India has been a vibrant cross roads from East to West for centuries. Here the ancient silk route in the North was the major route for trade in the pre-industrialized world, and in the South the major trade hub for India’s highly prized spices: curry, cardamon, cinnamon, turmeric, cloves, and tea, to Europe and the coasts of East Africa. Modern India is an amalgam, of old and new, providing the support services for our modern hi-tech world, as the world’s largest democracy and emerging markets of our global village. We arrived in Kochi in the Southwestern state of Kerala. Kerala is affectionately called “God’s Own Country!” Kochi is the spice capital of India, and has a rich cultural history. In an area known as the “Old Fort,” a bastion of the British empire, elaborate Chinese fishing nets rigged on long bamboo poles are gracefully lowered and raised in the waters at the mouth of the Periyar river.
Out of the city and into thick lush green forests, we travelled first to Athirapally Falls, the largest waterfall in Southern India. It is sometimes referred to as a Niagra Falls of India, and is a popular local tourist destination. We were impressed by the expansive brown waters of the Chalakudy River, sometimes diverted by large boulders as it reached a wide precipice and falls in an impressive volume shooting mist into the air. We photographed the falls from three vantage points. Our last location from below was challenging in all the flying mist, but timed right in sync with pauses in the flow, we were able to photograph the spirit of the Falls after exploring a few unique perspectives.
An Expedition for Tigers
After an enchanting drive through the misty forests of Kerala, we arrived in the early morning in Periyar to go on an expedition in search of photographing the elusive Bengal Tiger. When we arrived at the ranger station, the Rangers handed us what looked like brown canvas stockings with strings at the top and asked us to put them on over our socks and inside our boots to prevent the leeches from infiltrating our boots. They then powdered the tops and laces with some fine brown powder which we later learned was snuffed tobacco as an extra deterrent for the leeches. The canvas stockings came up just beneath our knees and made us feel like explorers from another time entering another world.
We started on the muddy path through thick forests of Teak, Sandlewood, and other native trees, noticing black squirmy leeches struggling to attach themselves to our boots. Our first wildlife encounter was a small herd of large Nilgai, which means blue cow due to it’s steely blue -gray color, a distant relative of the African Bush Buck. We approached to the first river which we would cross and boarded a bamboo raft floating across still waters to the other shore. The water rose between the large bamboo poles roped together and swirled at our heels. After deftly disembarking we walked along the lake shore and spotted some very large barking deer and further along some Indian Bison. We came upon a beautiful butterfly with orange patterns fluttering in the tall grass which our guides identified as a Tiger Butterfly. Journeying on we bordered a second bamboo raft and crossed another portion of the lake to a more wild shore of the tiger reserve.
The Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the last havens for Bengal Tigers and other wildlife in Southern India. So many rare trees and tigers have been poached there that the government created a radical policy granting amnesty to the poachers and hiring them as guides and rangers in exchange for their diligent enforcement of protecting the tigers, wildlife, & valuable trees, in the park. The remnant poachers met stiff jail sentences and the reserve has thrived successfully in the past twenty years. The Tiger population has increased by 30 percent in the last decade. Our guides were friendly and accommodating and expert trackers and it was hard to believe that any of these gentle souls would have been enemies of this beautiful place that they love so dearly.
The rangers often led us off the trail through raw wilderness finding small signs of larger wildlife for us to encounter. The head ranger was always armed carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder. We saw herds of Gaur, or Indian Bison, grazing in the marsh, many Rhesus Macaque Monkeys, a very large Indian Gray Mongoose running across an open field, and elaborately patterned Dactylotum bicolored Crickets, also known as the rainbow grasshopper, which took flight as we approached. Glassy smooth water at the lake shores reflected undulating pools of light in syncopating rhythms. Dead tree trunks stood like lonely sentinels in the expansive waters, their reflections also dancing on the surface. We photographed the contrasting patterns of reflective light moving on the water which looked like an Expressionistic painting. On the riverbank we came across a group of tribal fishermen and woman. When the Tiger reserve was created this family group was relocated to a spot outside the reserve but retain rights to continue their traditional lifestyle fishing in these waters, cleaning and smoking the fish and selling them in the morning markets in Thekady.
