Nepali Times
The first photographs of us


The People of India, printed in 1868, was a photographic album prepared at the insistence of the Viceroy Lord Canning. Glass plate photography had been invented barely a decade earlier, but by 1860 colonial officers all over the subcontinent were proficient in the process. The colonial administration in Calcutta clearly wanted to document the people, a need that seems to have been felt after the mutiny of 1858.

The book contains around 400 albumen prints of people from Burma to Afghanistan, and includes 24 photographs of Nepali citizens even though Nepal was not part of the Indian empire. For whatever reason this was done, we have a treasure trove of portraits from long ago.

The Nepal pictures provide a window on how Nepalis carried themselves 150 years ago, how they dressed, how long they kept their hair, what weaponry and implements they used. Whereas we have many photographs of the Rana court and subsequently of the Newar and Khas nobility, this is the first photographic 'shoot' of ordinary Nepalis. The text which accompanied the photographs are thought to have been provided by the previous British resident in Kathmandu, Brian Hodgson.

A Gurung youth looks to us through the prism of history. His hair is nearly at shoulder length, and a talisman hangs from his neck. He wears a peculiar garment that all the other males wear in this set of photographs, seeming to represent the pre-daura suruwal era.
There are only four pictures with female subjects in the collection. In general, the dress, coiffure, and ornamentation of women seem to have changed less than those of the males. Pictures 2 and 3 show a Sunuwar and Limbu woman, respectively.

The middle-aged Limbu gentleman wears a regular padded Nepali topi and has twirled his moustache.
Picture of a Magar elder with wrap-around shawl and a 'Himali' topi.
Titled 'Murmi' in The People of India, this Tamang youth sports a khukuri and a topi of the kind that is worn by Himalayan lamas.
Given the relatively static nature of the times, this is probably what Nepalis looked in at least the century preceding the photographs. The photography was concentrated in Kathmandu Valley, and we do not find Tarai or high-Himalayan portraitures. Representation of some of those communities can be found in the prints included in the volume from neighbouring Bihar and Darjeeling, such as pictures of the Lepcha, Musahar, and plains Muslims.

Identified in the book as Khas, the youth is wearing a Nepali topi with a khukuri placed on his cummerbund. The same man is made to pose at rest in photograph 7.
Group photograph of Newar 'Banda' priests in their unique traditional attire.
Photograph of Tamang trio shows two young men observing a woman carrying a load of firewood.
When the order for pictures came from Calcutta to the British Resident in Kathmandu, George Ramsay, he wrote back that he had neither money nor expertise. Fortunately, Clarence Comyn Taylor, who had learnt the newborn art of photography while serving in Rajputana, was assigned as the Assistant Resident during the same time. A budget was then arranged, and the photography began. It was only in 1992 that scholar JP Losty identified Taylor as the photographer, and historian Pratyoush Onta suggests that Taylor's photographs of 1863 are most likely the first taken in Nepal of Nepali subjects.

Photograph shows the youth from photograph 1 in conversation with two others, while holding on to what seems to be a ceremonial umbrella.
The young Newar sports a padded Nepali topi and shoulder-length hair. He is seen at the left in the picture meant to depict a bazar scene.
That was the time when Jung Bahadur Kunwar had already emerged as the supremo of Nepali politics with King Surendra Bir Bikram already relegated to ceremonial status. At first Resident Ramsay worried about Jung Bahadur's reaction to the proposed photographic documentation, but the latter proved enthusiastic and even bought one album of the Nepal photographs for himself. Taylor also took portraits of Jung Bahadur, and King Surendra.

