In the early years of my bagpiping career, one of my Pipe Majors complained that I was playing so fast that I sounded like a Gurkha. At the time, I had no idea what he meant. He explained that Gurkhas were Nepalese soldiers serving in the British Army and that their pipers were known for playing their music extremely fast. Never having heard of Gurkhas before, I wanted to learn more. So, in the spring of 1990 I wrote a paper about them for my British India history class in college. When I initially gave my topic to my professor, she feared that I would not be able to find any information about them (this was before the advent of the Internet) and that I would have to eventually change my topic. She was wrong and the following is taken from the paper I wrote and for which I received an “A” grade.
Defenders of the Falklands and guardians of Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the Gurkhas of Nepal are the most jovial, loyal and fierce soldiers to serve in the British Army – if not any army – in modern times. The former Kingdom of Nepal, now sadly a republic, is located between northeast India and the mountains of Tibet. The great Himalayas run through Nepal making it a mountainous country with few roads. The terrain has affected the physical appearance of the people. They have a sturdy build with muscular legs and a touch of either Mongolian or Indian features. John Masters, who served in a Gurkha regiment, provides an excellent description of a typical Gurkha’s physical characteristics:
Here he is, facing us. Just over five feet high, he has a low forehead, slanting brown eyes…and a face either hairless or lined by a straggly Mandarin mustache. Sometimes he shaves the black hair all around his skull, but he always leaves a long tuft at the crown, by which he hopes his God will pull him up to heaven when he dies. In response he is expressionless, but he frequently grins…When he speaks he hardly moves his lips or teeth. He gesticulates little, grunts rather than shouts and points with his chin not his hands. He looks you straight in the eye and is not very interested in you unless he knows you well. He’s the world’s best mimic and will use the gift…often to puncture the inflated egos of those who have the privilege of ordering him about…He runs awkwardly on the level, well uphill and on a steep downhill no one on earth can touch him.
To understand the Gurkha fighters, you must first understand the Gurkha people. The Nepalese people as a whole are sometimes referred to as Gurkhas. This is because “the small kingdom of Gurkha, governed by a member of a leading Chetri family, gave the title of Gurkhali – that is, follower of the King of Gurkha – to all of his subjects.” The Gurkhas were originally Indian Rajputs who invaded Nepal circa AD 1748 after being driven-out of Rajputana by Islamic invaders. The Gurkha people consist of a number of tribes, clans and castes. When the Rajputs moved into Nepal, “…they brought with them Hinduism which supplanted Buddhism.”
The Hindu society in Nepal developed a system of social organization very similar to the caste system found in India. Of these castes, the Thakur or Chetri caste is the warrior caste. Thakur is the term used on the plains and Chetri, a corruption of Kshatriya, is used in the mountains. Of all the various castes in Nepal, the Thakur/Chetri is the highest in social standing, excluding the Brahmans. The Thakur/Chetri claim royal descent and the kings of Nepal were from this caste. “Very intelligent, smart in appearance, and endowed with the highest military qualities, the Thakur is the beau-ideal of the Gurkha soldier…They make excellent soldiers, a large portion of officers…being Chetris.”
The British first encountered the Gurkha warrior during the Nepalese War of 1814. Bhim Sen Thapa, the Prime Minister of Nepal, looked for an outlet of his warlike energy. After conquering all of present-day Nepal and the surrounding valleys, he began to encroach upon the British territories in Northern Bengal. “From 1804 to 1812 the Gurkhas pushed steadily southward, into British territory, until by the end of that time no fewer than two hundred villages in the fertile Tersi and Tirhut had been annexed.” The Honourable East India Company, the British trading company that ruled the Indian sub-continent until the British Government established the Raj in 1858, had tried to reach some form of mutual agreement with the Gurkhas who were beginning to be a considerable thorn in their side. Nevertheless, the Gurkhas continued to conduct raids into the British territories.
Although the British themselves were foreign invaders, they won the support of the local Indian rulers and Maharajas against the invading Gurkhas. This was due largely to the fact that the British allowed the local princes to remain in power in return for an annual tribute. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, executed the ruling families.
The start of the war with Nepal came about when Umur Sing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Gurkha Army, invaded the British territory of Bhutwal in the province of Oudh in 1813. The administration in Bengal demanded the Gurkas withdraw. Their refusal to do so prompted the Governor-General, Lord Moris, to declare war on 1 November 1814.
