An Evergreen story from 2011.
Thomas Kelly – Nepal’s Perpetual Pilgrim
Are there past lives and past connections which guide your footsteps in this life? Can one cross geographical borders, enter an unknown country and make it one’s own forever? Thomas L.Kelly, an American from Santa Fe, New Mexico, was only 21 when he first visited Nepal as a US Peace Corps volunteer. This two year stint has coalesced into a lifelong sojourn where Kelly, has dedicated his life to chronicling the hidden beauty and disappearing cultures of South Asia, through his camera.
A photo-activist, he has raised consciousness about the plight of marginalized people and ostracized communities, not through words but through his stunning images. Many of these journeys into little known lives have been in collaboration with major social organizations including UNICEF, Save the Children Fund, and the Aga Khan Foundation. For the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation he recorded the lives of sex workers and prostitution across South Asia, and for the UK Department for International Development he has documented child prostitution, trafficking, conflict and resolution, and water and sanitation issues.
Kelly is not only a photo activist but also a photo artist who through the lens of his camera captures the ethereal beauty of remote landscapes and the inner beauty of ordinary people. These editorial images have appeared in major international publications including The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Le Figaro, and Paris Stern, and also in a treasure trove of coffee table books.
Yet all these achievements were unknown and in the future, when 21-year-old Tom landed in Kathmandu, and embraced an alien culture, learning Nepali and getting his bearings before he was sent out to the remote hills to work with the Limbu community.
Nepal – A Love Affair
“Once you have the language under your belt you know how to access cultures, or at least be able to listen,” he muses. “Out in the mountains, away from distractions of choice, you learn very quickly to take on what you have, such as eating with your right hand! I quickly began to love it – to touch the food versus fork and spoon.” He now loves eating with his hands, and appreciates the Nepali habit of not having to converse over supper and concentrating on the food!
As a young Peace Corps worker, on his occasional forays into Kathmandu, he decided to travel to Pashupatinath which has many temples and write about the remarkable sadhus. He met a beautiful young American woman and asked her to join him in interviewing the sadhus. He recalls, “She had a way of asking questions – maybe too many questions.”
The two went on his motorbike past the Padmavati River, through the forests to the temples. Intrigued by a meditating Vaishnav sadhu’s body markings, they approached him. “Why have you come here?” he growled. “Don’t you know? I know you two were sadhu and saddhivi in your last life! Now the practice you have to get involved in is to continue your own sadhu-ness.”
Well, the young woman, Carroll Dunham, has now been Kelly’s wife for 25 years! He says with a chuckle, “Maybe the sadhu looked into us a little bit – we are still wandering, we’re still asking questions and we’re lucky to have access to the sadhus.”
Once his two year stint with the Peace Corps was over, Kelly had no intention of leaving the country to which he had become so emotionally attached. He started working with development agencies to document and analyze the success of the projects once the funding agencies had left.
Over the years Kelly also acquired a working knowledge of Mongolian and Hindi and spent the next three decades enmeshed in the culture of Nepal and South Asia, spending the summers in Mongolia and traveling to remote places. (continued on next page)