The name Gurkha came to me first in a moment which I have long forgotten. Since then, there have been a number of other points along the line of my life where my path has been sprinkled with arbitrary mentions and images of the famous Gurkhas of Nepal. Slowly, bits and pieces of context have added themselves to the growing concept within me of “all things Gurkha”. It seems that, where the Gurkhas are concerned, their reputation far exceeds them and is in fact their most frequently experienced calling-card of introduction. To my knowledge, I have never actually meet a Gurkha, as such. I have been to Nepal and ventured into Gurkha-country. I have seen their knives on display and offered for sale in the small shops of Pokhara, in the foothills of the Himalayas; the heart and home of the peoples of Gurkha. I was certainly surrounded by the folk who raise the sons who join the Gurkha Rifles Regiments serving the British Crown, as well as other nations around the world. But, I saw no Gurkha parading around in uniform, nor standing on soap-boxes telling war stories or protesting their inequitable treatment at the hands of the British government. Instead, I met quiet, smiling, genuinely hospitable individuals; warm of heart, curious by nature, generous with their time and help.
Seven years have passed since my sojourn in Nepal. I brought a world of impressions back home with me to The Netherlands. Since then, new moments of Gurkha sprinklings have appeared upon my path, for consideration. Friends and family members in the Dutch military have shared their personal encounters with Gurkha at their sides during their deployments to danger-zones of conflict around the world. The respect given in the telling of these stories is enormous and in the listening a silence of respect fills the room. At such a moment, a realization of my own personal lack of knowledge presents itself before me; requesting that I come to know what all this respect is based upon. In my modest research for this essay about the Gurkha and their partner the Khukuri, I find two basic topics of which to lay a sound base of understanding. The first addresses the simple questions about the Gurkha themselves; who are they, where do they come from, what do they do, and why? The second topic is the Khukuri; what is it, how is it used, why is it so important to the Gurkha?
When considering the Gurkha, history and heritage need to be presented. In my readings, the authors have one general, shared story to tell; however, a certain number of these authors have also added some interesting little facts, figures and personal stories to their mix. It is my intention to paint an image of the Gurkhas in the telling of their story; while answering the basic questions of who they are, where they came from, what their history has been, and what their reputation has been built upon.
“ The 3,500 Gurkhas in the British Army all originate from the hill-town region of Gorkha, one of the 75 districts of modern Nepal. But their name comes not from the place but is said to derive from an 8th century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath. Legend has it that it was he who gave the Gurkhas the famous curved bladed knife, the kukri. The Gurkhas are mainly impoverished hill farmers.” – Robert Hardman. From Hardman’s very basic statement, we know several things; things which need some clarification to be put into perspective. We are told that there are 3,500 Gurkhas in the British Army and that they all originate from the region of Gorkha. To differentiate between the correctness and incorrectness of what we are being told, we need to understand that the word “Gurkha” can have different meanings. We have Gurkha as a group of people and we have Gurkha as an elite military group. Within the contextual use of the word Gurkha as an elite military group, we have those who are from Nepal and those who are British citizens. The Gurkha from Nepal are soldiers and those soldiers are commanded and led by British officers. It is my understanding that they are all, collectively and individually, referred to as Gurkhas soldiers and/or Gurkha officers. When the number of Victoria Cross awards are counted and presented, we are told that the Gurkhas have earned 26. Of this number, 13 were for Gurkha soldiers and 13 for Gurkha officers; all recipients being recognized for their extreme valor in the face of the enemy. The distinction of the name Gurkha needs to be made in order to fully appreciate their historic and present situation within the British Army. In this essay my main interest is with the Gurkha soldiers from Nepal. When I use the word Gurkha, it is of this group to which I refer.
