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Looking Back at Nepal through Photography

December 07, 2019 7 min read

Looking Back at Nepal through Photography

No history can be better expressed than the words which are merely based on first hand experiences of the writers or the speakers. Even after the invention of photography, the history of Nepal—sandwiched between China and India—was then passed from generation to generations through either written means or through the words of mouth. Nepal was an isolated country, a “forbidden land” (Powell 4). The rulers of Nepal were unseen in outer world. Not until the invention of Photography, so called “dictators” of Nepal were described through the words of mouth in an entire population. For many, they were the heroes of the country, for some, they were cruel dictators. What they did was not visible in photographs, but the way they appear in the early photographs suggests how different they were from their ordinary people. There was no highway between India and the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu, but the modern vehicles then would run in the valley of Kathmandu. On the top of that, Nepal is the land of Himalayas which boarders the Tibetan region, and the country has an open boarder with India which was then controlled by British Crown. It is with no surprise that there was not any Nepali photographer during the time when the photography had been already invented some 20 years ago. In this brief essay, I wish to speculate on the introduction and the environment of Photography in Nepal between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. I seek to open up new way of looking back in time through speculation and analysis of photographs taken by few photographers.

 

Interestingly, the earliest photography in Nepal came as the result of political cause. One of the eminent photographers of Nepal is Clarence Comyn Taylor who was able to capture the ruling family members, landscape, and monuments of Nepal. He was not a professional photographer before. Taylor was a former soldier of the East India Company’s army who was wounded badly in the Indian Uprising of 1857 and started serving as Assistant Resident at Kathmandu in 1863 for the British who had started to document the people and monuments of Nepal using photography[1]. He worked politically for the Government of India by documenting the people and places which were never captured before. He is the first photographer to capture the prime minister of Nepal, Janga Bahadur Rana (ruled 1846-77) during 1863-65 (BL). It is surprising fact that the photography turned not only to record the portraits and the architectural landscape, but as surveillance of the rulers of Nepal as well as to document the political and social environment during that time. Most of the photographs (1-8) taken by Taylor in albumen prints clearly show the political intentions of the British Indian government:

 

1.	No XV in Taylor's List of pictures, the albumen print portrait of Jang Bahadur Rana is the earliest known photograph of him taken in Kathmandu in 1863 (British Library)

1. No XV in Taylor's List of pictures, the albumen print portrait of Jang Bahadur Rana is the earliest known photograph of him taken in Kathmandu in 1863 (British Library).

 

Jang Bahadur Rana and his sons

2. Jang Bahadur Rana and his sons.

 

2.	Jang Bahadur Rana with his principal wife Hiranyagarbha Kumari, two daughters and attendants

3. Jang Bahadur Rana with his principal wife Hiranyagarbha Kumari, two daughters and attendants.

 

Photograph of the King of Nepal, Surendra Bikram Shah and other members of a palace

4. Photograph of the King of Nepal, Surendra Bikram Shah and other members of a palace.

 

Taleju Temple in Kathmandu

5. Taleju Temple in Kathmandu.

 

Photograph of the palace including the zenana (or women's quarters), in Kathmandu

6. Photograph of the palace including the zenana (or women's quarters), in Kathmandu.

 

Photograph of a stone bridge at Bhaktapur, a part of Kathmandu valley

7. Photograph of a stone bridge at Bhaktapur, a part of Kathmandu valley.

 

Photograph with a view of the Kathmandu Valley from the Hill of the Swayambhunath stupa

8. Photograph with a view of the Kathmandu Valley from the Hill of the Swayambhunath stupa.

 

The difference between first four (1-4) and the last four (5-8) photographs clearly signifies the reason why Taylor captured the way they are. The first four photographs are the portraits of ruling families. One of the reasons on why they took photographs is that they had never been captured before. On one hand, it was a way of looking their own images by themselves. On other hand, they are the only people who could afford to take photographs. Interestingly, the first four photographs have ambiguous characteristics. Unlike western family photographs, these first four photographs have blank backgrounds. These are the people who have the finest dresses, ornaments of gold and diamonds, but the backgrounds are vacant. It seems as if they were photographed in a small studio space, not in the palace of monarchs. The last four architectural landscape photographs consist of detailed description of Kathmandu Valley, like a modern day surveillance of a place. Only Taylor could document those families and the landscape because he worked for the government of British India.

