In May 2023, the descendants of amateur photographer Joseph Gaye (1852-1926) donated a collection of photographic material of his views of the Kathmandu Valley and India taken between 1888 and 1899 to the British Library. Joseph’s descendant Mary-Margaret Gaye and her husband Doug Halverson spent many years researching Joseph’s career in South Asia and identification of his views.
We are most grateful to Mary-Margaret and Doug for making this collection available for researchers documenting the transformation of Kathmandu before the earthquake of 1934.
Joseph Gaye was born in Northfleet, Kent, in 1852. At 18, he enlisted with the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and went to India as a rifleman in 1873. Gaye left the army after completing his 12-year enlistment term in 1882 to lead several Indian military bands.
In 1888, he, with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Short, moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he served as bandmaster to the Royal Nepalese Army under Maharaja Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. In 1892, he became a bandmaster in turn to three viceroys of India (Marquess of Lansdowne, Earl of Elgin, and Lord Curzon of Kedleston) before returning to England in 1899.
In 1905, Gaye and his four sons moved to Canada, where he died in 1926 in Lemberg, Canada. From 1888 to 1899, he produced photographs of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, Burma and India; these were among his possessions, along with a large studio camera, at the time of his death.
The Joseph Gaye collection is an exciting addition to the British Library, containing 91 glass negatives, five cellulose negatives and 32 albumen prints, primarily of the Kathmandu Valley, with a few from India. The subjects vary from architecture and landscapes to street scenes and people, including portraits of his family. Gaye’s photographs provided a unique insight at a time when few foreigners were allowed into Nepal.
Here are a few highlights from the collection of Nepal’s architectural monuments, some that remain today and others that have disappeared due to natural disasters or urban development:
A crowd of curious onlookers gathered before a building on the southwest corner of the Hanuman Dhoka Darbar complex in Kathmandu Durbar Square (figure 1). The building, from 1847, was the original Gaddhi Baithak, a palace used for coronations and for meeting foreign heads of state. It was in the Newar style with influences from the Mughal architecture of northern India. A western façade, as seen in the photograph, was probably added later. Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana (1863-1929) of Nepal, replaced it in 1908 with the neo-classical building that exists today.
Patan Durbar Square, in the city of Lalitpur, is one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley. It has been through two significant earthquakes in 1934 and 2015. Gaye capture the square before these earthquakes, looking south, towards a crowd of observers and a line of temples and statues (figure 2).
John Alexander Dunn, an Officer of the Geological Survey of India, also took a photograph (figure 3) of the square, looking north, after the 1934 earthquake. The only recognisable landmarks still standing are the statue of Garuda, the Krishna Mandir and the Vishwanath Temple with the elephants in front.
Gaye captured a winding pathway on the eastern flank, leading up to Swayambhu, an ancient religious site of temples and shrines at the top of a hill in the Kathmandu Valley (figure 4). The photograph shows a pair of Buddha statues marking the beginning of the path, with small chaityas, or shrines, dotted along the route.
A photograph (EAP838/1/1/5/154) taken approximately 30 years later from the Chitrakar collection by Dirgha Man and Ganesh Man Chitraker shows a stairway with refurbished Buddhas and chaityas at the entrance that has replaced the pathway.
This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.