In respect to the above quote, the second piece of information to understand is that the 3,500 Gurkhas are not as homogenous a group as one might assume from the author’s words. An article from the BBC brings to this point to light, “The ranks have always been dominated by four ethnic groups, the Gurungs and Magars from central Nepal, the Rais and Limbus from the east, who live in villages of impoverished hill farmers.” The general standard of living from whence these Gurkha ranks have been brought forth, is described by most sources as being far below the general standard of living within the United Kingdom. Johnny Fenn, a British officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas from 1998-2012, also refers to the living conditions of Gurkhas in Nepal. He has some interesting comments upon the subject. “All Gurkhas, to this day, live in incredibly austere life before they sign up. And this hardiness, from living in the Himalayan homelands, is key to what makes these soldiers key members of the British Army.” Fenn is in great admiration of the physical and mental stamina of the Gurkha. He tells his readers that there is an annual race in South Downs called the “Trailwalker 100km”. The fastest a British team can hope for is to complete the course in 12-13 hours. A Gurkha team wins this race every year with a standard time of 8 1/2 hours. Fenn is of the opinion that the hard up-bringing and the rigorous training of the Gurkhas combine to make them superior to all other British troops.
Continuing with Johnny Fenn’s comments concerning the influence of the Gurkha background, he brings up the matter of languages; making it apparent in his discourse that the Nepalese Gurkhas are far from being a homogenous group. “Even as a junior officer, I spoke Nepalese – as the British recruits get sent on a three month course to learn the language. Due to the tribal nature of Nepal, Nepali is usually the second language of most Nepalese Gurkhas after their main caste language. So most Nepalese Gurkhas, as well as being extremely skilled in combat and survival techniques, are also fluent in at least four languages.” Hopefully, the expanding image of the Gurkhas is becoming a bit more diversified than it had been before. There is one more comment which Hardman has made in the quote which I have been using to make clarifications. He makes a connection of Hinduism to the Gurkhas; in name and in culture. Hinduism has certainly played an important role in the culture of Nepal; it would be mis-leading to neglect mentioning that not all Gurkhas are Hindu. In fact, many are Buddhist, and there are those who claim to be both Buddhist and Hindu. Within the Gurkha regiments, the full expression of these religious cultures are freely observed and tolerated in Nepal. In Great Britain, the line is drawn for all cultures when it comes to rituals of animal sacrifices. They are not allowed on British soil. This is, no doubt a huge relief, to all of the Gurkha officers stationed in Great Britain. In Nepal, however, animal sacrifices are frequent occurrences because both religions have their rituals and all are allowed to take place. Participation therein is diverse.
Within Hardman’s quote, there is also unity. His mention of the Khukuri is one of the most important elements which brings unison to our image of the Gurkhas, and to their own self-image, as well. This knife is more than just a weapon which the Gurkhas wield. It is an expression of being ‘Brothers in Arms’; and as such, creates a stronger bond and gives a deeper meaning to the Khukuri. David Chai has argued that the Gurkhas are the toughest soldiers in the world. He explains for his readers one aspect of regard concerning the Khukuri; a mental attitude from which their world is filtered and understood. “Each Gurkha is eventually awarded a traditional weapon known as a “Kukri” [a shortened version of the word “Khukuri” derived from a phonetical misinterpretation of the British]. Once drawn, this 18-inch curved knife is said to need to have tasted blood – that if the Gurkha had not managed to draw the blood of his enemy, he would have to cut himself before sheathing the weapon.” This sounds a bit like the folklore which a number of different cultures claim for their knives or swords. For the Gurkha, this attitude may be an expression of the Khukuri’s status as a religious object. It is not merely a knife to the Gurkhas. It has deep social and religious meaning.
The discussion so far has been a presentation of the Gurkha of today. It is now appropriate to go back in time, to add the basic history upon which the Gurkha Regiments and the Gurkha Image have evolved. To do that, we first travel backward in time some 200 years, to the moment when the supporting troops of the British East India Company entered Nepal. When this time arrived, the Gurkhas had already been defending Nepal since before their king, Prithivi Narayan Shah, united Nepal in 1768. The original Gurkha Army from Gorkha became the model and standard for the the newly united Nepal Army. By the time the British invaded Nepal, in the early 19th century, the Gurkhas were very well versed in the effective use of their Khukuri in battle. The British suffered great losses when they went head to head with the Gurkhas on the fields of battle. “The Gurkhas have had a formidable reputation in the West ever since the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814. Having failed to conquer them – which is why Nepal has never been part of either the British Empire or the Commonwealth – the British did the next best thing, they have proved exemplary comrades for two centuries.” – Hardman. The next best thing, of which Hardman speaks, was the Suguali Treaty. This peace treaty, among other things, made an agreement for Great Britain to create a special Gurkha unit, allowing Gurkhas to be recruited by the British for paid-service in that placement. The unit became the “Brigade of Gurkhas”. Wikipedia defines for us, “Brigade of Gurkhas is the collective name which refers to all the units in the British Army that are composed of Nepalese Gurkha soldiers.”
