The Gurkhas, Masters of the Kukri.
But in violent and technically primitive societies, the facts of battle come as less of a shock to those who first face them, and leave presumably less of a scar, than they do in ordered technically developed states.
In contemporary Martial Arts the lore of bladed combat has become very popular. During the past quarter century the practice of Filipino, Indonesian and Burmese forms of knife fighting has spread throughout Europe and the United States.
While this upswing in popularity has increased public awareness of knife techniques, it has overlooked environmental demands that contribute as much, if not more, to the warrior’s prowess than any formal instruction received.
Long before its mainstream appeal, the kukri had been used in close quarters combat by Gurkha soldiers, warriors whose knife skills were developed not through formal training but by a harsh and unforgiving lifestyle, one which imbued the Gurkha with a fierce martial prowess and ultimately propelled them to international fame.
Field-Marshal Lord Slim, the hero of Burma, once said that “The almighty created in the Gurkha an ideal infantryman, indeed an ideal Rifleman, brave tough, patient, adaptable, skilled in field craft, intensely proud of his military record and unswerving loyalty” (Farwell, 1984, p.15). In addition to being the ideal infantryman, the Gurkha’s ability to wage combat with his kukri has become legendary.
Yet, when one considers that the Gurkhas have been able to do so on battlefields dominated by firearms, then the question of how they accomplished this feat of arms arises. To understand the answer to this question requires examining not only the Gurkha’s martial prowess, but also the country from which they come: its history and the Gurkha lifestyle.
Although one may find all of the modern world’s comforts in Katmandu today, life in the outlying regions of Nepal is still very rugged. Farming is a mainstay of life for many Nepalese with the major crops being buckwheat, millet, potatoes, rice, sugarcane, tobacco, barley and peppers. Much of the farming is performed by hand, and yoked animals often plough the fields, although as recently as 1965, teams of men were known to do it (Fuer-Haaimendorf, p.8, 1964).
Despite the fact that tourism is a major industry in Nepal today, the country had remained isolated from the modern world until the late 1940’s. This was due to the Nepalese government’s restrictions on foreigners entering the country and Britain’s own policies, during its rule of India, which were in deference to the Nepalese government. For instance, E.D. Smith writes that “The exclusion of Europeans was not only insisted upon by the Gurkha state but also by the British Government of India, in deference to Nepalese feelings and in order that the country should not suffer prematurely from contact with ‘modern civilization’ (Smith, 1998, p.11)
Lying alongside the Himalayas’ southern slopes between India and Tibet, Nepal exceeds not more than 150 miles in width and is slightly over 500 miles in length. The country can be divided into four basic regions: the Terai, which consists of open fields and forests and is located at the northernmost portion of the Indo-Gangetic plain; the valley of Nepal, which is largely the heart of the country due to its fertile land; the main Himalayan range, which is comprised of seven mountains over 26,000 feet in height; and finally, the foothills of the Himalayan range, which are inhabited up to an elevation of 8000 feet and can be grazed by livestock up to 13,000 feet during winter months. Travel in this district is often restricted to footpaths given the rugged terrain. It is here that the Gurkhas originated.
The idea of Nepal as a unified country is a new one since much of its existence has been rife with warring tribes and petty kingdoms. Obtaining a clear picture of the country’s early history is sometimes hard due to the region’s sparsely inhabited countryside and tribal-based society, one in which the recording of events is often accomplished through oral transmission and mythology. For instance, according to Nepalese Myth, the country’s valley was originally a lake until it was drained by a sword’s cut. Hindus give credit for this supernatural origin to Krishna, while Buddhists believe the act was performed by Manjusri, a bodhisattva of the Mahayana tradition, who is portrayed with the sword of wisdom in one hand and a book in the other.
Although early Nepal enjoyed periods of stability, such as the Licchavis dynasty, from the 4th to 10th centuries, a large majority of Nepalese history is filled with armed conflict between petty chieftains, warring tribes and displaced persons seeking exile from Muslim armies who, by the 12th century A.D, had overrun much of Northern India. Much of this strife was accentuated by Nepal’s rugged terrain, making it virtually impossible for any form of centralized government to operate effectively. Therefore, isolated tribes, such as the Gurungs, Magars, Limbus, Rais, Tamangs, Sunwars and others, were free to reign as they wished in their own remote living area until another tribe seeking land, or bounty invaded them. The 14th century saw the Malla Dynasty in control of the valley region; however, by the turn of the 18th century the valley was once again divided, this time between three rival kingdoms, one of which was located in Katmandu, one in Patan and another in Bhatgaon.
