Daily Picture Show

Can Photos Save A Vanishing Culture?

Taylor Weidman thinks so.

At the foot of the Himalayas is a region of Nepal that has been virtually untouched by modern times. "Mustang," according to photographer Weidman, "is arguably the best-preserved example of traditional Tibetan life left in the world."

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    A group of senior monks prepare for a ceremony during one of Lo Manthang's many festivals.
    Photos by Taylor Weidman/Taylor Weidman
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    The village of Tangge stands on the edge of a Kali Gandaki tributary. Buildings are packed tightly together to help protect the residents from the strong winds that pick up each afternoon.
    Taylor Weidman
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    During the three-day spectacle of the Tiji festival, monks dress as different animals, demons and divinities to enact an epic fight between good and evil. In the town square of Lo Manthang, a monk dressed as a skeleton performs an ancient dance accompanied by ceremonial Tibetan Buddhist music.
    Taylor Weidman
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    The tsowo, or head dancer and officiating monk of the Tiji festival, performs in the center of the sacred form of the mandala, while a ring of monks dance around him in one of the initial ceremonies.
    Taylor Weidman
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    The winter monastery keeper stands for a portrait in the main hall of the monastery in Tetang.
    Taylor Weidman
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    Dhakmar villagers return to the town after a day of working in the fields.
    Taylor Weidman
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    Residents of the village of Phewa collect fertilizer into bags to be taken to the fields. Mustang has a very short growing season and it is common for women and men to work together to finish tasks quickly.
    Taylor Weidman
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    Members of the king's court gather with their muskets as they prepare to help chase the demon from the city by shooting volley after volley during the Tiji festival.
    Taylor Weidman
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    Tashi Dolkar Gurung, a Loba woman, removes gravel from rice near the light of a window in her earthen home in Lo Manthang.
    Taylor Weidman
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    A monk leads a horse between the towns of Ghemi and Dhakmar.
    Taylor Weidman

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Weidman received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2010 to document changes faced by Tibetan groups in Nepal. He spent several months negotiating for access to the Upper Mustang region and repeatedly visited the region over the course of his scholarship.

"The lifestyle [in Upper Mustang] was completely different, alien and remarkable," Weidman writes in an email. "The people there still live very much as they did 500 years ago when the kingdom was founded."

The Loba people of Upper Mustang are largely Buddhist, and prayer and tradition are important aspects of everyday life. "The elderly," says Weidman, "spend their days spinning prayer wheels and chanting mantras," and "Buddhist astrologers are consulted on every aspect of life, from what to name a child to when to begin working the fields."

While Upper Mustang remains a preserved region of tradition (farming is still done using wooden plows), the area is experiencing new development. The first road in the region is nearing completion and will bridge remote villages to larger cities, bringing new opportunity — but also change. Already, the younger generation is becoming increasingly disconnected as those who can afford to go to school leave for neighboring Kathmandu or India and do not return. Some Loba leaders fear that amid these changes, tradition is being lost.

Upon his return from Nepal, Weidman and partner Nina Wegner founded the Vanishing Cultures Project, with the aim to preserve and support traditional cultures like Upper Mustang. Their next project will take them to Mongolia, where they will document pastoral herders who face desertification, displacement and a rapidly changing economy. Photos from Upper Mustang can also now be found in a book, Mustang: Lives and Landscapes of the Lost Tibetan Kingdom.

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