At a muddy clearing in the jungle, our guides identified a tiger paw print on the trail. It was perfectly formed even though it was two days old. They then looked up a near by tree and identified long scratch marks from the tigers claws. The Tigers use scratch marks and marking their scents on trees to define their territory. Further down the path we came upon interesting round nests hanging in a tree which our guide explained was a Tiger Wasp nest. We were on the tigers trail yet it still eluded us.
Reaching our camp which was situated on an escarpment by the lake, we carefully crossed a narrow bamboo pole bridge which extended across a deep moat to a rustic enclosure open aired enclosure that was to be our main living space. Three tents that sat on raised platforms behind us in a clearing inside the compound would be our home. The monsoon rains began to fall down torrentially on the corrugated metal roof in harmony to the large chirping of frogs and cicadas, the symphony of the jungle.
After removing our wet boots we set them by the fire to dry. Brian felt something strange on the back of his head. To his dismay he discovered a squirming leech dancing in his hair at the back of his head. Instictively, he pulled it and tossed it to the ground though it is advisable to remove leeches by flame or tobacco powder to insure their complete removal. A friend noticed a patch of blood on the back of Brian’s head, adding to his further consternation. The rangers handed him a towel with cool water and Brian took a deep breath, wiped the blood off his head and had a shot of rum. Just across a bamboo pole bridge, an Indian Porcupine rustled in the blackness of the night foraging for food. It’s long black and white striped quills glistened in the beam of Latai’s flashlight. Exhausted by the day’s trek in the monsoon rains, we slept soundly to the rhythms of the rain after indulging in a delicious meal of traditional Indian cuisine including a variety of curries, Naan, and the tiny fresh fish from the local tribe that was prepared and cooked by the rangers.
The sound of the Muntjak, or barking deer, from the forest on the other side of the lake awoke us from our slumber. After a cup of Black Tea, we ventured back into the jungle in our last attempt to encounter the ever elusive Bengal Tiger. We heard a rustling in the trees above and discovered an Indian Giant Squirrel scurrying along in the branches. A little deeper into the jungle, the ranger leading our expedition asked us to stop on the path pointing at a low hanging tree in front of us and exclaimed, “Viper!” We walked off the path to catch a better glimpse of the lethal green snake resting on the branch with an extended belly having recently finished its morning meal. Managing to inch our way closer, Brian was able to carefully photograph from a mere 3 feet away as the guide explained that the viper could lunge at a distance of over a meter.
Off to our left the guides excitedly pointed to an Asian Elephant feeding in some thick bushes. Much smaller than their African counterparts, it was more challenging to get a photograph of this gentle giant. From the marsh we entered thick forest of native flora under the pelting monsoon rains. After a short while, we stood at a halt to inspect some tracks that intercepted the muddy jungle path. They ran into the distance and after a few minutes and excitedly shared that they had discovered a Tigers kill next to a tree. They walked all the way down towards the lake and doubled back and explained that the tiger had caught a large Bison and dragged it over a hundred yards from the lake shore up the sloping banks to enjoy its meal in privacy. Latai was curious to see the spot of the tiger slaughter and we followed the trail of the dragged Bison imagining the incredible strength of the tiger to be able to carry such a massive animal weighing over one ton, uphill for such a great distance.This would be the closest we would get to encountering a tiger on this expedition. Kicking the leeches off our boots as we continued to follow the trail deep into the woods, the strong smell of death pervaded and the massive horns and skull, and entire vertebral column in tact, sat decaying in the grass.
