Khampa: A Portrait of Eastern Tibet

Features Issue 27 Aug, 2010
Text by Jill Gocher

Photographing these horse traders, monks and nomads was almost as challenging as attempting to ride one of their half wild mountain ponies.These men don’t take too kindly to strangers and I had to develop a kind of ‘surprise technique’ to capture their images to retain a feeling of spontaneity rather than a frozen pose. For most of the pictures, I had just one chance to make their picture before the moment was lost.

The Khampa are Tibet’s cowboys and live in Kham, in Eastern Tibet, on the far western reaches of the Tibetan Plateau in Western Szechuan. Nomads, herders, monks and horse traders live with their families  on the grasslands at high altitudes of over 4000 m. They are great horsemen, living in small communities protected from the rugged environment by fortress style stone houses surrounded by their animals and on the higher reaches, their yaks..

Summer sees festivals opening all across the grasslands. A time for song and dance, and most importantly,  a time for displays of great horsemanship as the men come into their own. Daring feats are the order of the day and  the real crowd pleasers are the trick riding when a rider will lean right over the side of the horse to trail his fingers along the ground at a full gallop.

The Khampa are a proud people, devout Buddhists with a strong independent spirit. They have great attachment to their homeland and were some of the first to fight against the invasion. Today, their culture is being eroded  by outside forces by the importation of Han Chinese workers, farmers, shopkeepers, cooks and prostitutes, followed  with the creation of brothels and karaoke lounges in even the smallest settlements. The salubrious temptaions lure the youth, making it less interesting for them to follow a traditional life. A subtle but effective way of undermining the spirit. 

Jill has been photographing and documenting South East Asian cultures and tourism centers for many years and has more recently turned her attention westward towards South Asia and Tibet. She has made several trips to Kham, gathering material for her forthcoming book to be published in 2005.

“Khampa – A Portrait of Eastern Tibet,” is Jill’s first photographic exhibition in Nepal. ECS magazine is proud to cosponsor this event as part of our ongoing commitment to the promotion of arts in conjunction with Siddharta Art Gallery. The exhibition opens at 5.30 pm on Monday, February 17, and will continue till March 6, 2004 at the Siddhartha Art Gallery.

For details: 4218048.