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Soldiers at Sagarmatha National Park Headquarters
Courtesy Janet MacDonald

Origins of the Legendary Gurkha

The term Gurkha (or, in Nepali, Gorkha) usually referred to soldiers of Nepalese origin who, over many generations, served in the legendary British Brigade of Gurkhas. Other regiments designated as Gurkha still served in the Indian Army as of 1991. As it has for more than 175 years, Nepal in the early 1990s served as a source of recruits for Indian and British Gurkha regiments. Retired British Gurkhas also served in specially raised security units in Singapore and Brunei.

Soldiers who served in the Royal Nepal Army usually were not called Gurkhas, although they also claimed to be the rightful heirs of many of the same martial traditions as their countrymen recruited to serve in foreign armies. The designation had no distinct ethnic connotation but derived from the name of the old kingdom of Gorkha (Gurkha), the territory that roughly encompassed the present-day district of Gorkha, in the mountains some fifty-six kilometers west of Kathmandu. Soldiers from the kingdom of Gorkha established an international reputation for their martial qualities during the eighteenth century by their successful invasions of Tibet. As the Gorkha kingdom expanded eastward across the Himalayas to Sikkim, the king's warriors, taken from all groups in the area, came to be known as Gurkha soldiers. Legend had it that Gurkhas never drew their service-issued kukri (curved Nepalese knives) without drawing blood, even if it were their own. Although probably a tradition of a bygone era, the legend added immeasurably to the Gurkhas' reputation for toughness.

The exploits and legends surrounding the Gurkhas are among the more memorable of modern military history. The old Gorkha kingdom was established in the mid-sixteenth century by Dravya Shah, the founder of the dynasty of Shah Thakuri kings that have reigned in Nepal ever since (see The Expansion of Gorkha , ch. 1). Two centuries later, the Gorkha kingdom began a major expansion under the energetic, young King Prithvi Narayan Shah (reigned 1743-75), who conquered the Kathmandu Valley and unified numerous petty kingdoms while consolidating his control over an area substantially the same as that of modern Nepal. The first two regular Gurkha regiments, designated Sri Nath and Purano Gorakh, were raised in 1763. As Gorkha rule expanded, control over the conquered territories was left mainly to district governors (bada hakim), who were responsible for establishing military strong points and for maintaining a local militia.

The military prowess of the Nepalese soldier first became known in the eighteenth century, when forces from what was then known as Gorkha invaded Tibet. Within Nepal itself, certain ethnic groups, such as the Magar, Gurung, Limbu, Rai, Chhetri, and Thakuri, had much earlier won reputations as "warrior tribes." The Magar, Gurung, and Limbu furnished the bulk of the kingdom's soldiers up to the rank of captain. Higher ranks tended to be filled from the Thakuri, Chhetri, and Rai groups. These officers came almost exclusively from families of the ruling elite (see Caste and Ethnicity , ch. 2).

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, armies were raised when needed and disbanded when the need expired. This practice created a sizable reserve of trained veterans but resulted in a recurring unemployment problem. In general, only members of the higher castes were retained in military service between wars. The first steps toward the creation of a sizable permanent military establishment were taken by Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, who governed from 1804-37 and who raised the army's strength from 10,000 to 15,000 persons. He also built arsenals, ordnance workshops, and cantonments. The large parade ground constructed at Tundhikhel in Kathmandu during that period still was in use as of 1991.

Data as of September 1991

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