Wildlife photographers are like fishermen, patiently waiting in some beautiful natural spot under sometimes adverse conditions until the opportunity presents itself to photograph their desired subject. To create the optimal circumstance to photograph wildlife requires one to be in the right place at the right time with the right light which can be an extremely challenging perfecta. However for our photography workshops, we consult with expert local guides to determine the most favorable circumstances to compose unique images of the native wildlife. Even though we didn’t see a tiger, we had an extraordinary time photographing a diversity of wildlife in its beautiful natural habitat and encountering such lovely people that were so proud to share their knowledge and wonder of their home as such gracious hosts. Photo Safari Workshops aspires to create authentic photography experiences with your safety and comfort in mind. Because there are so many incredible subjects to photograph in India our packed itineraries do not include such an expedition, but we wanted to share with you the photographer’s process in all aspects of our pursuit of light.
Inspired by the wild jungles of India at the end of the nineteenth century, Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book wrote,“Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky.” His words remind us of how the wilds can be as inhospitable as enchanting and is to always be respected with the upmost vigilance and caution.
Munnar is an enchanting hilly region with majestic waterfalls and expansive tea plantations. Lines of carefully planted bushes of tea follow the topography of the landscape creating unique geometric patterns studded with towering Silver Pines offering shade in the hot dry summer months. It was a misty afternoon and the clouds enshrouded many of the hilltops making it a mystical drive. We stopped at a few beautiful tall flowing waterfalls. Traveling through this unique and beautiful landscape, we envisioned our group of photographers on assignment in a private plantation overlooking these splendid valleys creating dynamic images and stopped for a cup of local masala chai tea at the beautiful property where we will be staying which is situated on the hillside right in the middle of the tea plantations.
Love can inspire some of our most profound human expressions. The Taj Mahal could varitably be the world’s most beautiful love poem. A fourteen year old boy falls in love with a 16 year old persian princess named Mumtaz Mahal and makes her his third wife and new queen. Over the course of many years, the queen attempts to give birth to 14 children which are miscarried before coming to term, finally birthing two healthy young children but dying in childbirth during her last delivery. The grief stricken emperor now a powerful ruler in one of India’s most wealthy kingdoms is passionately driven to create an everlasting monument expressing the power and depth of their love. Out of over the 120 architecual plans submitted for consideration, the emperor chose the designs of a persian and turkish architect to create a tomb that remains the most powerful expression of love and architecual perfection. In his grief, he became obsessed with every detail of the planning of construction to create the most magnificent building of all ages. It took a total of 22 years to complete the building and expansive gardens which surround it on the banks of the river Yamauna tributary of the sacred Ganges.
Architecual photography is always a challenging creative endeavor. The fluid majestic forms of luminous white marble with inlaid semiprecious stones and intricate carvings make it easy to explore unique perspectives allowing the photographer creative freedom to focus on creating compositions with intention. Photographing the Taj Majal demands the exploration of myriad perspectives in the pursuit to express this magnificent place in a unique light. As beginning painters and masters alike have used a still life bowl of fruit as their subject, the Taj Mahal is our extraordinary subject and canvas to create photographic masterpieces for our portfolio. Photographing this masterful architectural “still life” offers workshop participants the opportunity to explore their own creative photographic process to create dynamic images of one one the most photogenic locations in the world.
Successful in his passionate endeavors, Shah Jahan’s great monument of love is breathtaking at first glance. It inspires a profound sense of awe and beauty. The eye is drawn in so many intricate places with elaborate spaces that are sanctuaries to explore. It is one of the greatest expressions of our humanity in both it’s savagery in creation, requiring slave labor to work long hours for 22 years, executions for stone carver’s damaging a sculpture with a mistaken blow of their chisel, and chopping off the hand’s of foremen and architect’s so the building would not be recreated. and in its pursuit of perfection, impressive in its elaborate craftsmanship, scale, and design.