The next two great testing grounds of war for the Brigade of Gurkhas were WWI and WWII. It is recorded that more than 200,000 Gurkhas served Britain during the first World War; incurring 20,000 casualties. During the second World War 250,280 Gurkhas served; with a resulting 32,000 casualties. The fields of action for these combined wars include: “France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine, Salonika, and the Far East (during WWII).” – Paul Vally. The Brigade has since also served in: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cypress, the Falklands, Sierra Leon, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Paul Vally wrote this list in 2009. It may well be that additional countries have seen Gurkha presence, after the writing of this source. In the interim between these lists, an important development occurred in India. “After the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India, and Britain transferred four Gurkha regiments from the British to the Indian army. Its Gorkha Brigade (it changed the spelling) now has 120,000 Gurkhas in forty-six battalions. There are Gurkhas in the Malaysian army and the Singapore Police Force both bodies formed from ex-British Army Gurkhas.” – Paul Vally
Much of today’s reputation of the Gurkhas was forged during the conflicts of the second World War. The story of Rifleman Lachhian Gurung illustrates why the Gurkha are so revered. “…[he] found himself under repeated Japanese attack in Burma in 1945. With his comrades badly injured, he fought off 200 enemy troops single-handed – literally – having lost arm and eye. When a relief force found him the next morning, his position was littered with 31 Japanese corpses. The 169 survivors had run away. Rifleman Gurung – who now lives in Middlesex – became one of 26 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas to win the Victoria Cross (there would, undoubtably, have been more but the VC was not extended to Gurkhas until 1911.”
All Gurkhas have the collective reputation for being extremely brave. Each and every one of them will fight to the death rather than give in to cowardice.; and this is a well-accepted fact around the world. Honor is at the core of their creed. They never leave a man behind and will defend themselves and their fellow Gurkhas ferociously even when severely injured. Hardman writes, “ ‘The Gurkhas are the ultimate professional soldiers’, says Major Gordon Corrigan, military historian and a Gurkha officer for 29 years. ‘They are not brutal or blood thirsty. They treat prisoners honourably. But, if their CO says “That’s the enemy. Go and attack him.”, they will not flinch. And do not be surprised if their weapon of choice is the kukri. It is their sidearm. But they kill in hot blood – not in cold.” The success of the Gurkha comes from the combination of their bravery and their reputation. During the Falklands War, the Argentinians fled their territory when they heard that the Gurkhas were being sent in to fight against them.
Within military circles, stories are shared, with great respect, about the Gurkhas. Hardman relates two of these. “Stories of the Gurkha are legion [legendary]. My favorite is the tale of the Gurkha sergeant being told his men would be jumping into enemy territory. He returned the next day to say the men would rather jump from below 500ft. onto marshy ground. ‘But your parachutes won’t open’, said the Colonel. ‘Ah’, said the sergeant. ‘No one mentioned parachutes’. Apocryphal? Probably. But among the documented accounts is that of the U.S. Air Force’s Colonel John Alison on meeting uncharacteristically anxious Gurkha troops preparing for a glider assault on Japanese positions. ‘We aren’t afraid to go’, a Gurkha sergeant told him solemnly. ‘We aren’t afraid to fight. But we thought we should tell you that those “planes” don’t have any motors.” Both stories are wonderful examples of military humor; apocryphal or verbatim, these stories indicate the specific mind-set of the Gurkha. These light-hearted and friendly soldiers take to their tasks with a single-minded seriousness because this is the honor and duty which defines their lives.
