Ghurkas of 1815The Gurkhas are famous Nepalese fighters who fought the British for many years in India and then fought on the British front lines in battles all over the world. They are not an ethnic group but rather are the name given to Nepalese nationals who serve in the British army. Gurkhas come from many different Nepalese ethnic groups.
The Gurkhas have been described as world's most successful and most feared mercenary forces. World War II British Gurkha officer Sir Ralph Turner praised the Gurkhas as "indomitable, uncomplaining, unwavering." An honorary Gurkha leader told Time, "They are excellent soldiers: physically fit, fearless, relaxed, hard working and have a natural aptitude for field craft." [Source: Michael Fathers, Time, November 8, 1999]
Gurkha men traditionally wore turbans and long beards and carried knives with polished curved blades called kukris in sashes wrapped around their waists. The Gurkhas are particularly famous for their ferocity and bravery. Their motto is: "It is better to die than live a coward." Their battle cry — “Ayo Gurkali!” (“The Gurkhas have come!”) — is famous. They are sometimes referred to as mercenaries, a label they regarded as an insult
Gurkhas have served in the British army for more than 200 years, More than 50,000 have died in service and 13 were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest honor. Each year about 28,000 men vie for around 200 places in Gurkha units. [Source: The Times of London]
Today there are only 3,600 Gurkhas serving in the British military and 40,000 serving in the India army. Another 28,000 live in Nepal. They have also served in United Nations peacekeeping forces. They also have a strong presence on the Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei. Prince Charles is the Colonel-in-Chief of the Gurkhas.. About 100 Gurkhas are selected for an elite unit of the Singaporean police.
In Britain, Gurkhas are often called on to guard VIPs, a duty they’ve had after earning a reputation for loyalty for siding with Britain during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. One Gurkha who spent a year in Buckingham Palace protecting Queen Elizabeth II, told the Los Angeles Times he attended 150 cocktail parties without one taking a sip of alcohol. While performing that duty he had the opportunity to observe then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who he said “was as tough as a Gurkha." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
See Separate Article GURKHAS: THEIR HISTORY, HEROICS AND FIGHTING SKILLS
Gurkhas are recruited from several Nepalese ethic groups. Many are Gurung. There are also large numbers of Magar, Tamang, Sunwar, Limbu, and Rai. A total of 17 ethnic group have contributed soldiers to Gurkha units. Young men, between 17 and 22, who want to be Gurkhas show up across Nepal at 500 places, many in open fields near rivers in the Himalayan foothills. The recruiters, retired soldiers called “gallahwallahs”, advertise the locations in mountain villages and don’t go into towns or the lowlands because young men from those places are not considered tough enough. [Source: Michael Fathers, Time, November 8, 1999]
In the 1990s, the British army employed 67 gallahwallahs, who were responsible for recruiting up to 80 young men. Of the 6,000 boys who show up only 789 make it to the final week-long examination at the British Gurkhas recruiting center in Pokhara. Of these 230 will join the British army while 100 others are selected for an elite unit of the Singaporean police. The gallahwallahs and their helpers are prepared to make a quick get away. Most can tel stories about being attacked by unhappy men who failed the test.
The recruiting and elimination training takes three months. Thousands show up and only a few hundred are selected. One man who showed for the third time told Time, "We all want to join the British army because we will earn a lot of money and go to other parts of the world, We have no work here." Local villagers also come out to watch the recruiting as a form of entertainment.
The process begins with a physical. The men strip down to their underpants and have their chest measured. If their chests are large enough they then have to do 12 pull ups and 25 sit ups on a 35̊ slope in less than a minute. Half the young men are knocked out at this stage. What occurs next is called the "cattle market." The young men are inspected like livestock. Their mouths are opened, their teeth are checked, their bodies are poked and probed. If they need glasses, can't read or have any signs of illness they are eliminated.
If the men pass the initial stage they go through more testing, considerably more rigorous than what other recruits in the British army have to go through. They have run one mile less than nine minutes, negotiate a 2.4-mile mountain course carrying 80 pounds of stones in a rattan backpack, up 1,300-foot slopes in less than 35 minutes. They are also given intelligence test, more physical exams. They have to demonstrate their proficiency at essay writing and math. The Indian recruit around 2,000 Gurkhas annually. At Simla, after nine months of training, in what is called the passing-out parade, young men are officially transformed from "boys" into Indian soldiers known as “jawans”.
