Back to Manang after 43 years

Using oxen to plough a field in 1979 and in 2010 (right). All photos: ZDENĚK THOMA AND TOMÁŠ BERÁNEK

The Prague Spring democracy uprising had just been crushed by Soviet troops in 1968, and many Czechoslovaks fled the country. Photographer Zdeněk Thoma also left, but not as a refugee – he travelled overland to Istanbul, Tehran, Kabul and Kathmandu to discover the world.

He went on to Calcutta, and in Singapore hitched a ride on a Polish cargo ship to Osaka. Thoma’s life-long love affair with Japan began then. He has been to the country 12 times and has since published three photo books, the latest on Japanese gardens.

But after Japan, it is Nepal that Zdeněk Thoma is most fond of, and especially the valley of Manang which he first trekked to in 1979. He spent three weeks photographing the scenic trans-Himalayan valley and on return to Prague, held a photo exhibition ‘Village in the Shadow of Annapurna’.

Czechoslovakia was still one country then, and the Communist regime had made it difficult for citizens to travel abroad. Which is why the dramatic photographs from an exotic corner of the Nepal Himalaya was an instant hit, were exhibited in galleries and museums in Czechia and Slovakia, inspiring a generation of mountaineers.

Three self confident girls Thoma encountered while trekking Manang Valley in 1979. Right: Nearly 40 years later the women are now in Kathmandu.

If it was any other photographer, that would have been the end of the story, and Thoma would have gone on to explore and photograph other parts of the world. But in 2008, he got his son Michal to retrace his steps to Manang, carrying with him an album of black and white photographs taken thirty years earlier.

“The idea was to document and interpret the changes that had happened in Manang in the intervening years,” Zdenek Thoma, now 84, said during another visit to Nepal this week. Thoma went back to Manang on this trip, and the transformation has been even greater. In 1979, he had to walk for two weeks from Dumre up the Marsyangdi to Manang, today there is a road right up to Manang village.

The road is rought, but has further altered the livelihoods and architecture of this once-quaint valley at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Even so, a lot of things have also remained the same.

“When my father first came to Manang in 1979, I was just six months old,” says Michal. “I grew up listening to his stories about Nepal instead of fairytales. The photographs were imprinted in my mind, so when I finally got to Manang myself in 2008 I was already familiar with the place.”

Michal went house-to-house in Manang and surrounding villages trying to locate some of the people in his father’s photographs. A young Dalit girl carrying her baby brother on her back in 1979 was a young woman. Already in 2008, there were a couple of motorcycles in Manang that had been carried over since the road to Besisahar had not yet been built.

Before the road (and concrete) got there, the terraced houses of villages like Braga, Chame, Humde looked unchanged in 30 years. But it has been 14 years already since 2008, and that is not the case anymore. In 2008, mobile phones had already got to Manang and Michal has a photograph of women carrying a load of buckwheat on their back, and one of them is texting while she walks.

The mountains seem eternal, and do not change much. But the impact of the climate crisis are now visible. The Gangapurna Lake at the terminus of the glacier did not exist 50 years ago. By 1979 it was a large pond. In another 30 years, the lake had expanded and the glacier has retreated up the north face of Mt Gangapurna. Today, the lake is gone -- covered by debris after heavy monsoon rains in 2000 washed down fragile glacial deposits no longer held together by permafrost.

When Michal returned to Prague in 2008, he organised another exhibition ‘Manang: 30 Years Ago’ with before and after pictures by his father and himself. In 2010, Zdenek and Michal exhibited the photographs at the

Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF), and after that father and son took the photographs to Manang where the photos were entrusted with a family to be exhibited.

“When I first came to Manang, the people I photographed said they felt like the yaks that tourists took pictures of,” recalls Zdenek. “So we wanted to give the photographs to the people there. People there could see how much their villages had changed, sometimes for better sometimes for worse, so that Nepalis could decide how its remote mountains valleys should be developed in future.”

Kathmandu Calendar

1979 – 2023

Czech photographer Zdenek Thoma first visited Kathmandu in 1979 in his overland travel from Prague to Singapore. But that brief visit to Kathmandu Valley fascinated him, and he returned several times after that.

The photographs he took of Manang are part of a father-son exhibition with his son Michal of the transformation of the HImalaya (see main story). But the Kathmandu photographs represent a valuable archive of the Valley then and now. The changes in the architecture, the skyline, the people’s attire and livelihoods is documented in black and white photographs.

Bhaktapur’s skyline in 1979 and today. Tile roofs have been replaced with concrete, terraced farms with terraced roofs.

Nyatapola Temple Square in Bhaktapur has not changed much in 43 years, on the dresses of people.

An all-purpose pond in Bhaktaphur in a span of nearly half-a-century.

An ancient Hiti in 1979 and today where the water still flows.

Now, Thomas has brought out a 2023 calendar where he has juxtaposed some of the photographs with more recent colour images of the same places or street scenes by Tomáš Beránek and Jan Zalud. Proceeds from the sale of the calendars will go to Namaste Nepal, a Czech non-profit that focuses on development aid to Nepal and helps underserved children with education. It has also helped with rebuilding primary schools after the 2015 earthquake.

  • Most read