Kaphar hune bhanda morne ramo, - “It is better to die than be a coward.”
The motto of the Gurkha soldier.
The original translation of the word “Gurkha” does not refer to any one particular tribe of Nepalese people but instead to the hill settlement of Gorkha located northwest of Kathmandu. It was here that a small group of Rajput immigrants, who had fled the Muslim occupation of Northern India, established a hill dynasty in the mid-sixteenth century. In doing so, these Indo-Aryans imposed their Hindu caste upon the Tibeto-Burmans who already occupied the region, and in time, through relationships and marriages, the offspring of the Indo-Aryan men and the Tibeto-Burman women were elevated to the Kshatryia or warrior class. Thus the original use of the word “Gurkha” did not refer to the Magar and Gurung tribesmen whose martial prowess would gain renowned fame in later centuries, but instead designated the early Indo-Aryan rulers of Gorkha and their warrior class.
For much of their early existence, the Gurkhas, depending on shifting alliances, allied themselves with one of the valley kingdoms because they had not the weaponry, nor manpower to defeat all three simultaneously. However, this was soon to change under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan (1723-1774). Upon ascending the Gorkha throne in 1742 Narayan began preparations for conquering the three valley kingdoms and achieving the eventual unification of Nepal. It was while forming his army that Narayan disregarded traditional caste rules and recruited tribesmen like the Khas, Magars and Grungs into his ranks, thus making warriors out what was the peasant class. He also introduced the use of firearms to the Gurkhas’, a practice uncommon to Nepalese warfare at this time. Prithivi Narayan would spend 25 years of his life expanding the Gurkha’s territory, as well as unifying a large part of Nepal. Unfortunately, his dream of conquering all of the country would not be realized given his death in 1774. Afterwards, Narayan’s successors finally unified the entire country whose borders in 1810 ran from Kashmir in the west to Sikkim in the east. These same borders also lay adjacent to land claimed by the East India Company, a large conglomerate of merchants colonizing India for the British Empire.
After unifying Nepal, the Gurkhas began launching raids into the land claimed by the East India Company. This led the British to declare war, and in 1814 an army 22,000 strong invaded Nepal with intentions of a quick conquest. The British, however, were soon to discover that the Gurkhas were not amateurs in the art of war and it would be two years before the fighting was over. A peace treaty was finally signed between England and Nepal in 1816, with one of its provisions that Nepal would furnish Gurkhas to England for service in the British Army. This was partially due to the respect the British had developed for the Gurkhas’ martial prowess, and also because of England’s need for colonial troops to help police its empire. Initially, the Nepalese government stringently honored this provision, and it was not until the late 19th century, when the trade in military manpower began to profit a succession of maharajahs who in turn obtained a guarantee of Nepalese sovereignty from Britain, that the British were allowed to freely recruit for their Gurkha Brigades. From that time on, Gurkha Brigades would fight side by side with British troops. They would serve in two world wars, help quell communist uprisings in Borneo and Malaysia, (1948-65) and because of their fierce reputation, scare Argentine troops into surrendering during the Falklands war. Most recently, the Gurkhas have served as peacekeepers in Bosnia and have also campaigned against terrorist forces in Afghanistan. In every conflict the Gurkhas have fought, their reputation as tenacious fighters has always been upheld and even to this day they carry their kukris into combat.
