Ram Kumar Panday: Not enough hats for the ace geographer

Ram Kumar Panday

Ram Kumar Panday

Ram Kumar Panday: Not enough hats for the ace geographer

The father of altitude geography | Photos: Pratik Rayamajhi/ApEx

Quick facts

Born on 9 July 1946 in Lalitpur 

Went to Patan High School, Lalitpur 

Graduate from Patan College, post-grad from Tribhuvan University  

Completed the pioneering ‘Special Distribution of Settlements in the Mountains of Nepal’ research in 1980

Husband of Amita Panday 

Father to Tethys Panday and Pangaea Panday 

The Pioneers

I had an educated family who constantly supported and encouraged all my education endeavors. I was fortunate, in that not everyone was allowed to go to school while I was growing up. I was a decent student who loved reading books and learning about new things. Arts and literature were my particular interests.

After completing my intermediate (equivalent to today’s high school degree) education, I wanted to study literature. I was already writing poems, essays and stories. But I decided to study geography. I realized that I could read and learn about literature on my own and that I needed to tackle something I didn’t know much about, something out of my comfort zone. 

I got my master’s degree in geography in 1970, but I was not content with it. I felt like many things were missing in the curriculum. I then decided to pursue another degree; and this time I chose sociology as I wanted to know more about Nepali society. 

I joined the Tribhuvan University as an assistant lecturer in geography in 1972, became a full-time lecturer in 1979, and a reader (principal lecturer) in 1988.

I was promoted to the post of professor in 1993, so I have served at the university for almost four decades. During my time at the university, I visited various parts of Nepal for research, which I found both enjoyable and intellectually rewarding. Everywhere I went, there were new things to learn.

For instance, in one of my research tours, I discovered that there were many variations of nature between the altitudes of 58 meters and 8,848 meters. 

In 1980, I did research on ‘Special Distribution of Settlements in the Mountains of Nepal’, and found that 60 percent of the country’s settlements were between the altitudes of 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters. This paved the way for more studies, such as the ones on finding scientific reasons for this. 

This was the beginning of my study on ‘altitude geography’ in Nepal. This was something unique not just for Nepali professors, but also for international scholars.

Ram Kumar Panday speaking at the launch of his book ‘Nepalko Uchai Bhugol’ in 1987.

The climate of Nepal is always referred to as ‘Mountain Climate’, but this is wrong. Different places here have different types of climates and vegetation.

For example, apples grow in the mountains while bananas ripen in the Tarai on the same day. Where else on earth does this happen? If you tell this to a Bangladeshi, he will not believe you, as Bangladesh doesn’t even have a hill as high as 200 meters. I believe we cannot develop Nepal without understanding our altitude geography.

We lap up what foreigners say about Nepal and seldom draw our own conclusions through rigorous study and observation. And even if someone tries to carry out a research, policy and curriculum developers rarely encourage them. For example, senior professors made fun of me when I shared my findings on altitude geography. You see, I was not a foreign scholar.

Even foreign geographers like Toni Hagen have praised my five books on altitude geography. After seeing my work, the Swiss geographer even went so far as to say that Nepal doesn’t need international geographers. It was this praise from Hagen that made my seniors and fellow colleagues acknowledge my findings. 

Each country has a specialty course in their universities. I had proposed starting a course on altitude geography and thereby attracting students from around the world. But my seniors didn’t approve of this idea. Doing so would perhaps have been humiliating for them as it was their junior who had come up with a new curriculum idea.

Our academia is conservative and there is a constant clash of egos.  

I strongly believe every Nepali should know about their country. I had written the book, ‘Nepal Parichaya’, which was taught at the +2 level. I had put a lot of effort into the book, to help those who wanted to understand Nepal. One fine day, the book was removed from the curriculum and I still don’t know why. I also wrote ‘Biswo Parichaya’ and although this book wasn’t intended for college students, graduate students should still read it to know about the world.

I have also written three volumes on Yeti, the Himalayan snowman. The books were born out of an incident, whereby a foreigner was trying to find a good book about Yeti but couldn’t. In order to satisfy the need of this foreigner, I personally set out to find a definitive book on Yeti, only to discover how little had been written about the mythical creature. So I ventured to write a book on Yeti on my own. It did well, particularly among foreigners. 

I am also into fine arts, woodcut prints, humor writing, fiction writing for children and young adults, poetry, and philosophy. I serve as the president of the Center for Nepali Geography, Humor and Satire Society Nepal, Nepal Haiku Center, PEN International Nepal Chapter, etc. My professional and personal pursuits keep me occupied.  

About him

Amita Panday (Spouse) 

He is a fine painter and a woodcut artist. I also do arts—all inspired by him. He is also considered a proponent of the Haiku (Japanese format poem) movement in Nepal. He has published over 100 books in English and Nepali, and is working on many more. I am so proud that he has represented Nepal on various international platforms. He is an inspiration. 

Mitra Bandhu Poudel (Friend)

Ram Kumar dai is a man of many talents, and a true multi-disciplinarian. Every year in Kukur Tihar, he invites writers to his home where he hosts a program on humor and satire. He is a leading figure in many fields. But most importantly, he is a great teacher and always eager to help others learn. He is a scholar set on a mission to promote critical thinking and creative work.

Prakash A Raj (Colleague) 

When Ram Kumar Panday was the president of the PEN International Nepal Chapter, I was the general secretary. While at PEN, he did a couple of research on youth literature and realized that youths had no books fitting their age groups. He formed a committee with five literary figures and launched a program on story therapy for principals of different schools, so that they could help students on the right track. He is a born teacher and a leader for whom sharing knowledge is very important.

A shorter version of this profile was published in the print edition of The Annapurna Express on June 23.