This sense of duty begins at a young age for Gurkha aspirants. Being a Gurkha carries much prestige for the Nepalese. The Gurkha and their Khukuri are truly the pride of Nepal. The children of the Himalayan foothills grow up hearing the tales of Gurkha soldiers, many told directly from family member to family member. A sense of honor and pride groom the hopes of young boys as they become young men and are offered the opportunity to participate in the selection process which takes place in Nepal. “Around 28,000 Gurkha youths compete for just 200 places in the British Army each year. To qualify they must be able to do 75 bench jumps in one minute and 70 sit ups in two minutes. Then they participate in the world’s most arduous military selection test the doko – running 5km up a steep track in the foothills of the Himalayans, carrying 25kg of rocks on their back, in less than 55 minutes.” – Hardman. What Hardman doesn’t mention is that the rocks carried are in a basket and the basket is supported by a band across the forehead. The basket, itself, rests unstrapped against the back of the applicant. Those accepted into the Gurkhas Brigade must still travel abroad, many leaving their homeland for the first time in their lives, to trained in Britain.
Our author, ex-Gurkha officer, Johnny Fenn writes of this training and the advantage the Gurkha provide the British Army when deployed. “All Gurkhas train for 39 weeks after coming over from Nepal, so those who go into specialist trades have an extra 29 weeks under their belts rather than regular British specialists, who only do 10 weeks infantry training before specializing. And this can come in very helpful. In 2003, I was in command of a Gurkha Logistics Regiment in Iraq. We finished the task we were deployed to do in six months but, because these men had done the full 39-week infantry training, we could stay on for an extra four months to quell the fuel riots in Basra. A British regiment couldn’t have done that.” In the telling of training, I want remind the reader that aside from these formal trainings, the Gurkha have been training informally all their lives. They grow up practicing the skills they will need later, for a career as Gurkha. Naturally, only a small percentage of the native sons of the Gurkha region will actually attain the honor of serving as a Gurkha soldier. For the vast majority, the skills gained will be put to use serving their daily lives. Fenn introduces us to the Gurkha’s most trusted partner the Khukuri, by way of a comment which begins with relating his personal experience in the jungles of Borneo. “I first realized how handy my Khukuri was when I used it to hack through the jungles of Borneo – but most of the Nepalese Gurkhas have grown up sharpening sticks and killing animals with their Khukuris. Some of the hardest earned Gurkha Victoria Crosses (of which there are many!) could not have been won without the aid of the trusty Khukuri.”
So, what makes the Khukuri so indispensable to the Gurkha? We know that each Gurkha receives his own personal Khukuri when they join the army. All Nepalese Gurkha are familiar with Khukuri. They have grown up with them; using them at work and at home in the hills, for cutting wood, hunting, skinning, opening cans, and clearing undergrowth. But, it is when they enter the Brigade that their own Khukuri becomes their dominant arm. They develop a close working relationship with their Khukuri. Stuart Jakeman explains the importance of this, “…it is not only the weight and edge of the weapon that makes it so terrible at close quarters so much as the skilled technique of the stroke; it can claim to be almost impossible to parry.” There is a reason why the Khukuri is the national weapon of Nepal. “Even though much more advanced weaponry is available, the people of Nepal are still comfortable and confident carrying their kukuri knife.” – Shuny Bee. The answer to why the Khukuri is indispensable to the Gurkhas is multifaceted. Naturally, the knife itself is of an unusual design and the making of the knife is of an unusual nature. But, the history of the Khukuri has set this knife deep into the cultural soul of the Nepalese. So, it is with the history of the knife in Nepal which I will first address before moving on to the specifics of the Khukuri and its makers. For this entire body of information I have drawn heavily from one of the many Khukuri Houses. Each proudly present not only their ware, but, their history and culture as well. My choice for quotes on these subjects are divided between the words supplied by the “nepalkhukurihouse.com” and those of the writer “Shuny Bee”.