Close Quarters Combat
The early Gurkhas went into combat well armed. Their weapons included swords, shields, bow and arrow, body armor, daggers, short swords and, beginning in the 18th century, firearms. With Nepal being in such close proximity to Northern India, the weapons and fighting arts of their neighbor heavily influenced the weapons and fighting arts of Nepal. P.S. Rawson acknowledges the Indian influences upon the Nepalese, observing that, “Apart from these iconographic records, there is no direct evidence whatever for the history of the sword in Nepal until recent times, when surviving weapons serve as testimony. It is, however, most probable that throughout the middle ages, Nepal, under her Rajput rulers, shared in the sword traditions of the rest of Northern India, and that after the Islamic invasions and during the period of Islamic dominion in Northern India the isolation of the country ensured the continuation of Hindu traditions of swordcraft, as of the other arts. It has been said of Nepal that she represents in the modern world an image of the culture of medieval India. This applies with particular force in the sphere of arms.” (Rawson, 1968, p.52). Upon inspection of Nepalese arms, Rawson’s statement rings ever so true because many of those used by Nepalese are similar if not identical to those found within Northern India. However, even after the introduction of matchlocks and then later flintlocks into the Nepalese arsenal, the Gurkhas still relied heavily upon the use of traditional shock weaponry. In part, this was due to the single shot nature of the firearms and the time it took to reload them, but it was also due to the Gurkhas’ tribal ethos, which placed much importance on the warrior’s individual skill of arms. Therefore, often was the case when the Gurkhas would discharge their firearms then rush to close quarter’s distance, a range where their individual fighting skills and shock weaponry could be put to much use. In his book, Indian And Oriental Arms And Armour first published in 1880, Lord Egerton describes the Gurkhas method of fighting: “The Nepalese at the stockade at Tamta defeated the native troops brought against them with heavy loss, using their heavy semi-circular ended swords with great effect, and “like the Highlanders of old, after discharging “their matchlocks, rushed in fierce through disorderly masses upon their opponents.” (Egerton, 1880, p.38). The sword to which Lord Egerton refers is in all probability the Kora, a forward curving blade, sharpened on the inside with a massive tip at the blade’s end. Much of the Gurkhas’ military success has been attributed to their possession of this sword. Of all their weapons, however, the one that came to be most closely associated with the Gurkha is the Kukri.
The forward curving, inside cutting, Kopis style blade of the Kukri is one long known in the annals of warfare, in particular to those ancient societies of western civilization. Sir Richard Burton attributes the blade’s origin to the early Egyptians, and it was also used by the ancient Greeks who referred to it as the Kopis. Hoplites often carried the weapon in a sheath beneath their left arm, from where it could be drawn easily and then used in a powerful chopping motion. On the battlefield the kopis was considered a secondary weapon to the spear, but at close quarters it proved to be very effective. Many scholars, such as the late Ewart Oakeshott, attribute the blade’s presence in India to the Greeks and Alexander’s invasion of northwest India during the 4th century B.C. It was from Northern India, that the Kopis blade was first introduced to Nepal.
The kukri’s evolution is due to the influence of the kopis style blade, although ascertaining just exactly when the first kukri was made is hard to pinpoint. Some historians believe that it is a modern knife whose history dates back no more than 500 years, while others believe that it may have been developed during the Licchavis dynasty, if not before. Manufacturing of the kukri was, and still is, done by smiths in hill villages, with styles differing due to personal tastes and tribal preferences. The guidelines for purchasing kukris in the pre-1947 Indian Army were well regulated, yet it was not until World War I that the kukri would be mass-produced in a standardized designed, a process that would increase dramatically during the Second World War.
Although a very effective weapon, the kukri’s primary function in Nepalese society was and is one of a utilitarian nature. In Nepal, the knife is used for chopping wood, clearing undergrowth, harvesting crops, slaughtering livestock and numerous other jobs associated with agrarian lifestyles. This is in addition to the yearly religious festival of Dashain, when thousands of animal sacrifices are made to the goddess Durga, many of which are performed with the kukri. The kukri’s inclusion as part of the Gurkhas’ weaponry resulted from the knife’s size, its effectiveness as a weapon, and its usefulness as a tool. The combative/utilitarian roles of the kukri are complementary and are, in fact, what makes the Gurkhas so proficient with this knife. When one designs a weapon, he also gives birth to a weapons system; such is the case with the kukri. It is designed for the specific purpose of allowing its user to express one of the most instinctive physical actions known to mankind, the act of chopping. And though it is likely that Northern Indian sword systems held influence, the Gurkha’s kukri skills were developed more through work than formal instruction. Since it is common for a Nepalese boy to have his own kukri, the knife is used on almost a daily basis in performing tasks closely associated with the Gurkhas lifestyles. The downward chop used in splitting wood is also used for cleaving a head. The crosswise slash, used for cutting maize, proves very effective for delivering a horizontal cut to an enemy’s midsection, leg or neck. Angular slashing methods used for cutting through dense underbrush are employed for slicing an opponent from shoulder to hip. Moreover, the constant use of the kukri on broken terrain instills in the Gurkhas a sense of balance, one that makes the warrior surefooted while fighting at close quarters.[i]
This process of learning is one known by few modern day martial arts practitioners. However, this unstructured agrarian method is “traditional martial arts” for the Gurkha, and it is through constant use of the kukri in a utilitarian role that fighters develop their skills. Although the Gurkhas’ method of developing their kukri skills may seem overly simplistic, one must remember that the techniques of most mortal based combat systems are based on simplicity and, in this respect, the kukri is no different. In fact, it is the simplicity of its techniques that makes the weapon so lethal. The kukri’s chopping and slashing actions can be executed successively in a short amount of time, and when done at close range, there is little or no room for missing one’s target.
