West is West

Toni Hagen’s photographs of remote western Nepal from the 1950s show how much it has changed, and how much is the same

Man making a perilous crossing over the Seti River. All photos: TONI HAGEN

Katrin Hagen was poring through photographs that her father Toni Hagen had taken of western Nepal for geological research, when she was astounded by how much of this remote region had changed – and how much remained the same 70 years later.

She dug deeper into the photo archives with some of the earliest colour prints and slides of Nepal to find some gems. Some were later published in 1960 in his classic hardcover book, Toni Hagen’s Nepal, that introduced the country to the world. 

Toni Hagen's western Nepal routes

Toni Hagen first came to Nepal in 1950 as a United Nations adviser to carry out a geological survey to find mineral potential, and crisscrossed Nepal on foot over 12 years, traversing 15,000km. Along the way, he became less and less interested in geology and more in finding ways to enhance the living standards of Nepalis, especially in the more remote parts of the mountains.

“I found people more important than rocks,” he once said.

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Young woman in Simkot, where the dress style has not changed much.

Nepal’s average lifespan then was 40 years, and it was even less in the Karnali and far west. Nearly four in every ten babies did not survive to age five in the 1950s. Malnutrition was widespread. Karnali and Sudur Paschim Province are now doing much better, but still lag behind the national average in all development parameters

There are now roads even to the remotest valleys that Hagen trekked weeks to get to. Even the trans-Himalayan district of Dolpo is now connected to the Chinese border by road, and will soon have roads to Mustang and Rukum West.

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Upper Kuwadi Valley towards Sankha La in nothern Humla.

The other urgent need he saw for Nepal was connectivity. Walking across the country, he found the lack of bridges to be a major obstacle to getting around. Nepal seemed to be an archipelago of islands separated not by sea, but by rivers. This presaged the decades long Swiss involvement in building thousands of suspension trail bridges all over Nepal.

Hagen proposed a series of tunnels on a highway to connect Kathmandu to the Tarai across another one of his survey ideas, to build a reservoir on the Kulekhani River. The Kulekhani dam was built in 1984, but the Kathmandu-Fast Track is on the slow track and still only a dream.  

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Men paddling across the Karnali River in inflated buffalo skins.

A selection of Hagen’s photographs from western Nepal are being shown in a series of exhibitions in Patan, Surkhet, Mahendranagar and Jumla in the coming months. What is most striking about the images is the stark contrast between the scenic beauty of the region and its underdevelopment.

Toni Hagen took almost as many portraits of people as of the landscape, and in the faces of the people of Karnali we do not see poverty, but frugality. The wrinkles indicate the hardships of everyday life, but they are also smile lines. The clothing is all made from local wool, the houses are stone, thatch or slate surrounded by terrace farms of ripening buckwheat.

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Toni Hagen's porters below Murma Top overlooking Rara Lake, the shores of which are today covered in thick forest.

Surkhet Valley which today is all urbanised, was a patchwork of paddy fields then. Rara Lake is resplendent in turquoise, and to think that it took Toni Hagen a month’s trek from the Indian border to get there. Today, there is a road connecting it to Jumla and Surkhet. The lake’s shores, barren 70 years ago, is today thickly draped in pine forests after the villages were evacuated to create a national park.  

Toni Hagen died in 2003 in Switzerland after many visits to Nepal during which he saw the changes, both good and bad, sweeping the country. Katrin Hagen accompanied her father in many of the trips, and still conducts orthopaedic surgical camps in remote parts of Nepal where her father once walked.

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Village in Humla.

And through books, special exhibitions and collaborations with organisations such as the Nepal Geological Society and the Nepal Heritage Society, Katrin ensures that her father's work continues to be celebrated and shared with audiences in Nepal and around the world.

The significance of Toni Hagen's work extends beyond its aesthetic appeal. His research and documentation have played a crucial role in advancing our understanding of Nepal's geology, particularly in Western Nepal. The Nepal Geological Society now uses Hagen's photographs in its research. 

Toni Hagen western Nepal
Toni Hagen in his tent with curious onlookers, somewhere in western Nepal in 1952, flying the United Nations and Nepal flags.

”My father’s work helps bridge the gap between the past and the present,” Katrin Hagen said at the inauguration of the first exhibition of Western Nepal in the 1950s at Yala Maya Kendra on Tuesday. “The pictures allow Nepalis to see Nepal through his eyes and appreciate the changes that have occurred over time.” 

Western Nepal in the 1950s, an exhibition of Photos by Toni Hagen 

Yalamaya Kendra, Patan 27 February - 2 March

Patan Museum, 4-13 March 

Surkhet, Mahendranagar, Jumla (to be announced)

Toni Hagen's Nepal

Alisha Sijapati


Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.