During the first part of the war, the British performed pitifully. The first action taken by the British was to seize Kalunga, a hill fortress guarded by roughly 600 Gurkhas. It was here that the British, under Major-General Rullo Gilespie, received their first taste of what the Gurkhas were actually like: “…Although the Gurkha defense was overcome by the British in 1814, it was only after the British had received more than ample demonstration of the Gurkhas’ martial will and capability.” The Gurkha action at Kalunga had earned them the respect of their individual capabilities by the British.
The 1816 Treaty of Sagauli ended the war with Nepal. For the next forty to fifty years, there existed only a shaky friendship between the British and Nepalese governments. However, both sides had developed a deep appreciation of each other’s virtues. While the British learned respect for the Gurkhas’ “martial race” at Kalunga, the Gurkhas received their taste of the British when they encountered one very stubborn Lieutenant:
Lieutenant Frederick Young’s Indian troops fled during a campaign, leaving him surrounded by hostile Gurkhas who asked, ‘Why did you not run away too?’ As history records it, Young replied with proper stiff upper lip: ‘I have not come so far in order to run away.’ Whereupon he sat down in stony-faced composure, prompting an admiring Gurkha to say, ‘We could serve under men like you!’
In accordance with the peace treaty, the Gurkha forces had to relinquish the territories they had conquered over the past 30 years and, in response to Lieutenant Young’s recommendation, “…the Gurkha soldiers who formed the remnants of [Umur] Sing’s forces enlisted in the British Army, being the first Gurkha soldiers to serve under the British flag.
The Gurkahs had distanced themselves from other Indian units in the army of the Raj because of their ethnic and social differences. “Like the Sikhs from the west, the Gurkhas felt a martial affinity with the British soldiers who had bested them…the superb fighting qualities of the Gurkhas…had [caused] a special relationship between the Gurkhas and the British [to emerge].” In fact, in 1886, the Colonel of the 42nd Regiment Gurkha Light Infantry wanted to eliminate all Indian and Sikh regiments in favor of the Gurkhas!
Originally, when the British recruited for the Gurkha regiments, they were not very discriminating as to which clan the recruit belonged. Around the year 1855, the time of Charles Darwin and the British obsession with his theories on various races, the British officers became more selective of whom they recruited. They believed in the theory of the martial races. The martial races included the Pathans, Jats, Dogras, Sikhs and Rajputs of India and the Highland Clans of Nepal – the Gurungs and Magars. These “races” were considered to be “…more military minded and more likely to make good soldiers.” The recruitments were made by officers who had a thorough knowledge “…of every shade of [Gurkha] clan and sect and their qualities as soldiers…Magars and Gurungs from Western Nepal; Rais and Limbus from the east; Puns, Thakurs and Chetris [for their castes]…”
Although Nepal was run along military lines, and the Gurkhas are a so-called martial race, there is a paradoxical fact that “…at heart, the Gurkha is not really warlike. He asks for nothing better than to be left alone and, hardworking peasant that he is, to be allowed to till his fields and mind his herds and flocks in peace.”
The recruits, numbering today around 400 each year, are accepted from only certain altitudes in the Himalayas – between 3,000 and 89,000 feet above sea-level. “Below that are too many men of Indian stock whom the British Army does not want. Above, in the domain of mountain-climbing Sherpa tribes, it is too difficult to get around, although a few Sherpas who seek to join are accepted.”
Applicants come from miles around and retired Gurkha soldiers weed out over 10,000. Eighteen hundred are then taken to camps for final selection. The IQ exams alone reject one out of every two applicants. The remaining are then recruited into the elite Gurkha regiments for an enlistment of fifteen years. For those who rise above the rank of Private, the enlistment is for thirty years.
It is the greatest honor imaginable to be accepted into a Gurkha regiment of the British Army. Some of the recruits would journey for sixteen days and for those who are rejected, it is an even longer trip back to their village. “…There is not only the fatigue of the long trek home to be faced, but also the humiliation of his position when he gets back to his village.
The Gurkha soldiers have a unique relationship with the British Army. The British never occupied nor ruled Nepal yet the Gurkhas have an undying loyalty to their superior officers and to Her Majesty the Queen. Just what makes the Gurkhas treat the British in such a way? Lieutenant Colonel Keith Robinson, a Gurkha brigade officer at the British Embassy in Katmandu says that “‘ Had Nepal been colonized [by the British], we would have had taken the privilege of recruiting troops as a right…Since we’ve always had to ask [them to serve], they’ve kept their self-respect.’”