Unlike martial artists who train for competition and place high value on aesthetics, this is not the case with the Gurkhas. Their employment of the kukri is one based on lethal intent and the execution of their attack is done with explosive power, speed, and a primal form of aggression found only in mortal combat. A case example of this being Jemadar Dewan Sing Basnet, of the 1/9 Gurkha Rifles, who during the battle for North Africa found himself confronted by five Germans in a trench and at night. Decapitating one of his attackers outright and immediately afterwards cut down three others in quick succession, the brave Gurkha recounted his actions later stating “I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognized it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognized him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon, so I cut off his head with my kukri. Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had cut a fifth, but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and shoulder” (Gould, 1999, p.248). Neither the length of the engagement, the space it was fought in, nor the equipment worn by Dewan Sing would have allowed the execution of anything but the most natural techniques with his kukri. Likewise, his is one of many recorded instances, which illustrate that simplicity of technique and aggressive execution are the keystones to close quarter’s combat, particularly when fought hand-to-hand.
The use of the kukri on the battlefield was done during the regular course of infantry combat, particularly during those times when fire and maneuver tactics brought the Gurkha to close quarters with their enemy, leaving no option but to resort to hand-to- hand combat. This usually occurred in one of three ways: during the infiltration of a trench line or fortification, in which a sentry had to be killed quickly and quietly; one-on-one encounters, when two combatants came face to face and were forced to fight hand-to-hand; and melee combat during which the use of firearms is not possible for fear of hitting friendly forces, thus leaving combatants with no option but to resort to their knives and bayonets.
Although the Gurkhas are imbued early in life with a proficient means for fighting with the kukri, their “taste” for close quarters combat stems from a tribal-based martial ethos, one reinforced by a very long and distinguished military heritage. This in turn leads the Gurkhas to place a high value on the individual’s martial prowess. Noted Anthropologist Lawrence H. Keely suggests some of the advantages the tribal warrior holds over a soldier of an industrialized society: “In some respects, of course, tribal warriors were much better trained for war than their civilized counterparts. Their preparation usually spanned their whole childhood instead of the few weeks or months that civilized warriors’ train before facing combat. From an early age, warriors constantly practiced wielding real weapons and dodging missiles, receiving criticism and advice from experienced warriors, and being inured to deprivation and pain by means of various ordeals and rites of passage. Yet such training focuses entirely on the individual, not on the group or teamwork” (Keeley, 1996, p.43). Even though the modern Gurkha may not have been subjected to the same rigors as their ancestors of earlier times, their use of the kukri on an almost daily basis, the harshness of their environment, and their longstanding martial ethos all combine for making a very formidable opponent, especially when encountered at close quarters.
Although the kukri’s use in combat today may not be as common as it once was, the Gurkhas’ martial prowess is legendary. They have reached the skill of arms to which Sir Richard Burton alluded when he wrote “excellent in the use of weapons, and still train them to act naturally and habitually in concert.” (Burton, 2004, p.178) This they have achieved through sacrifice, courage, honor and their native lifestyles.
About the Author:
Michael Rosenbaum is a former paratrooper and has been training in the martial arts since 1976. He is the Author of “Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.”
Endnotes [i]The kukri is also celebrated in dance, as many tourists have witnessed while visiting Nepal. However, the dancers kukri skills are usually developed independently of the dance. A modern fighting arts correlation of skills development through kata practice does not apply here.
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