Editor's note: Bay Area News Group photojournalist Jane Tyska and staff writer Matt O'Brien traveled to Bhutan and Nepal in the spring to document the experiences of Bhutanese refugees ejected from their country in a political and ethnic conflict. Tyska documented her experiences in a series of photos and videos. The project was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association. Here, she shares her thoughts on the visit and some of the images she captured.

Whether photographing locally or abroad, it is truly a privilege to share the things I see with our readers. Following the Mainali family from a refugee camp in Nepal to their new home in Oakland was an amazing visual journey, but it was only part of what we experienced on the monthlong trip.

In my travels through Bhutan and Nepal with reporter Matt O'Brien, the incredible things we encountered helped us understand the culture and background of the Mainalis while also giving us a new window on the world.

During a traditional archery match in the small isolated kingdom of Bhutan, women dressed in colorful kiras sang while the men in striped ghos lept and cheered after a good shot. Though a big part of their daily life, to me it seemed like a page out of a storybook from long ago. Many spoke English, and were eager to share the history of the national sport and how it helps them achieve their goal of "Gross National Happiness."


Advertisement

Winding down from the green mountains of Bhutan to the flat dusty lowlands of India and on to the Bhutanese refugee camps of eastern Nepal, both landscape and culture shifted dramatically. At the Beldangi Refugee Camp No. 2 in Damak, I witnessed a "jumping doctor" perform a holistic healing ritual for a sick woman.

Dressed in white robes, head dress and long red sash, he alternatively beat on a hand drum and cooking pan while burning an assortment of herbs inside a small hut. Occasionally he would stop, swing beads over the fire and interact with his patient, who by the end of the 20-minute treatment appeared to feel much better.

From Damak, we followed the Mainalis from their camp hut to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) transit center in Katmandu, where they would stop for more cultural orientation training before continuing on to their new home in Oakland.

I visited many sites while in Katmandu -- Durbar Square, the Bodnath Buddhist temple and the windy, narrow, back streets of trendy Thamel -- but was most struck by my visit to the Pashupatinath Hindu temple, where traditional cremation ceremonies are performed 24/7.

Upon my arrival, a half dozen bodies burned on cement funeral ghats alongside the sacred Bagmati River, which flows into the famous Ganges River in India. Throngs of people watched from the banks and from several bridges. I was grateful to be welcomed by both officials and families of the deceased and provided full access to the funerals after identifying myself as a journalist.

Unlike our culture, the funerals were very open and witnessed not only by me, but by many members of the general public who were there to also see one of the country's most famous and largest Hindu Shiva temples. Smoke stung my eyes and throat as I documented these intense and colorful ceremonies, and it was especially meaningful as I thought about the concept of mortality in a very visceral way.

We all must die, and in this we all have a common bond no matter what our culture. I think a lot of us Westerners perhaps fear death because it is largely hidden and private in our world. Death is as natural as birth, and I found myself less fearful of it after being privileged to observe the beautiful Hindu funeral rites on the banks of the Bagmati.

I've traveled and photographed abroad a great deal, but the sights and sounds of this trip made a deep impression. From the archery match in Thimphu, to the healing ceremony in Nepal, to the profound cremation rituals in Kathmandu, the people I photographed openly shared their lives and stories with me-and thereby with you.

These images of life and death serve to remind us not so much of our differences, but of our common humanity.