Gurkha Recruiting in the 2010s
In 2010 more than 6,000 applicants competed for 176 positions in Nepal. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Hopefuls ages 17 to 21 must do 70 sit-ups in two minutes and run uphill for 40 minutes carrying 70 pounds of rocks to qualify. If they're too old, some forge documents and dye their hair to mask their age, a little subterfuge that occasionally comes off in the rain. Others have been caught using steroids for endurance.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
“Hype aside, Gurkha fighting prowess is exceptional, said Rick Bevin, who headed Gurkha recruitment in Nepal until recently. "When I was in Brunei, they ran rings around our special forces," he said.
“Traditionally, Gurkha recruits came from rural areas and were illiterate. Nowadays, they're more urban and better educated, with high school credentials that include English proficiency and math skills.
“Many attend cram schools, some of which over-train candidates, extract bribes and coach everyone to mouth the same answers. “They'll all come in saying 'I want to be a Gurkha because I want to die for Britain,' " Bevin said. "It's so boring you want to pull your hair out."
“Others will say they want to join as part of a family tradition, even though no relative was ever a Gurkha.
Kukris and Gurkha Pants
Gurkha men traditionally wore turbans and long beards and carried knives with polished curved blades called kukris in sashes wrapped around their waists. Machete-like kukris are the traditional Nepali weapons. They have a distinctive curved blade and are designed primarily for chopping but serve a number of purposes including a fighting weapon and cutting tool and has traditionally served the role of a basic utility knife for the Gurkhas. According to one myth the half-meter-long tapered blade can be used as a boomerang. But some ask why such a large, difficult-to-carry knife is necessary in an era of automatic weapons and drones.
All Gurkha troops are issued two kukris — a ceremonial one and an exercise one — and receive training on how to use it. A kukri is typically 26 to 38 centimeters (10–15 inches) in length. The shape varies a great deal from being quite straight to highly curved with angled or smooth spines. There are substantial variations in dimensions and blade thickness depending on intended tasks as well as the region of origin and the smith that produced it. Typically there is distinctive notch above the hilt. One explanation for this is that the notch guides blood off the blade so it doesn’t run onto the handle making it slippery. [Source: Wikipedia]
The oldest known kukri dates to the 7th century. It has been reported that kukri-style knives were used by some tribes to scalp their victims and were reportedly kept sharp enough to lop off a man's head with a single blow. According to legend once a Gurka draws his kukri he can’t return to its sheath unless it has “tasted blood.” If no blood is drawn from an enemy, a Gurkha is expected to cut himself before returning it its sheath. In the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, Dracula was not killed by having stake driven through his heart but rather has his throat slit with a kukri and his heart pierced by a Bowie knife.
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “These stories sow fear, aiding in psychological warfare that worked against the Germans and Japanese during World War II and helped turn the tide in the Falklands, military experts say. “Of course they can resheath the kukri. They use it to prepare food," said Gerald Davies, curator of England's Gurkha Museum. "If you're not well trained, the idea of knives at night without a noise is terribly unnerving. It's fear of the unknown." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
Gurkha pants have a high waist and buckles. They are considered cooler than khakis. Bruce Pask wrote in the New York Times: Basically, Gurkha pants (and shorts) were a staple in British colonial men’s wardrobes abroad, especially in North Africa and India. Usually made of substantial cotton khaki twill, these pants featured a higher waistband with side buckles for two tabs; one slipped inside the other to fasten. Early Banana Republic catalogs (from the era when the stores were decorated with Jeeps and trees and the brand was more about urban safari outfits than pre-career and casual wardrobes) featured Gurkhas as a basic. [Source: Bruce Pask, New York Times, November 11, 2008]
When the Gurkhas enter the British or Indian military they pledge allegiance to a foreign flag and foreign government and promise to obey their foreign officers and fight their enemies. The only thing the Gurkhas can't do — in accordance with a caveat made in 1947 when India became independent and India and Britain divided up the 10 imperial Gurkhas regiments — is take up arms against Hindus.
Gurkhas have served in almost every conflict involving Britain or India in the last 150 years: in Afghanistan, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Tibet, China, Egypt, North Africa, Malaya, Burma, Borneo, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Faukland Islands, Iraq. They have served in Kosovo, East Timor and Kargil, India and taken part in United Nation peacekeeping operations in Vietnam, Korea, Congo, Rwanda and Lebanon.
