I didn’t know air could feel clean...
After months of travelling in India during the spring of 2019, photographer Louise Coghill (@louisetakesphotos) landed in Leh with her partner, where the purity of the air took her aback as soon as she got out of the plane. She was also struck by the oxygen scarcity, due to the very high altitude of this northern Indian town. Although she was expecting this physical challenge, Louise found herself facing another kind of test during her stay in Leh, a more spiritual one. Through this series, she shares with us her approach to the local life and how it brought her on the way to some personal growth.
Nestled in the Himalayan mountain ranges, Leh is the buddhist capital of the Ladakh region, the ‘Land of the High Passes’. Located in the Jammu and Kashmir state, this former buddhist realm was on the ancient Silk Road; nicknamed the “little Tibet”, its inhabitants speak a dialect derived from ancient Tibetan, as Louise learned from her hosts, in the cocoon of a temple complex. In this welcoming guesthouse, Louise found the ideal nest to acclimatise herself and wait for the melting of the ice caps to start the trek she had gone there to do. But the thaw was late that year. Meanwhile she enjoyed the majestic beauty of the snow-covered mountains and cold desert that the sun illuminated with its golden or rose-colored beams. The roads were dotted with stupas, prayer flags quivering in the wind and 14th century monasteries, evidence of the historical and spiritual life of the land. Each door, each window was a frame opening on a raw landscape, never-ending reliefs ranges offering space for infinite daydreams. Almost daily, the family hosting Louise fervently prayed to the point of exhaustion, in their own temple amidst candles and incense. A haven away from the growing construction of the city was getting ready to welcome national and international tourism. Tourists that had yet to arrive in this snow-capped and unexpectedly rainy mid-June, probably due to the effect of global warming making its way into this territory, though far from polluted metropoles.
Walking through the Moravian neighbourhood of Leh made Louise reflect about her own history, the religious background of her family. Although she thought she didn't know enough about her origins, it felt as if she was walking in the footsteps of her ancestors by accident: with a different intention and perspective, creating her own path, weaving her own roots. Used to being very active during her travels, Louise had to learn to tame her impatience. And what at first seemed to be a misadventure due to the delay of her trekking plans, turned out to be an insightful experience. She dived deeper into the ladakhi social and cultural life. Staying a little more time in one place is always the opportunity to create bonds, make new habits, feeling a bit more familiar in a place far away from home.
I finish the best kadai paneer I’ve eaten, and look out the window at the snow-dusted Himalayas, and laugh through the language barrier with the man who cooks our food.
Living with a buddhist family gave the photographer the uncanny opportunity to participate in a very important tradition that they were eager to share: Louise got blessed by the Oracle: incarnated by a young woman in ancient, sacred clothing and adornments. In a ceremonial atmosphere, through a mystical trance, the Oracle delivered messages to each devotee. The words she offered Louise were about the importance of community in every aspect of life. The second part of the blessing occurred after the Oracle had been in meditation for seven days. Louise learned that this was the month when Buddha reached enlightenment, and the town was filled with prostrating pilgrims. Louise attended the ceremony in awe of the throat-singing of the Oracle, an enchanting experience engraved in her memory.
She has learnt to separate her vocal cords and sing with two distinct voices...When it’s over, everyone talks and laughs and smiles at us, glad to have welcomed us into such a special moment.
Another example of a communal lifestyle came to life in front of Louise’s gaze when she came across a group of ten people and four yaks labouring a field, using ancestral methods and tools. They were following the tradition of helping one another in taking care of the grounds during the short season when they can grow food. Another tradition is to share salty tea during breaks, which Louise got a cup of while befriending the party of farmers.
What was supposed to be a stage of trekking activities turned into a whole month of introspection through communion. Louise continued her journey in a way relieved from a sense of restlessness but enriched with wisdom and inner peace, filled with human connection and sharing.
Louise Coghill is a storyteller and wanderer. Based in Australia, she studied Film and Television but finally embraced her passion for photography. A "lover of all things beautiful" she aims at sharing respect for the environment through her images. She has published a book, Terra and her work has been featured in several exhibitions.