Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Darjeeling is surrounded by tea plantations that stretch down the perilously steep slopes in every direction. The tea bushes are trimmed to waist height to make it easy for the pickers to pick the leaves. The impression from a distance is of rounded green hummocks stretching off endlessly into the distance.

We had come from Varanasi on the River Ganges where we spent a week, so we were immersed in Indian culture. Darjeeling and the surrounding towns were like being in another country. The people look different, their culture and their demeanour is different, and many of them are Buddhists.

Darjeeling is at 2,700m (8,900 ft) so the air is thinner. The hotel was on the upper floors of a building and it was 99 steps from street level to our room. Tamara and I joked that we had better not forget to bring anything when we set off to explore the town each day. Otherwise it would be a trudge up 99 steps again.

One day I went up to the top floor, beyond the guest rooms to the roof. I wanted to get a better look at Katchenjunga, the highest mountain in this part of the Himalayas, 70km (45 miles) from Darjeeling.

On the way I passed by a room in which I saw these prayer books. I say books, but maybe it is better to say they were carved and decorated wooden boards within which the paper was folded in like a concertina and wrapped in cloths.

The books were wrapped with the embroidered cover and the hard covers bound to the package with tape. Each of covers is embroidered with a different design, indicating what is contained within them. The narrow pages are unfolded like a concertina and the relevant page is opened.

They are beautiful and vibrant. One can see the love and care that went into making them.

The guesthouse in which we were staying was run by a Tibetan couple and I asked permission to photograph the books. That is when the owners explained that they had brought the prayer books with them when they fled Tibet, as did the Dalai Lama, when the Chinese invaded.

Suddenly, from this one desire to photograph the Tibetan Buddhist prayer books, we learned about the owners of the guest house – of their journey from home and of them being refugees in a foreign country that they had made their new home – but always knowing that Tibet was where they came from and that Tibetan was who they were.


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