Gurkhas were deployed along the Hong Kong border to discourage Chinese immigrants from trying to sneak into the colony. In Singapore, they have been in charge of guarding some of the most sensitive sites there after September 11th attacks in New York in 2001 Gurkhas have been in Singapore since 1949. They played a key role in putting down race riots and trade union disputes there in the 1950s and 60s. The Gurkhas are valued for their impartiality and fairness. Unlike local security forces they don’t have links to any of Singapore’s main ethnic groups. They are forbidden from marrying local women and expected to return to Nepal when their tour of duty is finished.
One of Britain's two battalions of Gurkhas is stationed permanently in Brunei at the request of the Sultan of Brunei. The unit rotates with the one in Britain every three years. As with the Singapore unit, the Brunei Gurkhas all were British Army veterans. The unit functioned primarily as a praetorian guard that protected the sultan — once the richest man in the world — against any internal or external threat that might arise.
Gurkhas Units Serving Abroad in the 1990s
Despite Nepalese sensitivities over domestic and foreign criticism of allowing foreign armies to recruit "mercenaries" in Nepal, various Gurkha units continued to serve outside Nepal in the early 1990s. The only Nepalese-controlled unit abroad, however, was the Nepalese army battalion posted to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Unlike neighboring states, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, Nepal did not contribute military personnel to the international coalition that defeated Iraqi forces and liberated Kuwait in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm campaign. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The British Brigade of Gurkhas was the most famous unit. By 1991 the brigade comprised about 8,000 soldiers — five infantry battalions and supporting units — most of whom were posted to Hong Kong. There was considerable uncertainty over the brigade's future, however. Cutbacks in British military commitments in Europe, coupled with plans to cede control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, left the brigade's future in doubt. Under a proposed scheme, the brigade would be based in Britain and would induct fewer than 150 Nepalese recruits annually. An informal lobby of former Gurkha regimental commanders exerted tremendous political pressure whenever the British Parliament considered changes in Gurkha force structure. Although some Britons considered the existence of foreign-recruited units anachronistic in a modern sophisticated army, much of the British public and defense establishment harbored strong sentimental attachments to the Brigade of Gurkhas.*
As of 1991, there were more than 100,000 Gurkhas serving in over forty Indian infantry battalions and elsewhere in the Indian Army. Their pay and pensions, though not as generous as British benefits, also represented a significant contribution to the Nepalese economy. Almost all of the Indian Gurkhas served in ethnically distinct regiments commanded by non-Gurkha officers. In addition, about twenty-five battalions of Assam Rifles, a specialized paramilitary force descended from the old British unit of the same name, were staffed almost exclusively by Gurkha recruits. Gurkhas played no appreciable role in Indian services other than the army and paramilitary forces. As during the British Raj, successive Indian governments called upon Gurkha regiments on numerous occasions to put down domestic disturbances that were beyond the control of local police. Ethnically homogeneous Gurkha units often were considered more reliable than mixed units that might be tempted to side with ethnic kin embroiled in a dispute.*
Singapore has maintained a small Gurkha contingent attached to the Singapore Police since the early 1950s. Composed entirely of British Gurkha veterans and commanded by British officers, the contingent performed guard duties and assisted the local police in routine security chores. The sultan of Brunei also maintained a 900-person Gurkha Reserve Unit equipped with light infantry weapons.
