The Rhythm of earthquakes is especially cruel: tremors, crescendo, shock, aftershock. The 7.8-magnitude quake on April 25 in Nepal left at least 8,000 dead; then on May 12 a 7.3-magnitude quake hit, killing dozens more. Photographer James Nachtwey headed to Nepal after the first quake, initially visiting the cities and then venturing deep into the countryside. “With the death toll rising, the funeral pyres at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu were consuming the mortal remains of the dead in a seemingly endless procession of ritualized grief, acceptance and farewell,” Jim reports. “So that the dead might be washed before cremation, stone steps led down to the Bagmati River, its waters clouded and filled with debris, much like the river of life. Ashes to ashes.”
Jim traveled with Indian army soldiers on helicopter relief missions, in an effort to reach remote mountain villages cut off by landslides. The pilots landed with little clearance on small terraced fields carved into the steep mountainsides. Some flights could find no place to land; others hovered and simply pushed the food, blankets and tarps out. One mission took Jim to an extremely remote Buddhist monastery deep in the snow-covered high Himalayas to evacuate a group of young monks from their damaged dwellings.
Jim spent three days in Barpak, where more than 1,200 of the 1,450 houses were destroyed. He camped in a small tent, sleeping on the ground at night, then climbing each day up the steep pathways buried in rubble to photograph residents trying to salvage whatever remained of their homes. “As I had seen in so many other places, the worst conditions can bring out the best in people,” Jim says. “The Nepalese true character was revealed–their strength and fortitude, their equanimity and unshakable resilience, their innate sense of acceptance and, even with everything gone, their spirit of hospitality.”
Nancy Gibbs, EDITOR
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This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.