The relationship of devotion and undying loyalty of the Gurkhas to their British officers is well known. Major W. Brook Northey MC, the author of Land of the Gurkhas once asked a young Gurkha who had been in his regiment and away from home, whether he was homesick. “‘I was terribly so at first…but I am no longer. The regiment has become my second home.’” John Masters goes on to describe the loyalty and mentality of a typical Gurkha soldier:
Perhaps he has been working for eight hours up to his waist in freezing water, helping to build a bridge. Now he has just gone to sleep in a blanket on the stones. Wake him, tell him there’s an emergency, that we must dig a trench. He rolls out with a ‘tee-lo!’ takes a pick or shovel, and starts to dig, joking with the men around him and with the officers. The task is finished in three hours, to the stupefaction of the experts, who said it would take six. We who know him are not surprised, we expected it. He rolls back into his blankets. We wake him again an hour later and tell him someone has blundered, now we are to gird for the assault, and the enemy is numerous and well armed. He stands up, stretches, fixes his bayonet, smiles at us in wry comradeship, and moves forward.
The extent of Gurkha loyalty was not fully known and appreciated until the Great Mutiny in 1857. The Great Mutiny was sparked by rumors that the gun cartridges issued to Indian troops were coated with cow and pork fat. As this was repugnant to both the Hindu and Muslim Seypoys, they revolted. As the Mutiny spread throughout the province of Bengal, the Seypoys became suspect. “Many officers who had sworn that their own men were loyal and would remain so were hacked to death by these same men.”
Lord Canning, the Governor-General obtained the aid of three thousand Gurkha troops from Jung Bahadur, the Nepalese Prime Minister, at Lucknow. The Gurkhas occupied the town, which was occupied by the rebels, “and then swept on through Oudh…thereby preventing any chance of a flank attack on British troops…Success after success attended the [Gurkhas and] the morale and military strength of the rebels throughout the north of the Kingdom of Oudh were completely broken.”
No Gurkha joined the mutiny and they did their best to reassure the British of their support. Their loyalty during the crisis was undying. Mutineers near Bhola attacked Major Charles Reid and the Sirmoor Battalion. The Gurkhas drove off their attack and occupied the village. Of the eighteen prisoners they took, thirteen were convicted and five sentenced to death. These five were Brahmans, and “it was a test of the lower-caste Gurkhas’ loyalty that they did not hesitate to kill them…this refusal to allow religious scruples to interfere with duty has always made the Gurkhas more versatile in British eyes.”
Throughout the Mutiny, the Gurkhas had plenty of opportunities to prove themselves.
‘My little fellows behaved splendidly and were cheered by every European regiment. I may say every eye was upon [us]…the General was anxious to see what the Gurkha could do, and if we were to be trusted. They had doubts about us; but I think they are now satisfied.’
After the Mutiny ended in 1858, and after the loyalty of the Gurkha troops was proven, the Sirmoor Gurkha Battalion was given the battle honor DELHI. This battalion was the one to remain during the entire Siege of Delhi and “there can be no question of the fact that the most distinguished part in the entire siege was played by the Sirmoor Battalion.” Because of their loyalty, as well as the loyalty of all the Gurkha troops, two more battalions were established and the Gurkha Seypoys were officially renamed Riflemen, making them equal to the British battalions.
Ninety years later, the Gurkhas once again played a vital role in helping to maintain order during the last days of the Indian Empire. After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were at each other’s throats.
One of the most frightening aspects of this partition was the failure of the armed forces and the police to maintain order…Mutiny in the Indian Navy…Air Force…and the Indian Army…also among some police forces…Muslim police refused to arrest Muslims and Hindu police refused to arrest Hindus. Only Gurkhas performed their duties, impartially and with humanity…”
To maintain order on the newly created Indo-Pakistani border, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of the Dominion of India, established the Punjab Boundary Forces, which included the Gurkhas.
Muslims could not be trusted to guard Hindus and the Hindus could not be trusted to guard the Muslims, while the Sikhs killed the Muslims they were sent to guard. “Only Gurkha battalions could be relied upon.”Although the Gurkhas were Hindu, they dealt impartially with everyone.
Unfortunately, there were not enough Gurkhas to protect all of the convoys between Pakistan and India and to put down all of the riots at the time of independence. Captain W.D. Wells of the 7th Gurkhas wrote, ‘we were needed everywhere and guarding, patrolling, escorting, investigating went on without stop twenty-four hours a day. There simply were not enough of us to cope with the outbreaks.’
For the first time since 1816, the Gurkhas were involved in a conflict that affected their own interests. No one knew what was to become of the Gurkha regiments once the British left India. The problem that arose was how many troops would transfer to the new Indian National Army. The solution came after a meeting between Field Marshal Montgomery and Prime Minister Nehru on 23 January 1947. Of the twenty-seven battalions in the British Indian Army, only eight went to the departing British Army.
