Yap Tse Ten Tashi

A feisty man who captured the collective imagination of many, Rhenock Yap Tse Ten Tashi doffed many hats: orchidologist, amateur botanist, photographer, entrepreneur, and much-loved friend and family man. A scion of the Rhenock Dhakarpa family that traces its roots back to two of Sikkim’s finest native military brains-Changzod Chothup a.k.a. General Satrajeet for his 17 consecutive victories over marauding Gorkha armies, and Deba Tsang Rinzin- TTT, as he liked to call himself, was above all, a Sikkimphile. He served as Private Secretary to Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, Crown Prince Paljor Namgyal and Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. In 1963, he was conferred one of Sikkim’s highest honours, the Pema Dorji, in recognition of distinguished service rendered to the Sikkim Darbar. Largely a self-taught man, his perennial thirst for knowledge; all pervasive passion for orchids, rhododendrons and alpine plants; and boundless energy translated into a legendary reputation that spread beyond the borders of his native Sikkim. For most travellers, a visit to TTT’s residence in Sikkim was de rigueur, the high point of their visit. There, amidst a profusion of blooms in his roof top orchidarium, his Rhode Island Red poultry farm in the background, Yap Tse Ten Tashi was a suave and effortless host. He would proffer his guest an orchid, his trademark ‘chang’ and then, as Dean Gaspar said, ‘he talked, with a great personal pride, of Sikkim and the Royal Family, of mountains and flowers and birds and butterflies and people...all, with an imagery that captivated’. A man much ahead of his times, and with a bewildering plethora of interests that ranged from bodybuilding-it is said he could bend an iron

bar against the wall with his chest!- to trying to discover a native cure for cancer, TTT was somewhat of an enigma to most of his contemporaries. TTT had an intuitive understanding of plants and discovered many new species and mutations. He used to send specimens of his discoveries to Kew Gardens where the scientific community would minutely dissect the flower to check if it was indeed a new species; a genuine find could be named by the finder. On the eve of the coronation of the 12th Denjong Chogyal in 1965, TTT discovered a new orchid, Sikkim’s 601st orchid to be precise, which he promptly named ‘Cymbidium Eburneum var. Denjong Chogyal.’ Among others, he also named another orchid ‘Dendrobium Ashi Kesang Wangchucki’ after the Queen Mother of Bhutan. The American Rhododendron Society (ARS) contracted him to collect seeds of several rhododendrons and send them to the ARS, which then used them to grow several seedlings. Even today, rhododendrons that trace their origins back to these seeds dot American landscapes. The triumvirate of Yap Tse Ten Tashi; former Chief Secretary of Sikkim, Mr.K.C.Pradhan and Mr. Britt Smith of the ARS pioneered conservation efforts in Sikkim, culminating ultimately in the creation of the Khangchendzonga National Park and the Kyangnosola Alpine Plant Sanctuary. The latter is home to Tse Ten Tashi Cave, an ornithologist’s haven. TTT probably started taking photographs in the wake of the German Schäfer expedition to Tibet via Sikkim in 1938-39. His close friend, Mr.K.C.Pradhan recollects that “TTT’s first camera was a Rolleiflex Twin-lens Reflex 2.8F TLR. 120 roll film with 16 shots. The Camera was brought by Ernst Schafer in 1938 during German Natural History Expedition. Rai Saheb Bhim Bahadur Pradhan, then Forest Manager and close to Schafer, was so enamored with the Camera that he struck a bargain and exchanged with seven tiered ancestral ceremonial brass lamp. The lamp must be either at Berlin or Chicago Museums where the Expedition’s treasures were intercepted at high sea by the Allied

Forces. He used it prolifically and TTT being family friend used to borrow frequently. TTT was so hooked to it that the former gave it to TTT around 1944 as by then he had lost interest in photography.”

Thus began TTT’s long tryst with serious photography, which would see him remembered as one of Sikkim’s first well-known native photographers, and also his appointment as the Court Photographer to both the Chogyal of Sikkim as well as the Druk Gyalpo, the King of Bhutan. Interestingly, in keeping with his impetuous character, TTT did not stick to one camera or one brand very long. He liked to try out several cameras, and would happily lend and borrow cameras. Although he mostly used and owned modest cameras, he had an innate flair and produced excellent results with them. Some cameras made a lasting impression on TTT, such as the Hasselblad Camera ordered in the early1960s by some Tibetan gentry. TTT delivered this beauty safely to Tibet, but made sure he tried it out first!

He also used the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic briefly. This commanded a cult following among photographers, and TTT was happy to join its legions of admirers.

But above all, Leica was TTT’s favourite. Most of his slides that he used to stock with Magnum Photos in USA were all from Leica. TTT used to regularly send his slides to photo-stocks, and earn a regular side- income from them, as well as from selling fresh eggs to the Palace and the now Raj Bhavan!

As TTT found it taxing to send his slides and photographs all the way to Mumbai to get them developed, he set up Sikkim’s first photographic studio, Tse Ten Tashi & Co, with his own bathroom at home doubling up as its darkroom! TTT also opened a branch of Tse Ten Tashi & Co in Kalimpong near Jetmull Bhojraj’s establishment. The Gangtok photo studio or the ‘Parkhang’(Tibetan:studio) as it came to be popularly known, made passport photographs including ID for Tibetan refugees, studio portraits and sold photographs taken by TTT. It also sold postcards based on his photographs.

He trained a number of photographers and dark room technicians, including Rinchen Lepcha and Twan Yang. Yap Tse Ten Tashi himself made several movies on Tibet, of which only a few survive today. The fate of a cine-movie that he took of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and apparently sold to someone abroad remains unknown.

TTT was fully aware that he was recording history through his photographs, commenting that one day, his photographs would be invaluable testimonials of history. At one time, he had an exhaustive collection of photographs taken in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Sadly, not much remains of his collection today. While a few photographs nestle in family albums, the major bulk of his collection is lost forever. Many of the photographs in the retrospective on display here were sourced from abroad. A jovial, gregarious and extremely vital personality, Yap Tse Ten Tashi had several friends and admirers. Nari Rustomji, Dewan of Sikkim aptly summarized him as, ‘Amongst his innumerable specimens, Tse Ten himself is the rarest of them all - a truly, truly precious bloom, radiating, through all the seasons, fragrance, beauty, humour, scholarship and- greatest of them all - compassion. Perhaps it is only fitting that Yap Tse Ten Tashi chose to name his residence in Gangtok bazaar ‘Light of Sikkim Building’.

Tenzin C. Tashi, Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Deorali, Gangtok tinatashi@gmail.com

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