The monk who gave up his ferrari for the camera

Sep 21, 2011, 10:39 IST | Amrita Bose

Photographer and monk Nicholas Veerland's show Photos of Rato opening today will allow you a rare entry into the world of the Rato Dratsang Monastery in Karnataka

Photographer and monk Nicholas Veerland's show Photos of Rato opening today will allow you a rare entry into the world of the Rato Dratsang Monastery in Karnataka

Monk and occasional photographer Nicholas Veerland's life might seem straight out of those tales where world weary individuals suddenly find enlightenment and give up earthly desires to live a simple and spiritual life. Except, Veerland decided to bring along his camera when he chose to cross over to a spiritual life.
Veerland chose to leave behind his life in New York and take the less trodden path straight down to Mundgod in Karnataka at the Rato Dratsang monastery.

His Holiness, The Dalai Lama at Rato Dratsang and Gen pagdo,
a senior monk teaches Lama Chunchun how to read

The monastery has its origin in the 14th century as a seat of spirituality and development outside Lhasa in Tibet until it was destroyed in 1959 by the Chinese and re-established in India.

Starting this week, Veerland gives us an opportunity to get a rare peek into the world of the Rato monks, their monastery and its workings in this exhibition of 20 photographs titled Photos of Rato.

"The photographs in this exhibition are taken in and around Rato Dratsang, the monastery I belong to, where I have lived since I became a monk in 1985.

Though at first I didn't photograph, eventually I began taking pictures in my room, of my immediate environment, and of the people within that environment. I eventually started taking my camera outside," the 52-year-old monk tells us in an email interview from New York.

Describing photography as something like writing a poem, he explains,  "You write about what moves you, and the poem will reflect your feelings for the subject.
The closer to you the subject is, the more profound the poem can be." Busting the myth that the world of monasteries is shrouded in mystery, Veerland explains that these places are made up of humans who are happy to share their world.

"My fellow monks enjoy my photographing our shared world. I've never tried to document our lives as a photojournalist might. I've simply taken my pictures. No one has ever objected," he says.

Nicholas, who first came to India when he was 18, to visit his godfather in Sikkim, had an encounter with Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal and returned to Dharamsala in 1979 to photograph some of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as the Dalai Lama himself.
On Dalai Lama's advice then, he decided to study Buddhism. He returned to New York to study under Rato monk Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. After about four years of studying, it became apparent to Veerland that he must practice spirituality fulltime to make use of his life and decided to head back to India.

Recounting his photograph of the Dalai Lama as one of his favourites in the show, Veerland describes his encounter with His Holiness in 2002 when this picture was taken. 

"I stood on an empty Coca-Cola crate so that I could look down onto the ground glass of my camera. His Holiness looked right into the lens. I took my photograph, and then moved closer to take a more
intimate portrait in profile, without glasses. In all, I took five exposures.
The one in the exhibition is the first.I feel honoured to have been able to take the photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Rato Dratsang. Yes, I composed the photograph, deciding how and where to take it, however it was His Holiness who stood before me in a particular way and let me take the picture just that way.
It is a gift," says Nicholas who has grown up all over the world thanks to his father being in the diplomatic services.

If the Veerland surname sounds familiar to you, it's because Nicholas has the legendary Vogue fashion editor, late Diana Veerland as a grandmother.

"My grandmother and I were quite close. I lived with her for a few years before coming to India to become a monk. Though she may not have been too enthusiastic about the life choices I made, she was always supportive and respectful. I'm very thankful to her," he says.

When asked whether Veerland uses photography as a medium in his quest of spirituality, he replies that though photography has the potential to take one closer to a spiritual quest, it can also pull one away.
"But then again, we all need to relax a bit and do something we enjoy. It is in that sense that I feel photography has helped me. But I must be careful! I must not indulge, or take myself too seriously as a photographer."

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