“Echoes of Bhutan” opens the exotic — and progressive — world of the eastern Himalayas

By Bliss Bowen

The first time you travel to a place is always the most dramatic, says photographer Barry Shaffer. Even knowing that, he was unprepared for Bhutan.

Shaffer, an Encino-based photographer who likens the surreality of his experience to being in a movie, has traveled to the small eastern Himalayan kingdom three times since 2001. He and his wife Barbara authored the just-published “Echoes of Bhutan,” a fine art collection of his photos accompanied by essays from Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, National Geographic Editor-at-Large Costas Christ, Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, and 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, an innovative ruler who abdicated in 2006 and was succeeded by his Oxford-educated son.

Photographer Barry Shaffer’s scenic vistas and striking portraiture illustrate the unique cultural insight conveyed in “Echoes of Bhutan”

All book sale proceeds will benefit the Tarayana Foundation, which works to expand “holistic community development” in the mountainous nation’s underserved areas.

As captured in Shaffer’s photographs, Bhutan is a land of striking physical beauty and peaceful culture; Columbia University Professor Robert A.F. Thurman describes it in his foreword as “the last of the Tibetan Buddhist kingdoms.”

It is also a constitutional monarchy whose leaders are sensitive to the threats of climate change and globalization, as well as the need to develop a viable economy and relationships with the Western world. On his first trip through the country in 2001, Shaffer recalls making drop-in visits at village schools with English-language calendars that noted George Washington’s birthday and July Fourth.

Along with handsomely composed photos of monks, villagers, giggling children, scenic vistas and monasteries perched on craggy mountain ledges, “Echoes of Bhutan” includes colorful images of prayer flags. Prayer is not a ritualistic activity a la Sunday morning mass, but prayer flags are a common sight.

“The concept of the prayer flags is spectacularly beautiful,” Shaffer says. “They are at every transition. It can be a transition going from one side to another side of a bridge. It can be at a transition of a path, or when you reach the highest point of the road and then go back down into a valley — at that pass will be an incredible display of prayer flags. The colorful ones are also called wind horses, because what they do is they flutter in the wind. The action of that wind takes the words, Buddhist words written on the prayer flags, and spreads them to all sentient beings.

“Their faith in Buddhism is not like anything I’ve ever seen here in the United States. It’s like a hair that grows. It’s just part of their DNA. It’s not thought about; they just live it.”

According to Thurman, the Buddhist beliefs that shape Bhutan’s unique culture are also responsible for its best-known innovation: Gross National Happiness — a phrase attributed to the 4th King, and a concept outlined in the country’s 2008 constitution.

“Gross National Happiness is measured in terms of emotional feelings and the kinds of things that we think of as happiness,” Shaffer says. “But they also regard happiness in practical terms: education, electricity, housing, employment — the things that content people. It goes beyond just everybody walking around with a smile.”

The launch party and book signing for “Echoes of Bhutan” is from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 24, at Arcana Books, 8675 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Call (310) 458-1499 or visit essenceofbhutan.com.

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