Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers that are famous for their bravery and loyalty. Since they have been involved in many conflicts and helped many countries, the name “Gurkha” is well known around the world.
The early origins of Gurkhas date back to the mid 18th century. An army was assembled by Prithi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the Gorkha area. With his soldiers he invaded Kathmandu and seized control over Nepal. Prithi’s soldiers were from the Gorkha region, and therefore became known as the Gurkhas. The soldiers were from four main ethnic groups, the Gurungs, Magars, Rais, and the Limbus. Because the name is a translation from Nepali, there are different spellings of Gurkha.
The British invaded Nepal in 1814. Nepal thought the British army would be weaker after their military campaign in India, but they were surprised by how strong the British army was. The British were also shocked and impressed by the tenacity and skill of the Gurkha soldiers. When Britain defeated the Nepalese army, the Nepalese and British governments signed a peace treaty. One condition of the peace treaty allowed the British army to recruit Gurkha POWs for their own army. That is how several regiments of Gurkhas were transferred to the British army.
Gurkhas are well known for their iconic knife, the khukuri. This knife is about eighteen inches long with a blade that has a forward curve. It is thought that the blade is shaped this way making it easier to decapitate their enemies. It also has a notch at the base of the sharp edge. There are many suggestions to why the notch is there. The most interesting one I heard was that the notch was there so blood couldn’t drip onto the handle making it sticky. Rumour has it that once drawn, the khukuri has to “taste” blood.
While in Kathmandu, we had the opportunity to learn how to make a khukuri. We signed up for a course with a man who has been making knives for the past forty years. His workshop turned out to be his backyard. We spent five hours learning how to make a weapon that has been used for the past two hundred years. It was a cool experience.
For the past two centuries, Gurkhas have served in many wars on behalf of Nepal, Britain, and India. They have served in both World Wars, as well as conflicts in Hong-Kong, Malaysia, Cyprus, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all these conflicts, 43,000 Gurkhas have died and many have been awarded gallantry awards including 26 Victoria crosses.
Gurkha recruitment is one of the toughest recruitment processes in the world. Since Gurkhas are well respected, most young men in Nepal want to join the Gurkha brigade. The main recruitment site is in Pokhara. Every year, approximately 7,000 men try out for 240 spots in the Gurkha army. The men have to pass several tests such as the Doko race. In the Doko race, they have to run 5 km with 70 pounds of rock in a wicker basket uphill in less than 48 min. They also have to do 75 bench jumps in 1 min, and 70 sit-ups in 2 min. They are recruited at 18 or 19 and commonly retire at age 45.
“Better to die than be a coward” is the motto the Gurkhas live by. I enjoyed learning about the Gurkhas while in Nepal and I can’t wait to use my khukuri in Canada.