Our first glance of the Taj Mahal was through the windows of our luxurious appointed room at one of the world’s finest hotels, The Oberoi Amarvilas, which we are delighted to offer for our clientele to experience. Situated directly adjacent with the Taj Mahal, whose symmetrical outline dominates the landscape above a forest of trees, each balcony offers a magnificent view. The Oberoi property was designed to mirror the symmetry and architecual style of the Taj Mahal. Sparing no expense in it’s elaborate construction of marble and sand stone, carved collumns and domes, intricately patterned stone inlaid floors graced with fountains, immaculately groomed landscape, vibrant gilded brightly colored murals, glass chandeliers, and relics of the Mughals, the property itself is a work of art and a creative pleasure to photograph. Gracious friendly staff were traditionally attired in saris and dhoti kurtas with turbans. The palatial lobby is scented with Jasmine aroma therapy and classical indian music resonates creating an authentic and luxurious experience.
Our local expert guide Prashant led us through the south gate late in the morning. We scouted locations irrisistabley composing a few shots here and there then headed back to our hotel reviewing some of our images to inspire us for our evening sunset shoot. In the purple and amber tones falling on the luminescent white marble, the Taj Mahal takes on the hues of the day from dawn to dusk. As the sun began to drop towards the horizon, we gazed in awe as the clouds took on the colors of golden light and the Taj harmoniously illuminated the colors of dusk in harmony. It was an opportunity for us to explore the dynamic range of our exposures creating dramatic silhouettes of the Taj and it’s towers against the background of the vibrant hued clouds and sky, and opening up our lenses to full apertures to capture the golden light on the Taj itself in detail. A graduated neutral density filter can help balance out extreme exposures where the sun might be an f22 and the Taj Mahal might be an f5.6 so you can create images with more less contrasting exposures.
At dawn we were some of the first visitors to be admitted into the grounds of the Taj Mahal and began shooting from the locations that we had chosen the day before. At a rapid pace to capture as many choice locations while the morning sun was rising casting its most beautiful light on the Taj and it’s gardens. In the early morning the fountains in the center reflecting pond were not on affording us the opportunity to photograph the reflection of the Taj on the surface of the water in the beautiful morning light. Approaching the structure, we climbed the stairs onto the expansive platforms, took off our shoes and entered a mosque contained in one of two symmetrical buildings flanking the central domed structure. Through the pointed alcove formed by the many collumns at the entrance we photographed the rising sun just over the Yamauna River.
“Not Architecture! As all others are
But the proud passion of an emperor’s love
Wrought into living stone, which gleams and soars
With body of beauty, shining soul and thought as when some face
Divinely fair unveils before our eyes
Some women beautiful unspeakably
And the blood quickens and the spirit leaps
And the will to worship bends the half yielded knees
While breath forgets to breathe
So is the Taj.”
-Sir Edwin Arnold
Agra Red Fort
The official residence of Indian Kings of this area is known as the Red Fort. At the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan began to build the complimentary black tomb for himself on the other side of the river. However, his son considered the lavish costs insane and imprisoned him in a suite at the top of the Red Fort with a view of the Taj Mahal. It is chronicled that the Shah longingly would stare at the Taj Mahal heartbroken and cry for the loss of his beloved Queen and kingdom. The Red Fort was the acting palace for kings to receive foreign dignitaries and hold court with their subjects. It was built over the course of a hundred years surrounded by a large moat that was filled with crocodiles and an expansive interior that would ensure the royal family and their court safety in an attack or even if the fort was laid siege. It is a combination of architecual styles and techniques that leaves an impression of admiration for the attention to detail and skill of the architect and builders. Walking down the corridors and through the royal chambers one can only imagine the rich lavish world of these kings and their entourages. From the upper suites a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal situated at the bend of the river was enchanting.
From the photographer’s perspective, India offers so much to explore visually and focus on. Cows and camels walking down the street, hawkers selling their goods, colorful sari clad ladies, and handsome uniformed men performing their duties, custodians of the ancient wheel of dharma, that moves things forward at a majestic casual pace which is unique to India.
From our side of the world to yours,
Latai & Brian