Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sounds Overheard: Seeing Tibet With Closed Eyes

Pilgrims worship at the Jokhang Temple, Tibetan Buddhism's holiest site.

Exploring Lhasa on my first day in Tibet was so overwhelming that I was having trouble seeing photographs. Crowds of Buddhist pilgrims dressed in regional costumes streamed down every street, Han Chinese merchants in Barkhor Square sold everything from prayer wheels to yak butter and the occupying Chinese army marched with assault rifles at the ready.

I was gasping in the thin air at 12,000 feet altitude. My stomach was deciding if it liked my yak stew lunch. Colors were way to saturated, the blue sky, the monk’s saffron robes and the rooftop golden lambs.

So I closed my eyes and started listening for pictures.

Close your eyes, listen to the sounds around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and tell me what you see. iPhone & iPad link to 1:48 long MP3.

The first sound I heard was a far off rhythmic slapping and chanting.  I discovered over a dozen workers, men and women, building a traditional aga earthen roof atop the Jokhang Temple. They were on their hands and knees with hand held wooden paddles compacting the mix of gravel, dirt and water infused with willow tree bark.

I recorded the sound of wooden and leather hand protectors scraping on the cobble stone temple square as the pilgrims prostrated them selves in repetitive prayer. They stood with their hands together above their heads, then down on their knees, then on their stomachs with arms out stretched.

My ears discovered a man singing prayers from a well worn book of Tibetan script, his voice competing with the thousands of pilgrims circumambulating the mile-long circuit around the temple.

Slowly the sounds awakened the visual corners of my brain, I opened my eyes  and began making photographs.

Editors note: If you visit the "aga earthen roof" link above, poke around the site a little and see how the Chinese government views the Tibetan people.

During my assignments and travels I've been recording the sounds I overhear, and many don't have supporting photographs or stories. This occasional series will be my excuse to share my audio orphans, these Sounds Overheard. Please also visit my Miami editorial photographer portfolio.

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