 

Then the question of why there were not many photographs of Nepal even after the invention of photography some 20 years early becomes clear. It is not because the monarchs of Nepal couldn’t afford the instrument; it is because photographers were not allowed to enter the “forbidden land”. Photography was already introduced in India in 1840, “five months after Daguerre demonstrated his process to the French Academies of Sciences and Fine Arts, a Calcutta firm offered Daguerreotype cameras for sale…Officers of the East India Company, which effectively ruled India until the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, were encouraged to add photographs to their reports. Commercial photographers provided the British public with pictures of India, and a number of amateurs took cameras with them as they pursued their duties” (Howe 31). “At this time the British had started a project to document the people and monuments of the Indian sub-continent using photography. Taylor fortuitously was a capable photographer and took images of Nepal for the Government of India” (BL). It is clear why British documented Nepal. After ruling over India more than 250 years then, British monarch was unable to control and capture Nepal. It seems as if Nepal was under a careful scrutiny.

 

Not only British were curious to document Nepal, E. Alexander Powell, an American author of the “The Last Home Of Mystery”, went Nepal in 1928. He clearly describes why it was difficult to enter Nepal. “Its rulers rarely grant permission to foreigners to penetrate beyond the outlying provinces of the Terai. Its warlike mountaineers, jealous of their independence, regard all Europeans with suspicion. The white men dwelling within its confines may be numbered on the fingers of a single hand. And for political reasons the Government of India discourages those travelers who seek to cross the Nepalese frontier” (Powell 4). On his trip to Nepal, he has captured diverse photographs from then the prime minster Chandra Shumsher JBR to ordinary people of Nepal. He describes his one photograph: “But it might be the Tower of Babel, so diverse and bewildering are the architectural styles, the races, the religions, the costumes, the colors, the tongues”. But how much was Powell interested with the diversity? It is hard to find out his conclusion of his expeditions, but the photographs he took bring an attentive gesture even today. The prime minister Chandra Shumsher JBR’s portrait gives us a glimpse of what the ruler looked like during 20th century in Nepal. But comparing him with the outfits of general publics in the photographs 10 and 11 suggest how far the difference was between the ruler and his people. Powell in his book describes the prime minister as:

“The dictator is not a particular distinguished figure in mufti, but upon my departure from Nepal he sent me an autographed picture which shows him in the full regalia of his rank—a scarlet coat incrusted with bullion, arabesque with gold braid, and cluttered with cordons and grand crosses; a helmet-like headdress of pearls fringed with tallow-drop emeralds the size of marbles; and a soaring white aigrette held in place by one enormous diamond. When, arrayed in this resplendent outfit, he appeared at Buckingham Palace some years ago, even the blasé English court, accustomed as it is to Oriental splendor, sat up and took notice.”

 

Chandra Shumsher JBR, then the prime minister of Nepal

9. Chandra Shumsher JBR, then the prime minister of Nepal.

 

A Motor For His Majesty, “An American automobile, purchased by the King of Nepal, being carried by coolies over the mountains to Kathmandu.”

10. A Motor For His Majesty, “An American automobile, purchased by the King of Nepal, being carried by coolies over the mountains to Kathmandu.”

 

Kathmandu

11. Kathmandu.

 

What did those photographers want to show through their photographic translations, is a question to be asked. Were it not for photography’s mere essentiality and photographer’s urge to capture beyond time and space, most of the people would have otherwise gone unrecorded. They make photographs not only a means to look at it, but to give them a life forever. And, what it means to us to gaze upon these subjects, and make them a life like object?

 

What it means to stay still and exchange mutually the moment of “seen” and “to be recorded” by the “magic box”? And, what is the relationship between the recorder and the subjects if there is no mutual exchange, i.e. like the photographic sitting versus the decision of the photographer to capture the subjects without mutual exchange between the subjects and the photographer? Harold Lyle Dusenberry in 1951 captures an event similar to E. Alexander Powell’s photograph “A Motor For His Majesty”. In the photograph people carry a car through the mountain to Kathmandu. This image shows the socio-economic condition of Nepal during 1951. Surprisingly, there was no highway that could go through the mountains to the valley of the capital city, Kathmandu. None of the subjects gaze towards the camera. Dusenberry is able to express the moment without mutual exchange between him and his subjects. But photography goes beyond expression, it becomes an event itself. The one who sees the photograph is not only gaining the expressions of the photographer, he is looking at the event that actually happened.

 

A vehicle being carried from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu, through Chitlang Marg, 1951

12. A vehicle being carried from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu, through Chitlang Marg, 1951.

 

[1] British Library (BL)

Works Cited

Powell, Alexander E. The Last Home Of Mystery. New York: The Century Co, 1929. Print.

Howe, Kathleen Stewart. First Seen: Portraits of the World’s Peoples 1840-1880. London: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2004. Print.


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