Most often when we’re talking about Ghurka, it’s in reference to fashion– the Gurkha pant (and short) and of course, the great American Ghurka bags and accessories. We seem to vaguely know that there’s a military influence going on– but to fully understand the story of the soldiers that originally bore the Gurkha name is mind-blowing.
“A face contorted with willpower and strength, a warrior honorable, courageous, loyal and wise. He is a symbol of these qualities in war and peace. His fierceness is as legendary as his loyalty to the British Monarch and his regimental history is packed with acts of unbelievable bravery and sacrifice. The love of his mountains, homeland and his family is deep and keeps luring him back after the call of duty. He is the unconquerable Gurkha soldier and a legend in his own right.”
The word ‘Gurkha’ is derived from Gorkha. The latter is small town in Nepal and the significance of this place is indistinguishable to the history of the Gurkhas. The importance of this town is monumental for both Nepalese and Gurkha history. ‘Gorkha Durbar’ is a palacial fort built with a strategic intent by the kings of Gorkha for their planned expansion across the country and beyond.
Prithvi Narayan Shah was the most famous king born in Gorkha. At a time when Nepal was dissected into various small kingdoms, Prithvi Narayan Shah managed to unite them all through his military skills and operation. As the operation progressed, his ambition grew along with it. Northwards expansion towards Tibet angered The Chinese, while southern expansion towards India alarmed the British. This brought the fierce Gorkhas (Gurkhas later known) into direct conflict with the British East India Company.
The Gurkha soldiers, known for their speed and their willingness to fight till death under extreme conditions, had an intricate knowledge of the terrain and were perfectly suited for guerilla warfare. The British were reluctant to take on such an elusive and successful Gurkha force, which had required the strength of a vast Chinese army to push them out of Tibet.
John Ship wrote– “I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not and of death, they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them, for we were so near that every shot told”. In the middle of all this chaos, a gurkha came clamoring over the ramparts. His jaw had been shattered by a musket ball and was pleading for medical assistance. After receiving treatment from his British adversaries, the British were expecting him to surrender but he audaciously said no and headed back to the fort to resume the battle. Every British attack on the fort was repelled. The Gurkhas threw every kind of missile at the British soldiers until, out of food, water and ammunition; the fort finally gave in to the attacks. Still, there was no surrender. The remaining 85 able-bodied Gurkhas escaped under cover of darkness to fight another day. The battle of the fort had been ferocious and the British had suffered more losses.
They managed to defeat the Gurkhas, but such was their admiration for their adversary that they let Amar Singh Thapa march out with all his arms and his personal property. The Gurkha forces were heavily outstretched and were forced to seek a settlement before being completely outrun. One of the British generals wrote in 1815, “ they are hardy, cheerful and endure privations and obedient, have not much of the distinction of caste and are a neutral kind of Hindu. Under our government, they would make excellent soldiers.” After this, an important and highly unusual clause was included in the peace agreement, which was known as the “ Treaty of Segauli”. The clause gave the British army the right to recruit Nepalese citizens. Nepal became the only nation whose citizen fought in wars that it had no direct conflict with. The initiation of the recruitment itself was unique in military history. Seldom in the history of warfare have two sides been so impressed by the others performance and bravery that they decided to unite rather than collide. From then on, the comradeship between the British and Gurkhas soldiers has grown unflinchingly.
Since then, many Nepalese (mostly the Rais, Limbus, Gurungs, Magars and Tamangs) have served and still serve in the British army. Their courage, sincerity and loyalty have won them praise and friendship from their British counterparts, and fear and respect from their enemies. For their valor, many Gurkha soldiers have been decorated with medals of honors, including the Victoria Cross– the highest military honor for bravery in the British army.
“The Kukri is the national as well as the religious weapon of the Gurkhas.
It is incumbent on a Gurkha to carry it while awake and to place it under
pillow when retiring.”
– Maharaja Padma Shamser Jangbahadur Rana
(Prime Minister and Supreme Commander)
The Gurkha and his Kukri knife earned their fame together. In fact– Nepal, the Gurkhas and the Kukri are inseparable. Most Kukri feature two little knives attached at the back of the sheath held either in a built-in pocket or a leather purse is the complete set. The small sharp knife is a Karda– it serves as a small cutting knife. The other knife is called a Chakmak– it is blunt on both sides and it acts as a sharpening stone for the Kukri and Karda blades. The Chakmak, when stroked against a lime stone, can also create sparks to start a fire.
The Kukri is considered a very effective weapon. The blade’s distinctive forward drop is intended to act as a weight on the end of the blade, and cause the Kukri to fall faster and with great power. In the hands of a Ghurka, it is a formidable razor sharp weapon and a cutting tool. In fact, it is an extension of his arm. Based on the recollections of Colonel Gian Singh– A Gurkha demonstrated to me in India how best to use the kukri. Firstly, you get in close to your enemy and stab him in the lower body. When the kukri goes in, the enemy always doubles over. You then swiftly withdraw your kukri and take his head off. With a sharp blade that’s easy. I saw many an enemy with their heads off so it must work!
Now we get to the legendary Gurkha bottom, which is an icon in utilitarian menswear–
- widely used by the British army, and therefore worn by Ghurka soldiers alike
- fit is generally high on the waist, like a proper trouser
- front closure is constructed of two straps that cross over and buckle in place
- size-adjustable waist w/o the weight. bulk or expense of an actual belt
- almost always pleated– roomy for airflow and ease of movement
The gurkha soon become standard safari fare, and later enjoyed a fashion moment back in the 80s– when Banana Republic was a retailer with a point of view and reason to be. Bill’s Khakis used to carry them, and they were great– I still have a pair in British khaki, of course. Ralph Lauren has been known to have them in his collections, as do other American heritage brands– which means Japan too. Best bet now is via J. Peterman and What price Glory.
I couldn’t resist adding a few more Ghurka pics–
Great shot of Sikh Ghurka soldiers playing volleyball–
Who doesn’t love a great DB (double-buckle) drill-cloth khaki?
And of course– iconic Ghurka bags
No roller bags, please. Tacky, tacky.
Link to Gurka and Kukri history
great post, gotta love the life archive
This gurkha soldiers are stuff of legends..I enjoyed reading the article but I have a problem with this gentleman bags-they don’t seem to fit with a soldiers life! The kukri,on the other hand,is a prised article full of history and wide spread in ancient times..funny enough,every nation that used a similar weapon became famouse for their warior prowess(iberians,dacians,greeks,egyptians)
i wouldnt like to mess with these gentlemen.
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I’ve written about the story before, but I still love to tell it.
Apparently, during WWII, a British officer asked for volunteers from his ranks of Ghurkas to drop behind enemy lines at night and create havoc. Only half the company stepped forward.
The officer acknowledged that jumping from a plane at night presented certain dangers, but was shocked that the legendary Ghurka troops didn’t rush to volunteer. Another few stepped forward.
The officer retired and questioned his batman, asking why they, who were so fearless on the battlefield would balk at parachuting behind enemy lines?
AH! answered his batman. You’re going to give us parachutes, that will change things!