Gurkhas and the Nepal Economy
From Kathmandu's perspective, the military and economic advantages accruing from foreign recruitment of Gurkhas far outweighed occasional criticism. Militarily, the presence of over 100,000 trained and disciplined Gurkha veterans was a valuable human resource. Service abroad widened their horizons, and military training and discipline taught them not only how to obey, but also how to give orders. Many Gurkhas gained specialized skills in communications and engineering units, and most have had some training in such practical subjects as sanitation, hygiene, agriculture, and the building trades. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The Gurkhas also played an important role in the country's economy. The cash flow derived from annual pensions, remittances to families, or monies taken home in a lump sum by discharged veterans or by service personnel on leave represented a major source of the country's foreign exchange. Remittances and pensions contributed by British Gurkhas were estimated in 1991 to total over US$60 million annually, or over twice the value of Britain's annual foreign aid commitment to Nepal. Pensions from Indian Gurkhas also represented a major revenue source. Gurkhas returning from duty in Hong Kong also were able legally to import a few kilograms of gold bullion duty free.*
In some Gurung villages, about half of the families had one or more pensioners. For many families, hope of financial solvency rested on their sons returning home with a substantial sum saved during a three-year enlistment. Such income also directly benefited the economy, as money circulated in the purchase of consumer goods, the payment of debts, the purchase of land, or investment in small commercial ventures.*
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Although the pull is still strong, some military analysts and planners are questioning the Gurkhas' future. Britain will take just 126 this year and has seen 400 Gurkhas lose their jobs, reducing to 3,200 the number in active service, a tiny fraction of the 200,000 during World War II. “If you took them down much further, you'd risk ruining the mix," said Chris Bellamy, a military historian and author of "The Gurkhas: Special Force." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
“Recently, British officers and Gurkha veterans groups have emphasized the extent to which Britain and India contribute to Nepal's economy — up to 25 percent, by some accounts — through pensions and funding for Gurkha hospitals, schools in Gurkha communities and other welfare programs. (India employs more Gurkhas than Britain, although they're not as well paid.) “The government would have to think pretty long about turning that down," Mills said. Such arguments, and the fact that 3 million other Nepalis work overseas because of the weak economy at home, appear to have silenced for now any move to block overseas Gurkha postings. But veterans groups have little trust in the communists and fear the idea could resurface.
Gurkhas have complained that have been discriminated against, treated differently than British soldiers and treated with contempt by their British commanders. In Brunei British soldiers live in modern apartments, are given shopping allowances and are allowed to bring their families at government expense while the Gurkha live in run down housing, are not given shopping allowances and can bring their families for only three years in their 15 year military career.
Gurkhas are paid considerably less than their British counterparts. In the old days they were punished for using English; given poorer food and living condition; given a different set of disciplinary rules; and forced to practice Hinduism even though some of them were Buddhists. Gurkhas have only been allowed to serve for 15 years in the army, far less than British soldiers are allowed to do. They are not allowed to work in Britain afterwards.
Some Gurkhas assert the over-the-top compliments mask a relationship based on condescension. “The British like Gurkhas very much, until the Gurkhas cross the line and try to compete as equals," Deepak Bahadur Gurung, a pre-1997 soldier, told the Los Angeles Times. "As long as you're under them and you're very loyal, they like you." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
The number of Gurkha units and Gurkha soldiers in the British army has been shrinking rapidly: from 112,000 in World War II to 50,000 after the war to 16,000 in the 1950s to 3,400 in the 1990s to around 3,000 in the 2010s . They also don’t get to fight so much and spend a lot of time sitting around.
In the 1970s, when the Gurkhas accounted for 6.000 men in a total British Army of 170,000 and only around 300 new ones were being recruited each year, some people in Britain said it was time to get rid of Gurkha recruiting altogether. “It's a relic of our past, when we had our imperial fingers in pies all over the world,” one Englishman said. “But those days are over.” With the empire all but gone, there is, of course, much less for the five remaining Gurkha infantry battalions to do. Presumably for domestic political reasons, the Gurkhas are not sent to Northern Ireland. Britain's major military theater” at that time. Most Gurkhas then were serving in Hong Kong, doing border patrol duty and security work, for which they are paid considerably less than native British troops. Corporal Rai, who has been in the Gurkhas for 12 years, earned $72 a month. He sent a good part of it home to his village. Ratanchha, which was eight days’ walk from the nearest road. [Source: William Borders, New York Times, April 21, 1976]
In the mid-1990s, several Gurkha officer were charged with corruption for reportedly embezzling $260,000 from funds earmarked for equipment and office supplies. A general involved in the scheme endured a year-long court martial trial and then was kicked out of the army, sentenced to four years in prison and forced to return $208,000 (the money he stole).
In the 2010s the Gurkhas mission was again questioned. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Some in the communist-led Nepalese government object to the Gurkhas being hired guns for a former colonial power and are proposing to ban the practice, just as the British government makes deep cuts in its defense spending. Chandra Prakash Gajurel, a politburo member with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, says working for foreigners in effect makes Gurkhas mercenaries. “Yes, Nepal has unemployment, but joining someone else's army isn't a good solution," he said. "And, no, the Communist Party does not envy Gurkhas." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
Gurkhas and Pensions
There is also a controversy over the Gurkha's pension pay. While British soldiers get 450 pounds a month after they retire, the Gurkhas only get 88 pounds a month. Some who retired a long time ago get as little as 5 pounds a month. The families of Gurkhas who died also receive considerably less, a $31,000 lump sum and an annual pension of between $1,300 and $1,500 a year, compared a $90,000 lump sum and an annual pension of between $25,000 a year for dead British soldiers.