After Independence, individual Gurkhas in the eight battalions ceded to the British Army were given three options: 1) Stay with their battalion; 2) transfer to a battalion that would join the Indian Army; or 3) take his discharge with honor. Surprisingly, many opted to stay in India. “India was familiar [and many] Gurkha families were already there.” Even to this day in the Indian National Army, the Gurkha Regiment’s tradition and customs have been retained. The only changes made were in the British rank titles, medals and honors issued.
The Gurkhas of the British Army played a vital role throughout the history of the Empire, esp
ecially in the service of the Raj. The Gurkhas are the best of the best and possess a loyalty to the Crown, which no other mercenary army (for the Gurkhas are mercenaries) has ever expressed. A study of the Gurkhas is a study of undying loyalty between two unique “races”. They are a fascinating and paradoxical group – both martial and peaceful. To quote one British officer, “‘they’re the best bloody soldiers you ever saw. And so far, thank God, they’re on our side!’”
A post script to my original 1990 paper comes from a June 2, 2011 article by CNN:
Britain's newest hero is a Nepali.
Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday awarded Britain's second-highest award for bravery, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, to Acting Sgt. Dipprasad Pun of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. While stationed as a lone sentry at a checkpoint in Afghanistan's Helmand province on September 17, Pun fended off an attack by up to 30 Taliban fighters. "There were many Taliban around me," Pun said in an interview with British Forces News. "I thought they are definitely going to kill me. ... I thought before they kill me I have to kill some of them."
During the 15-minute battle, Pun fired more than 400 rounds of ammunition, detonated 17 grenades and a mine and even threw his gun tripod at a Taliban fighter climbing toward his position, according to British Forces News. "He was just about to climb up there and I hit (him) with my tripod and he fell down again," Pun told British Forces News. Pun's actions saved the lives of three fellow soldiers at the checkpoint and were the "bravest seen in his battalion over two hard tours in Afghanistan," according to his medal citation. Pun was not wounded in the firefight.
“That he survived unscathed is simply incredible," his medal citation says. “Throughout Dip’s actions he was under almost constant intense fire. Dip’s courage and gallantry were simply astonishing."
Pun, 31, joined the British military in 2000 and also has served in Bosnia and Kosovo. Like other Gurkhas, Pun is from Nepal. The Gurkhas were incorporated into British forces after their fighting skill impressed the opposition British during the Nepal Wars of 1814 to 1816. As part of the peace treaty ending that conflict, Gurkhas were admitted into East India Company's army and then into the British military. Gurkhas recruited solely in Nepal remain Nepalese citizens during their service. Gurkha unit officers are British.
 Nicholson, JBR., The Gurkha Rifles. Osprey Publishing, LTD.: New York, 1974. Page 3.
 Masters, John. Bugles and a Tiger: A Volume of Autobiography. Viking Press, New York, 1956. Pages 84-5.
 Northey, Brook (Major) MC. The Land of the Gurkhas: Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal. W. Hoffer & Sons, Ltd.: Cambridge, 1975. 0Ppage 42.
 Ibid, page 42.
 Nicholson, page 3.
 Northey, pages 93-94.
 Ibid, page 57.
 Chant, Christopher. The Illustrated History of an Elite Fighting Force. Blandford Press: Poole, Dorset, England, 1985. Page 11.
 Ibid, page 13.
 Kaylor, Robert. Enduring Tradition of the Gurkhas. US News & World Report, Vol. 93, No. 10, September 6, 1982. Page 63.
 Northey, page 58.
 Ibid, page 76.
 Farwell, Byron. The Gurkhas. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1984. Page 24.
 Ibid, page 76.
 Bidwell, Shelford. The Chindit War: Stilwell, Wingate and the Campaign in Burma. MacMillan Publishing Company, Inc.: New York, 1979. Page 117.
 Kaylor, page 64.
 Ibid, page 64.
 Northey, page 188.
 Northey, page 98.
 Northey, page 98.
 Masters, page 85.
 Chant, page 38.
 Ibid, page 40.
 Farwell, page 40.
 Ibid, page 43.
 Chant, page 43.
 Farwell, page 46.
 Ibid, pages 244-45.
 Ibid, pages 240-41.
 Ibid, page 248.
 Ibid, page 248.
 Ibid, pages 249-50.
 Newsweek, Vol LIX, No 10. The Best Bloody Soldiers. 5 March 1962. Page 48.