Group portraits showing platoons of Gurung, Limbu, and Magar soldiers (left to right), perhaps deputed from the Gorkhali army by Jung Bahadur to pose for the photographer. The subjects carry khukuris as well as bows, arrows, and quivers.
Two Tamang youth are seen with pick-axes, apparently part of some construction activity.
Sunuwar youth wearing a turban.
For the longer version of this piece in Nepali with more images, see:

1. Tara Gartoula
these picture shows the social historic reality of that era.

2. Anonymous
It seems the British Residents in KTM did at least some good and not just spent their time meddling around in the internal political affairs of Nepal and messing up in the family feuds and intrigues among the ruling elites of KTM. Looking back in retrospect, the two decades in the middle of the nineteenth century was a unique historical period--puzzling and interesting-- in many ways. After seventy-five years of being established as an independent and centralized sovereign State in the world map, the Nepali State was once again shaken to the root by yet another infamous event, i.e. the Kot Massacre of 1846, (event comparable only second to the defeat of the brave Gorkhalis in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1815-16), when Jung Bahadur and his coterie ruthlessly eliminated the remaining patriots and fighters of the previous generation. Following a decade of state capture by Jung Bahadur Rana and his family in Nepal, the British seized the moment and used brutal force to suppress the first Indian uprising for independence in the Sipoy Mutiny of 1857 in Luknow. (India had to wait almost a hundred years to get her final independence from the British in 1947!)  Europe too faced a great socio-economic and political turmoil in the mid-nineteenth century. Karl Marx just finished the 'Communist Manifesto' in 1846, and most of the European monarchies were doomed to impending revolution. Jung Bahadur Rana just returned back from an official visit to the Great Britain and France in 1857. In the New world, the American Union, after surviving the 1812 war against the British, once again faced yet another verge to collapse. Lincoln's victory to Presidential election and the widening gap between the North and South in the years following 1860 led to the Civil War in America. While America gave new definition to modern democracy in Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Speech, and, the declaration of  Proclamation of freedom to the Negroes (at least in paper!), Nepalese were in deep slumber, the Nation completely shrouded under the thick blanket of one family authoritarian rule. The Ranas "effectively" kept the country in darkness, and isolated from the world and the rays of Enlightenment. That was the historical period in which these portraits were recorded. These faces show naive innocence and simplicity of the Nepali folks. One thing is certain, poverty was rampant, peeping through every nooks and corners of their body. What is amazing is  none of the faces seem smiling in these pictures. Ironically, thanks to the British we can now reflect back and "see" ourselves who we were as peoples and as a Nation some 150 years back!
(I greatly appreciate Nepali Times for bringing into light this "treasure trove of pictures" to the public's eyes!)

3. viking kunwor
very nice article and fascinating pictures! good job!

4. A Nepali
Fascinating to see these old photographs, but the portraits are not that different from people we see in many remote hilly parts of Nepal even today. It is amazing how little has changed in a century and a half. If anything, life has gotten harder for today's such people because of natural resource degradation and depletion.

5. moktan
where are the bahuns?

6. kabin
Kanak Mani Dixit at its Best . Thank You.

7. Subodh Pal
Observation: pick axes used by the construction crew remains unchanged till this day :)

5. moktan
where are the bahuns? 

They are writing the article!

9. Barbara Hughes
These photos are fascinating, and give  me a glimpse into life 150 years ago of a people the world has known little about. I am hoping to learn more, as my new son-- in law is a Nepali. 

10. Nitini
Seriously though where are the bahuns?..and chettris for that matter. The photograph did not find them interesting enough?

11. Sashi B Bisht
You can see these pictures on the web site if you go to the sub-category Nepal. Altogether, there are 13 pictures of Nepal. I find the picture of two "khas" women wearing enormous nose rings and another one of king Surendra with his courtiers to be quite interesting. However, do not take the captions on the photos too seriously. They were written by ill informed and misguided englishmen.

12. Sashi B Bisht
The website I gave has not been published in my posting. Please post the website address. it is Thank you.

13. Sashi B Bisht
It seems the web site I was referring to has been left out. It is Log in and enjoy the pictures. However, the number of pictures seems to have increased from 13 to much more since the past few years.

14. amanda mclean
One reason why tourists keep coming to your fascinating beautiful country----the attire  n customs of your remote country people  are so different from ''modern nations''----thus very interesting.

15. Sugat
Wait... aren't the 'Khas' like Bahun/Chettri? I think these kinds of articles aren't accurate.. I mean the photographs are real and all but the writing and stuff isnt done by anyone qualified so its just better to enjoy the photos and not read any description... which are not very accurate.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)