The Nepalese point to ancient history when they trace the origins of their knives (I am setting religious mythology and folktales to the side for this particular discussion). Alexander the Great is identified by historians as having either brought the blade to Nepal from Macedonia or having first encountered the blade on the battlefields of Nepal after arriving there. Macedonia already had a similar blade called the Kopfs; which was a “single- edged, reverse-curved sword used by Alexander’s cavalry.” The Kopfs was shorter than the reversed-curved sword of Egypt; which suggests that the Kopfs might have been the same size as the Khukuri. Regardless of origin, “The Nepalese khukuri has the unique distinction of being the only ancient battle weapon still in use in the field today – a distinction that is absolutely unique in the entire history of edged weapons.”- NKH.
The Khukuris’ continual presence within Nepalese culture for more than 2,000 years has had its impact upon the culture of Nepal. I think that the broad-spectrum of usage and meaning of the Khukuri in Nepal, might well qualify the Nepalese as being a “knife-culture”. We know that the Khukuri is an important weapon for Nepal and the Gurkha of present-day, “A Gurkha without his khukuri is unthinkable. Its unusual, medium-length, reversed-curved blade is far-famed as the traditional, iconic weapon of the Gurkha warriors who have wielded it in battle world-wide, for some 200 years.” – NKH. We also know that these Gurkha have been groomed by their own society to have specific attitudes toward the Khukuri. These attitudes are shared by the general populace of Nepal. The most obvious attitude is an appreciation of the Khukuri for its practical usage; utilitarian as well as defence. The deeper layers of appreciation reveal the intangible qualities which the Nepalese project into the Khukuri: strong character, honor, justice, human dignity, and freedom. In short, these knives represent the personal and collective strength and spirit of Nepal. Within the culture, itself, the Khukuri is experienced as a representation of their history, traditions and spiritual beliefs. As such, the Khurkuri has become a symbol of wealth, social-status, and prestige; making it an article of dress to be shown and carried. The blade is also a talisman; the design being interpreted through Hindu symbolisms such as their trinity, ohm, and the sacred cow’s hoof. The Khukuri is also considered, in its own right, to be a sacred object. It is used to make animal sacrifices and it requires handling in accord with particular social, religious, and moral rules. With this as background and source, the Gurkha take these attitudes and customs with them into the Brigade and make a collective statement to the world, “The khukuri is the national as well as religious weapon of the Gorkhas. It is incumbent on a Gorkha to carry it while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring.” –Shuny Bee.
Bee also gives a good basic introduction to the construction of the Khukuri and how the knife is most naturally used as a weapon. “The kukuri knife strategically balances weight, size and shape to complement the movement of the user. During the 19th century, Nepalese models of the Kukri knife were made with a notch cut into the blade just in front of the handle. It’s been suggested that it was used to intercept enemy blade or to keep blood from flowing onto the handle, thus making it less slippery. Located near the throat of the scabbard are two pockets that hold smaller knives, called karda and chakmak. The karda is a utility knife, and the chakmak is a blunt tool that’s used to sharpen the kukri blade and make sparks from a flint. Early scabbards also had a leather pouch for carrying a small survival kit. Because of the weight of the kukri knife, a moderate smack to the skull can cause dizziness or unconsciousness. The curvature and weight of the blade facilitate slashing to such an extent that even a weak stroke will slice skin. A stronger stroke can cut muscle and bone. A moderate-power stab can puncture the skin and sever blood vessels, while a more committed attack can easily cause death.”
For a more detailed and expert analysis of the Khukuri knife, I rely upon the Ex-Gurkha Khukuri House. This company presents itself, “Ex-Gurkha Khukuri House is the finest and largest of traditional and modern khukuris in the world today. These knives are the real thing, true, authentic khukuris. Ex-Gurkha Khukuri House is proud to have supplied the British Army’s crack Gurkha regiments with the khukuri that they use in both drill and battle, world-wide… They have also supplied khukuri to Pakistan, the United States, German embassies, and a wide variety of military, police, and commercial security agencies in Nepal and throughout the world. Each of our knives is handcrafted one-at-a-time by a traditional caste of smiths called Kami. Each khukuri in our shop takes several Kami a full day to make by hand, utilizing both modern and centuries-old techniques of the metal smiths art.”
