Alms And The Man
The last place you’d expect to find Buddhist monks is outside the duty-free complex. No, no, relax, they weren’t flesh-and blood monks clad in their distinctive robes; just a row of figures slightly higher than a metre and a half at most.
We were just walking in to the downtown duty-free building in Langkawi, Malaysia, in mid-July, when I noticed the monks. They were beautifully carved from what looked like sandstone and I wish now that I had made some inquiries about who had crafted them and what material had been used.
The word "monk" comes from the Greek "monos", meaning "alone". Thus the idea of a monastic existence is one of solitude. In that historical respect, it’s intriguing to note that there are five monks in this composite sculpture.
These monks were not just placed in a hall or a corridor. They graced the open wing of a downstairs restaurant. Like real Buddhist monks with their bowls, they were in the open, exposed to the elements with the tropical sun beating down on them.
To the right of the monks, the restaurant itself was shaded by a high roof and generous, cool shadows. But to the left of the figures was bright early-afternoon light as well as cool green palms. All in all, it was a challenging situation for a photographer. On one side the light was harsh, while the other was in deep shade.
So I decided on three shots, to try and capture light and shade alike and to emphasise the unusual colours of the carved figures. It’s interesting to note that the central point of each figure is not the face but the traditional alms bowl, in which real monks collect offerings such as cooked food or coins from local folk.
My attention was also drawn to the detail - have a look at the folds of the robes over their shoulders and you’ll see how much care has been taken to render them lifelike. Finally, have a close look at their faces. At first they might appear to be clones of each other, but then you realise that each has a distinct expression.
Nirvana, I guess, has many faces.
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