All former Gurkhas who have served more than four years in the British army have the right to settle in the U.K. because of a campaign led by the actress Joanna Lumley. However, the Gurkhas who left the service before July 1997 are only entitled to a third of the amount UK-based soldiers get. Some Nepal-based Gurkhas live on $55 a month handouts A test case in 2010 aimed at reforming the rule and give Nepal-based soldiers access to the UK-based pension was rejected by a British high court. Lumley, the daughter of a Gurkha officer, has led the campaign to earn fair pay for Gurkha soldiers. Her efforts though created a two-tier system — with those serving before 1997 getting a fraction of those serving 1997 — has led to squabbling and jealousy among Gurkhas. [Source: The Times of London, November 2010]
The British government feels the low salary is justified because the cost of living is considerably less in Nepal and the Gurkhas are paid the same a British soldiers (800 pounds a month) and usually save that money. The government also claims the Gurkhas knew what they were getting into when they signed up.
The Gurkhas have filed a discrimination suits against the British government. They want better pay, better pensions and the right to work in Britain. One member of the legal team representing them was Cherie Blair, the wife of the British prime minister, meaning that she and her husband are opposite sides. In October 1999, payments to Gurkha widows was upped to match those of British soldiers but as often then pension issue was till not resolved.
Gurkhas in Retirement
Some Gurkhas who were disabled and were unable to work when they came home have been unable to lives very well on their pensions and were forced into a life of poverty. Many however do quite well with their pensions. Even a pension of 88 pounds a month is lot of money compared to what other people in Nepal are making. They are often hold positions of respect such as village leader and played roles in fighting for political reforms.
A typical Gurkha retires when he is about 35 and grows rice on terraced Himalayan slopes. William Borders wrote in the New York Times: Some Gurkhas have found it difficult to readjust to the mean mountain villages that most of them come from. But Corporal Rai, whose father and older brother are both veterans, says that they are quite happy back at home with their pensions and their memories, and he can be too. “We'll sit around sometimes, the way my father does now, and recall our days serving in the Gurkha regiments, fighting the enemy and seeing the world,” he said with a fond smile. “We'll be so proud to have made it, and glad for those memories which we won't soon forget.” [Source: William Borders, New York Times, April 21, 1976]
Describing a group of Gurkha veterans, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As Limbu wrapped up a story about fighters squabbling over canned rations in the Falklands, he reflected on returning home after so many years abroad. “The problem with people like myself, we spend much of our life outside Nepal and when we return we don't have the respect for things we once had," he said. "If our government created jobs at home, we could talk about banning recruits from going overseas. But without making these preparations, they should stop talking about this idea." He then bade farewell with an exaggerated salute. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2012]
Rituals Held in Nepal for Deceased Gurkha Soldiers
Reporting from Kathmandu, Gopal Sharma of Reuters wrote: “Wrapped in white and with their heads shaven, retired Gurkha soldiers sat cross-legged on the stems of dried rice plants for three days of symbolic and traditional mourning, laying to rest the souls of fellow soldiers who fought and died for Britain. [Source: Gopal Sharma, Reuters, November 20, 2012]
“The Gurkha Army Ex-servicemen's Organisation (GAESO), a group which works for the retired soldiers, said about 60,000 soldiers from Nepal were killed in the two World Wars but that this had never been properly acknowledged. “Britain did not recognize their contributions and sacrifice", said GAESO President Padam Bahadur Gurung.
“The group organized mourning ceremonies where priests from the 17 ethnic groups to which the Gurkha soldiers belonged performed separate rituals at Syangja, 135 kilometers (84 miles) west of Kathmandu. “Their souls are still wandering around because their funerals were never held according to customs and traditions," GAESO said in a statement. "The souls should be freed by performing the customary rites."
“The mourners sat for three days in separate tents and lit butter lamps and incense sticks as thousands of visitors paid tribute to the soldiers in rituals which concluded on Thursday. Many in Hindu majority Nepal believe that their children and grandchildren cannot live in peace if the customary mourning rites are not performed for deceased ancestors and their souls are left to roam like ghosts.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022