It may strike some as odd to hear that Nepalese culture, in these modern times, is still strongly rooted in their caste-system. Some elaboration is appropriate before the reader forms a judgmental opinion based heavily upon western norms. I shall let the company present their culture themselves. “Our factory has some 200 Kami the hereditary cast of khukuris makers that has preserved the art of crafting the khukuri, and handed it down from father to son a tradition stretching back to the time of Alexander the Great. In the mid-1700s, the warrior-king, Prithivi Naravan Shah used the khukuri to pacify the land and unify the kingdom of Nepal. After uniting the countryside, he divided the people into different castes and creed and re-formed the society along organized lines: Warriors; called Chhetris and famed for their bravery; became Gurkha soldiers. Brahmans who were dedicated to a spiritual life were organized to establish and promote religious functions and so on throughout Nepalese society.” Kamis take great pride as being the modern inheritors of their ancient legacies of blacksmithing and forging of weapons to keep their country strong.
The Ex-Gukhas take us through the steps with which the Kami create the Khukuri; bringing them to life from the raw materials of used-steel, brass, rosewood, buffalo horns and hides which they mostly collect from their own villages. The steel they rescue from; cars, busses, or truck springs. Brass, white metal, and any other essential metals are available at the local markets. Most of the Kami work from their own homes. The entire family is involved in the making of Khukuri. The members support each other during the process of knife-making, each helping and learning to his/her abilities. “The Khukuri knife begins as a piece of high-grade steel, a chunk of railway track or car spring being the material of choice although truck springs serve nearly as well. A length is sliced from the rail, and repeatedly heated and hammered on the anvil, which is usually a sledge-hammer or a maul head embedded in the ground alongside the charcoal-fueled forge. Finally the blade is annealed and fine tempered with water poured from a teapot. The forges are little more than holes in the ground and serve as smiths’ stove, the rice pot or the singeing chicken being whisked off and on the incandescent billet of steel passes from furnace to anvil and back. The hilt is carved of rhododendron wood, carefully ribbed to ensure a good grip when things get sticky. Buffalo horn, at least for civilian models, is also employed. The semi- finished blade is secured to the hilt by inserting its spike-like tang into the handle, rather than being a bar-like shank and riveted. The latter method would seem to be the stronger, but it is claimed that a Khukuri assembled in the traditional manner has never been broken in combat. There is precious little chance of one being returned by an unsatisfied customer, for the battle knives are rigorously inspected before being accepted and issued to the men whose lives depend upon them. The bronze ferrule and other fittings are not machined but individually crafted and fitted to each weapon. Sharpening, tempering, on the edge of the blade and shaping the sheath are done by the hand with care and only the machine is used to lathe for shining the Khukuri.”
I am intentionally omitting any of the Khukuri statistics due to considerations of the essay length. I suggest that anyone interested in those specifics go directly to any number of commercial websites of Khukuri Houses from Nepal. There you will find an abundance of amazing photographs, facts and figures concerning the Khukuris. My personal goals for writing the essay “Perfect Partners: Gurkha and Khukuri” have primarily been met. I have learned enough about these partners to establish a fair base of understanding upon which to build and to analyze any further information on the subject which may come my way. In closing, I want to present one last aspect of the Gurkhas and their Khukuri for the reader to think about. This is the Gurkha Dance. From the passage which Stuart Jakeman has written, a lighter-side of the Gurkhas soldier appears. The other thing which I hope the reader will notice is that Jakeman’s words are food for thought for all those curious about how their own martial arts forms (may) have been created.
“The Khurkuri Dance is the title given to a display pattern the Gurkha soldier performs on various occasions such as Ceremonial parades, cultural shows and especially during the performance by the Band of Brigade of Gurkhas. The dance is very popular within the Gurkhas Brigade. It is not known exactly when or from where this dance derives, but it is believed that the dance was derived from the occasion of celebration, when the soldier returned back from the war with glory of victory. Later it has been performed on various occasions to entertain the audience. The dance itself is a combination of patterns of drill, where the dancers demonstrate their skills of handling the Khukuri. To perform this dance there is not any particular song of music on which this dance must be based. It can be performed using any type of songs or music which is rhythmically suited for the drill.”