Renowned New Delhi-based Indian filmmaker, photographer, art historian and author Benoy K. Behl has had his share of funny, harrowing, heartwarming and memorable experiences during his working assignments around the world. He made repeated wondrous journeys to the monasteries in India (Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur) and Western Tibet and found the trips quite a feat.
The monasteries were located at high altitudes (3,000m to over 4,267m). Above 3,000m in the barren desert of the trans-Himalayas, he said: “One has to lie down in bed for one full day, to allow one’s body to acclimatise to the low-oxygen condition. Every time one goes up further and spends a night at an altitude of an additional 304m to 609m, one has to spend another full day flat on one’s back in bed, for further acclimatisation.”
High-altitude sickness (out of breath; splitting headaches), he cited, can be extremely dangerous and at times, fatal, if not attended to in time.
“Some monasteries had no motorable roads and often I had to walk uphill. In a few places, I somehow managed to arrange a horse to take me up.”
But Behl’s journey of four days to and from Phugtal Monastery in Zanskar, Ladakh, was “marvellous”.
“I did not know how to ride a horse, but the gentle and intelligent Zanskari pony seemed to understand and took me very carefully up and down the steep mountain sides. By the end of the journey, we became great friends and it was a sad parting for me,” he said.
The “most fascinating of the journeys”, he recalled, were his travels across Afghanistan and then into Uzbekistan in 2011. He travelled with his colleague Sujata Chatterji and his then assistant director, Sanghamitra Ghosh.
Driving into Uzbekistan, near Termez, the trio was “detained” at the checkpoint for more than two hours. He thought it was an “interesting experience”, nevertheless.
Said Behl: “The people manning the border checkpoint knew no English and we did not know their language. Moreover, they seemed to have never seen Indians before. Among the things which they examined very carefully (and even kept for detailed scrutiny) were the newspapers which had been used to wrap different objects (toiletries and slippers) in our bags.”
The rest of the journey across Uzbekistan was fascinating.
“We enjoyed meeting the most friendly and lovely people,” said Behl, who added, that the first of his journeys around the world began in 1993 when he was invited by major museums and universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan, to give lectures on Ajanta.
In 1996, he was commissioned by the National Museum of India to produce a photography exhibition, Buddhist Sites and Art Heritage in India, as part of the Festival of India in Thailand in the same year. This also led to much international travel and documentation of Buddhist sites in India (Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Vaishali, Rajgir, Nalanda and Sravasti) and Nepal (Lumbini).
From Uzbekistan, they proceeded to Kalmykia (a republic in southern Russia), the only part of Europe which has a Buddhist heritage.
Behl said: “Elista in Kalmykia has a most impressive Buddhist temple and many statues of the Acharyas of Nalanda around it. There are lamas from Ladakh conducting prayers inside and blessing the European Buddhists and they very happy to see us and it gave them an opportunity to speak in Hindi!”
The two-month journey across the length of China and Tibet in 2007, was one of Behl’s “most exciting journeys”.
There is a modern statue of Kumarajiva (a Buddhist monk, scholar, and translator from the Kingdom of Kucha) in front of the Kizil Caves next to Kucha (present-day Xinjiang, China). The art of the caves displays the influences coming from India in the First Millennium CE.
In Tibet, the journeys were to extremely remote places in high altitudes. Behl was exhilarated to see the ruins of the castle at Guge, where King Yeshe Od directed the construction of a legendary chain of 108 monasteries, across Western Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur.
In mid-April this year, Behl and Bulu Imam, the Convener of the Hazaribagh Chapter of Intach, discovered a treasure of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture in remote fields near Bihari village, close to Itkhori in Hazaribagh district, in Jharkhand, India.
Behl also found many other sculptures (Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina faiths) in old wells in the villages of this region. Behl dates the various sculptures which have been found, ranging from the 2nd century BCE till the 12th century CE.
With these major finds, he said, Hazaribagh is poised to become a major Buddhist destination and a significant place of Buddhist art and culture.
Behl has made dramatic and significant contributions to highlight India’s Buddhist art to the world. He is the first Indian whose work was highlighted in National Geographic (magazine) in 2008.