Time capsule of Kathmandu

Aerial view of Baudha

Swiss geologist Toni Hagen first came to Nepal in 1950, crisscrossed the mountains and plains on foot to find out the kind of rocks the country was made of. His detailed stratigraphic cross sections of Nepal for the first time gave us an idea of what lay beneath our feet.

Along the way he also took thousands of photographs and film which have been carefully archived by his family in Switzerland. Toni Hagen died in 2003, but the images represent a time capsule of the land and people, and show us the way we were.

Some of these photographs were included in the multiple editions of Nepal, the classic book about the country first published in 1962 which introduced Nepal to the world, and through its Nepali language edition, to Nepalis themselves.

Now, the Nepal Heritage Society has published another collection of Toni Hagen’s photographs of Kathmandu Valley, some of which were included in an exhibition at the Nepal Art Council in 2015 on the centennial of Toni Hagen’s birth.

Vishnumati flowing clean and blue with Langtang peering over Shivapuri ridge. The Bagmati at Thapathali with a monsoon cumulus looming above Pulchoki.

Toni Hagen: Photos of Kathmandu Valley 1950-1960 is edited by his physician daughter, Katrin, with extended captions by history professor Poonam Rajya Laxmi Rana. The book contains photographs that have not yet been published combined with accompanying historical text. This is an important work that shows us Kathmandu in aerial photography 70 years ago, neighbourhoods and street scenes that have long gone, but there are also plenty of reminders of how the inner city bahals and squares have not changed much in the six decades since the photographs were taken.

‘The photos and films by my father have immense value not only for the archives but for the studies of glaciers, as many of them have changed due to climate change,’ write Katrin Hagen in her preface. ‘The pictures of the old days are somehow a cultural heritage … there was no water supply, no sanitation facilities. But the water of the Bagmati was clean, there was no plastic waste.”

Indeed, the book allows us to travel back in time to a Kathmandu where the Bagmati reflects the deep-blue monsoon sky, dark rain-heavy monsoon clouds draping the familiar outline of Pulchoki, the green paddy terraces  encircling towns with earthy brown sloping tile roofs. And, possibly because he was from Switzerland, almost all of Hagen’s photographs have as their backdrop snow mountains in the background.

Buffaloes wallowing in Chapagain have Dorje Lakpa in the background. Oxen pull a plough with Ganesh Himal glistening on the horizon. Women in Not Danda carry firewood, with the entire panorama of the Central Himalaya on the horizon. In one photograph from Sanga on a clear day, you can see clear across Nepal to the Annapurnas.

Hagen chartered a six-seater Haviland biplane in Patna and flew it into Gauchar to take the first ever aerial photographs of Kathmandu Valley in 1950. One black-and-white photograph from above Hanuman Dhoka looking east towards Tundikhel shows just how much the city has changed and how much of it remains the same. There is Tundikhel with the khari tree in the middle, the temples of Kathmandu Darbar Square, Bhugol Park, the open space around Dharara and the two-storey buildings of Khichapokhari.

Ambica Shrestha, President of the Nepal Heritage Society that published the book, says in an introduction: ‘Sharing these photos reminds those who witnessed Kathmandu’s past, and those who did not have the good fortune to do so, to see and experience the scenes and atmosphere of the time.’

Rana’s explanatory text provide the background to the images, giving he historical context. The words accompanying the rare aerial photograph of Singha Darbar, for instance, traces the history of neo-classical Rana architecture. There is one anecdote about Jung Bahadur being asked by a foreign visitor why his palace did not have an indoor toilet. His answer: “We do not go to the toilet, the toilet comes to us.”

Toni Hagen: Photos of Kathmandu Valley 1950-1960

Edited by Katrin Hagen, Text by Poonam Rajya Laxmi Rana

Nepal Heritage Society

Vajra Books, 2019

176 pages     Rs4,000

For more photographs from the book click this link to the 2015 exhibition of Toni Hagen’s photographs.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).