Kathmandu from space 60 years apart

Then and Now: The Corona surveillance satellite image taken on 5 February 1967 shows the broad floodplains of the rivers flowing through Valley floor, Rana palaces, and the inner city of Patan and Kathmandu. The Google Earth Map taken on 20 April 2022, shows how much Kathmandu Valley has urbanised. 

From ground level, residents of Kathmandu Valley know how crowded the city has become. Many remember the terrace rice fields before they were covered over by concrete terraces.

Now, this rampant and haphazard urbanisation is visible in satellite images thanks to the declassification of American spy satellite imagery from 60 years ago.

The Corona strategic surveillance satellites were launched by the CIA and the US Air Force between 1959-1972 to gather intelligence on the Soviet and Chinese ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

This became especially important after an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. The Corona satellite is code named Keyhole and would snap pictures from 150km in orbit, and return a capsule to earth to be retrieved by special planes with hooks, and the film developed in the CIA darkrooms.

In all, 144 satellites were launched and many of them failed. But there are enough high resolution photographs of the earth’s surface. The images are now in the public domain after being declassified by President Clinton in 1992.

The images have been useful for anthropologists to study ancient aboriginal settlements in Australia, and uncover hidden Mesopotamian migration routes before they were obliterated by modern infrastructure.

Kathmandu Valley, obviously, has changed a lot. The Valley floor is now wall-to-wall buildings, the broad floodplains of the Vishnumati, Manahara and Bagmati are now choked with buildings, the Budanilkantha alluvial fan below Shivapuri, which used to be wrinkled with terrace farms are now built-up.

Kathmandu Airport : The newly constructed runway at Kathmandu Airport 60 years ago. The then-Royal Nepal Airlines’ two Dakota aircrafts are visible, parked in the apron. Note the densely built-up Bagmati flood plain and Tinkune.

Bagmati and Manahara: The new settlement of Baneswor, Buddhanagar and BICC complex that houses Parliament in 1967. Today, the Bagmati River has been shrunk by the exploding urbanscape.

Vishnumati plains: Balaju Industrial Area was just being set up six decades ago. Today, much of the forest in the area is gone, with only a few trees remaining inside the British and Indian embassies across the river. The Nagarjun-Shivapuri National Park today has healthier vegetation.


There are also things that have not changed. The Gokarna forests and the wooded areas of the British and Indian Embassies are still there. The ancient palace complexes of Hanuman Dhoka and Mangal Bazar are more or less intact.

And while the photographs from 1967 show denuded hills on the Valley rim, these slopes now have thick forest cover when compared to Google Map images taken earlier this year. Partly this is because of community forests and also the establishment of the Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park.

Budanilkantha and Nagarjun: The paddy fields of Budanilkantha have been replaced by residential buildings, but the mostly denuded Shivapuri spurs in 1967 years ago are now reforested.

The Keyhole satellites are of such high resolution that DC-3 aircraft parked at the the newly-expanded airport at Gauchar can easily be spotted. And just like the Corona images were used to study ancient camel caravan routes in North Africa and West Asia, the paths used by residents of Thimi to cross the runway to Pashupati can be made out in closeups.

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).