Tom Johnson – Basketball and Buddhism

Tom Johnson documents the annual basketball tournament of the Tibetan monks in Dharamshala

Tom Johnson traveled to Dharamshala in 2018 for a documentary photo series. Dharamshala is a city in India. It lies in the foothills of the Himalayas and has a rich history. The city is the very definition of the word ‘picturesque’ with dramatic natural landscapes dominating the skyline that surrounds it. 


One of the most significant facts about this city is its status as the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration. As such, Dharamshala is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. 
A significant landmark in the city is the Thekchen Chöling Temple Complex part of which houses the Dalai Lama. 
This environment of spirituality, history and beauty has become the setting for the Martyrs basketball tournament and it is this that Tom Johnson has documented in a photographic series for Entorsemagazine.


A globalised game

Basketball is a sport that is played the world over. If you are looking, there can be found an old hoop hanging from the side of a wall in almost every town. The image that we conjure up, however, when we think of basketball, is that of an American inner city or a high school sports centre.
This is what has made Tom Johnson’s images so intriguing. Our limited knowledge of Tibetan monks does not tend to include basketball matches. We associate meditation and reading with the saffron robe wearing Buddhist monks and so, when we see these images, our interest is peaked.


Of course, it is only the ignorance of the viewer that gives these images this particular power. The American troops, since world war one, have carried Basketball with them to the countries where they went leaving it behind as with other aspects of imperialist culture. The YMCA has also been credited with proliferation of the fast-paced sport and this is, in fact, how the game made its way to India.
India first made its acquaintance with basketball though Duncan Patton and it was not long before the country played its own national championship in 1934. The game has remained popular throughout the country. 


In Tibet, the first appearance of basketball was a hundred years ago where a rocky landscape in much of the eastern part of the country made basketball a more practical option than football. During the occupation of Tibet by the China’s People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military had a basketball team and matches would be played and would be attended by thousands of people before the Dalai Lama had to flee to exile in India. 


Play to remember

The Tibetan monks in the Indian city of Dharamshala now play a tournament every year as a tribute to the monks who have publicly sacrificed themselves since the 2000s in order to protest the chinese occupation. 


Johnson wanted to show the crossover over of an ancient religion and people and a relatively modern sport like basketball. The images, though, do not seem like the too often patronising and prying eye of the west. Instead, they are simply a record of a sports tournament. That is the beauty of the series that Johnson has produced. Camaraderie, sportsmanship and skill are what dominate the images and it is only the bright robes and the starling backdrop that give us an insight into the significance of the tournament.


These images capture prayer flags flying around the courts as the players compete with the smaller court size still playing favour with the hilly terrain. The tournament is an important reminder of the political and cultural genocide that has been experienced by the Tibetan refugees. The images, as a documentation of this tournament, are, therefore, an extension of this remembrance and a way to extend awareness.  


Click here to check out this amazing artist, to first of our May Issue!


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