A talent rediscovered helps preserve Bhutan’s most sacred sights
For more than 25 years, Supawan Pui Lamsam ’73 thought she had found her calling providing art and fine food to patrons of her restaurant and gallery in her native Bangkok. Over those years, she adapted to various changes in the business climate: closing the gallery when interest waned, and then shifting her culinary focus from dine-in to take-out and supplying food to local restaurants.
But, as is not uncommon for successful professionals as they reach middle age, by 2005 she was ready for a change. She just wasn’t sure what. A friend asked her if there was something she had enjoyed doing long ago that had fallen by the wayside over the years, and she recalled the photography classes she had loved as a Concord Academy student.
And so, having barely picked up a camera since she was a teenager, Lamsam signed up for a 20-day National Geographic photographic tour of Tibet. The group was already full, but opportunity knocked in the form of a last-minute cancellation.
Supawan Pui Lamsam '73 (center, in purple) in Bhutan
Lamsam discovered on that trip that she still loved photography. When her vintage film camera stopped working a few days in, she made the transition to digital photography. Just as challenging as the technology, though, were the physical demands of the trip. “Prior to that, I had never done rough traveling before,” she recalls. “I hated to walk, and had never done any camping or hiking.” Getting to many of the mountaintop temples required at least two hours of climbing; at the age of 50, Lamsam found she was up to the challenge. “The more difficult it is, the more you can sense your karma being cleansed and purified,” she says. “When you get up to the mountaintop temples, the energy is very different, very pure. I could feel the sense of blessing.”
A year after the Tibet trip, Lamsam met His Holiness the Fourth Dodrupchen Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who resides in Sikkim, India. His spiritual teachings inspired her to travel to Sikkim, Bhutan, and the surrounding area in the Himalayan range in order to further her understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, which is different from the Thai Buddhist tradition in which she had been raised.
‘When you get up to the mountaintop temples, the energy is very different, very pure. I could feel the
sense of blessing.’
–Pui Lamsam ’73
In the ensuing decade, Lamsam would make dozens more trips to Bhutan’s sacred sites. Her interest caught the attention of Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother to the present king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. In 2009, the Royal Grandmother brought Lamsam to her newly completed Zangdok Palri of Kurjey Bumthang temple and granted her rare permission to put together a book about it. Lamsam has since published four more books. The first, which Lamsam describes as a small guidebook, was titled Zangdok Palri of Kurjey Bumthang. The second, a much larger volume of photos and spiritual writings for which Lamsam recruited help from Buddhist scholars, was Zangdok Palri: The Lotus Light Palace of Guru Rinpoche. “That book took three years to make, as well as trips up and down many mountains to photograph various temples and sacred sites,” Lamsam says. Her daughter, Tanika Pook Panyarachun ’05, helped with the photography. Three more books followed: Kyichu Lhakhang: The Sacred Jewel of Bhutan; Zangdok Palri Zingkod-ki Namshed Namdrol Lamdren (A Path to Liberation: Journey to Zangdok Palri Paradise); and Paro Kyichu Lhakhang: Ambrosia to the Ears of the Faithful. All but the last two are available in English. Her books address a varied audience: tourists, art connoisseurs, Buddhists on pilgrimage, locals, monks. Her sister, Varangkana Van Lamsam ’79; her daughter, Pook; and her son have all accompanied her to the temples at various times.
Lamsam is pleased with the contribution she is making to expanding awareness of Bhutan’s temples and sacred sites (sales of her books are also supporting the restoration of the temples). Ultimately, she says, it’s not really about the books or the photography; it’s about the spiritual quest and the fellowship. “What has been most fulfilling for me is that I have been able to help preserve history, through recording what may be lost in the future,” she says. “I am most happy to be able to assist Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother in her temple restoration work through the sale of the books. We have restored several temples, funded prayer ceremonies, and built sacred statues, all of which is to enrich the souls of many others who have devotion. I feel most fortunate for the opportunity to work to exhaust my past negative karma. Each time we enter these places, before we can start working we’d have a prayer ceremony in respect for the temple. Every visit is like a ritual. First we do the blessing. The work comes later.”