Hamid Sardar-Afkhami: 'The Duhalar Depend on...Domestic Reindeer Population'

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© Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

By Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

The Duhalar reindeer people live in Hovsgol — the land of the blue lake — a territory of about 65,000 sq. km in Northwestern Mongolia bordering the tiny Russian Republic of Tuva. The Duhalar are the guardians of this hidden realm, patrolling a maze of evergreen forests and snow-capped mountains on the backs of their stocky reindeer. They gain a meager existence by hunting for furs and antlers, which they sell in a nearby Mongol town.

The Duhalar depend on a healthy domestic reindeer population not just for their milk and as a means of transport but also for their spirituality - to move through a forest haunted by the spirits of their ancestors who counsel the living through the shaman’s songs. If the reindeer vanish, the songlines of the ancestors will also cease to exist.

There are hundreds of ghost shrines, called “asars,” in the Hovsgol taiga. The entire forest is a burial ground. This explains why the Duhalar are so opposed to government plans to disfigure their landscape with mines. “I will become immortal in this forest after I die,” Tsuyan, the old shaman matriarch explained. 

“What is Dark Heaven?” I asked her. “It is the dark space on the other side,” Tsuyan says, “full of colors, sounds and voices from where the ancestors appear and reveal their message to the living.” On odd days of the waxing moon, Tsuyan would transform herself into a deer and fly off to a place called the Dark Heavens, a twilight world full of light, sounds and voices from where the ancestors reveal their hidden messages in the guise of various birds and beasts. “We exist in relation to three things she would say, “...our forest, our ancestor spirits and our reindeer. If we lose this connection, our spirits ‘ongots’ will abandon us and the demons will take hold of our destiny.”

The Duhalar choose one reindeer and mark it as a ‘totem deer’ that serves as a mount for the invisible guardian spirits of the tribe. In addition, every individual person is ceremonially linked to an individual deer that is believed to protect them throughout their life and follow them into the other worlds.

I was very much keen to express this ‘spiritual’ relationship between man and deer in my photographs. But after traveling with the Duhalar for several seasons and shooting thousands of pictures, I didn’t have anything that came close to what I would consider an iconic image. One day, after a long Autumn migration, I was talking photographs of the women milking the reindeer with children playing nearby. A young infant-girl sat next to her mother and soon fell asleep. Her mother gently placed her on the side of a white deer and continued milking. Suddenly, there it was. The composition of the sleeping child lying on the side of a magnificent antlered creature who was looking down at her with a protective, almost transcendental expression, perfectly captured my thoughts.

no strangers: ancient wisdom in a modern world will show at the Annenberg Space for Photography and runs through February 24, 2013. Learn more about Hamid Sardar-Afkhami's work on his official website.

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