Thomas Kelly & Vanishing Cultures

The Badi of Western Nepal, traditionally a caste of roving entertainers, sang and danced through the hills of Nepal into the plains of India. For the Badi, service is a family affair, often conducted within the home. Western Nepal

The Badi of Western Nepal, traditionally a caste of roving entertainers, sang and danced through the hills of Nepal into the plains of India. For the Badi, service is a family affair, often conducted within the home. Photo: Thomas Kelly

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.

Trans-sexuals or eunuchs (known as hijras or alis) in South India dress up for the annual temple festival in which the hijras get married to a god and then widowed the next day when the god is symbolically killed. Villupurum; Chennai; South India.

Preparation for Aravan Festival by transexuals who get symbolically married to a God, and then widowed the next day.

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.”

A swirl of trade around the Annapurna and Ganesh Temples swells on the open market of Asan Tol a major stop on the Tibet-Kathmandu-India trading center. Kathmandu, Nepal.

The open market of Asan Tol – Photo: Tom Kelly

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)

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!


  1. A very intriguing post indeed. The pictures tell so many stories at once. I love the part where the prophecy says that Thomas was still a sadhu of a different kind. Kind of awakened something in me. Loved being here.

  2. Lavina Melwani on

    Thanks, AK Sandhu, inspiring it certainly is. If you take a look at Thomas Kelly’s website you are really struck by the sheer range of his work, and the different lives he captures.

  3. Lavina Melwani on

    Kriti, thanks for your comments. Yes, Thomas Kelly is still a wandering sadhu, telling the stories with his camera! I’d done an earlier piece on his images of sadhus, and that’s powerful stuff.

  4. David Peterson on

    A comment for Thomas Kelly.
    It’s been a long time. I follow your site and your books with a great deal of nostalgia. You’re a pleasure to follow and a great connection to my “past”. I’ve continued in emergency medicine after returning to the US and am about to retire to our home in Moose, Wyoming in two months. Stay in touch. Best wishes, David

  5. Great to read about Tom’s story… how he landed, his early days, and how it all evolved and grew in him.
    Those of us lucky enough to find ourselves in Nepal and Tibet in the 70’s and 80’s were lucky indeed… or WAS it karma? Kathmandu has always been a crossroads… to be among the Sadhus, Rinpoches, Newaris, and all the other “east meets westerners” who gathered and still gather there is an incredible confluence of hearts, minds, and souls. We were all pilgrims, and it continues to ripen within us. Thanks, Lavina for posting this and to Tom for living it and sharing it all with his photography and compassionate activism.

  6. Lavina Melwani on

    Thanks, David for your comment. I have also emailed it to Thomas Kelly.

  7. Lavina Melwani on

    John, thank you for your comments. Tom has indeed had a fascinating life – several lives actually! Tibet and Nepal in the 70’s and 80’s must have been a very special experience and I’m sure the effects of that are with you still.
    On Lassi with Lavina I do try to capture all the nuances of east and west, and would certainly love to hear of different experiences. Please feel free to share with us.

  8. Tapas Mukherjee on

    Thanks Lavina for the post. Thomas Kelly is a rare ‘speed-breaker’ on the whirlwind tour of an armchair pilgrim like me. His work makes one pause and ponder about life.

  9. Lavina Melwani on

    Tapas, thank you for your comment. I love the term ‘armchair pilgrim’! We have to be grateful to Thomas Kelly for his evocative images which take us to people and places we may never see.