Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Robert Dompnier's "Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon": Book Review

This offers a French photographer's array of images taken during many visits in the 1990s, emphasizing tradition and crafts. While short on text--the prefatory words are helpful but brief regarding Bhutan's history and each thematic chapter--it's handsomely arranged. The colors leap out and the size allows a map far larger than in most books on Bhutan--even if a tiny caption warns: "The borders as shown on this map are neither authentic or correct."

Originally published in 1999, this allows you to see more of the varied terrain and costumes, varied landscapes and faces. The natural range of tropical, hilly, mountainous, and valley settings covers nearly three-dozen pages of photos. Architecture of dzongs, houses, and shops follows, and the format allows you to peer into details. This also offers more examples from across the country than some other photographic collections.

The "great Punakha procession" with its symbolic commemoration of victory over the Tibetan invaders gains coverage. Next, the chapter on society takes you to markets, schools, looms, and hearths as well as the many historic dzongs, the district fortresses combining monastic control with administrative power. You see more of their interiors than usual, as other books tend to shoot their splendid exteriors atop dramatic, strategic positions. Dompnier's survey enters the walls, and reveals the monks and workers at their daily tasks.

More dances follow, and then it's off to very remote but truly captivating raw northern vistas of high Lunana, Laya, and the eastern lands of the Brokpa yak herders. A glossary of terms and a short reading list conclude this volume. The dimensions are not as overwhelming as, say, Michael Hawley's Friendly Planet Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom from the early 2000s, but they are more comprehensive than the older The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan (1984) which cover similar ground and a similar time period.

This complements John Wehrheim's black-and-white photography and comprehensive narrative from 2011, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness. Dompnier's color matches Wehrheim's focus on people inside the landscape, and both fit into a more human presentation. For more on artifacts and crafts, the Bhutan: Fortress of the Mountain Gods (1998) large, scholarly book treats in-depth the history and culture of this kingdom. (Amazon US 12-3-12)

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