"It is better to Die than to be a Coward" - motto of the world famous Gurkha Soldiers
Geographically located in the south-east Asia between India and China, Nepal, a Hindu country with a population of more than 28 billions is actually believed to have existed for over 1500 years but the universal recognition as a country came only after the unification in the mid 17th Century. Kathmandu is the Capital city; also known as the Land of Temples, houses the majestic Himalayas; is the birth place of Lord Buddha, embraces the amazing natural beauty and believed to have resided by Gods of heaven.
About 120km west of Kathmandu, Gorkha is a small mid western district in Nepal in today’s context but with immense historic significance with a population of more than 3 million were majority of people belonging to Thapa, Magar, Gurung, Rai tribes reside. Kings, generals and army of Gorkha conquered several small scattered kingdoms into one big and named it as “Nepal” in around 1767AD. Gorkha was captured by the Rajputs of N India in early 16th century.
Title taken from “Gorkha”, also known as “Gorkhali”. People from Gorkha, especially army and soldiers from this place with whose strength king Prithivi Narayan Shah united Nepal in 1760’s. Known for their military prowess, their courage, their brutality and their religions fervor; most Gorkhas are modestly built hindoos, religious and devoted, calm in nature yet ferocious fighter with the warrior intuition in blood.
As they were later known after the treaty of Saugali in 1815. Gorkhas and British East India Company fought against each other during their military campaigns out of which both stimulated respect and admiration for one another which later contributed to national level agreement that gave British the right to recruit Gorkhas under their Government and hence “British Gurkhas” was born. Interestingly “Gorkhas” was called “Gurkhas” (which is universally accepted now), this is what we see as an anglicized version of a word first heard by English ears back in the early 18th century. Britian and India both recruit Gurkhas presently.
The city of Kathmandu with its exotic temples, hills and a vibrant ethic population is one of the most romantic cities on earth. Approximately 200 kilometers from Kathmandu lies the valley of Pokhra surrounded by the mighty Annapurna range. The recruitment of the Gurkhas from the surrounding villages is concentrated in this region. Once in the hills, these villages can only be reached by a network of interconnecting footpaths through treacherous passes, across deep gorges and bamboo bridges. Torrential rain, blizzards, earthquakes, landslides and floods usually hit this region. Getting supplies here is difficult and farming is limited. This is the home of the Gurkhas.A land that is inhospitable, tough and remote. It is also the
landscape that makes the Gurkhas what they are. Culture also plays its subtle role in their overall development. They are family oriented and pride and honor are words and deeds synonymous with the Gurkhas. Their simplicity shines through their cheerful personality and the generosity of their hospitality is profound and touching. Yet, in warfare their strength of character and bravado is legendary. Gentle yet tough. The Gurkhas represent nearly all the ethnic groups of Nepal even though Magars, Rais, Gurungs and Tamangs form a majority within the ranks. Gurkhas are famous for their courage, loyalty, neutrality and impartiality. A Gurkha soldier is more than a mere warrior and embraces the traits of simplistic humanity without a fuss. The poignancy of their simple lives in remote, beautiful villages as well as the fierce determination they show in battle is a reflection that borders on the aesthetic.
Prior to the recruitment of Gorkha soldiers into the British Army, this is how their history unfolds :
A face contorted with determination and intensity, a warrior honorable, brave, loyal and astute. He is a symbol of these qualities in war and peace. His ferocity is as legendary as his loyalty to the British Monarch and his regimental history is packed with acts of incredible bravery and sacrifice. The love of his mountainous homeland and his family is profound and keeps luring him back after the call of duty. He is the indomitable Gurkha soldier and a legend in his own right.
War is never pleasant but its harsh reality can exude the human side of the soldiers involved. Flipping through the pages of history, there are not many tales as fascinating as the history of the Gurkha warriors from the high Himalayas in Nepal.
The word ‘Gurkha’ is derived from Gorkha. The latter is a small town in Nepal and the significance of this place is tantamount to the history of the Gurkhas. The importance of this town is monumental both for Nepali and Gurkha history. Ninety kilometers north of Kathmandu valley, on the way to Pokhra lies the town of Gorkha where it all began. “Gorkha Durbar” is a palace as well as a fort built with a strategic intent by the kings and generals of the House of Gorkha for their planned expansion across the country and beyond. The palace is only 1463 meters above sea level but the climb is very deceptive and is much tougher than it seems. Once atop, it’s easy to realize why this particular place was chosen as the focal point for launching military missions in the process of further expansion. It is also blessed with stupendous views of the Himalayas all around.
Prithvi Narayan Shah was the most famous king from the House of Gorkha and was born in the fort itself. At a time when Nepal was dissected into various small kingdoms, Prithvi Narayan Shah managed to unite them all through his military prowess and campaign. He spent 26 years of his life planning a military strategy. He finally launched his campaign after succeeding his father in 1742 and successfully united Nepal into one large kingdom in around 1768-69. Even though Prithvi Narayan Shah died in 1775, the rulers who succeeded him continued the expansion campaign beyond the new territories of Nepal. As the campaign progressed, ambition also grew with it. Northwards expansion towards Tibet angered the Chinese while southern expansion towards India alarmed the British. This brought the fierce Gorkhas or Gurkhas as they were later known, into direct conflict with the British East India Company. The court of directors in London called for an assessment report of the situation. They found out that the Gorkhas had built a substantial munitions factory in the hills and had established efficient supply columns.
The Gorkha soldiers were known for their speed and their willingness to fight till death under extreme conditions. They also 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 Gorkha force, which had required the strength of a vast Chinese army to push them out of Tibet. Eventually the Governor General of Bengal was authorized to declare that the British Empire was at war with the small but aggressive state of Nepal. By the time this declaration was made, Nepal was under the insightful leadership of Prime Minister, Maharajah Bhimsen Thapa and very young king Girvan Yuddha Shah. This was to be the first campaign for the British General in the unfamiliar hills of Nepal.
The British had decided to use a two-pronged attack using 22,000 men. The force was divided into eastern and western division :
The eastern battalion was confronted by extremely difficult terrain and failed in every single objective and first campaign nearly collapsed. A British General by the name of Rollo Gillespie left his camp at Meerut, 112 kilometers from Delhi and headed towards the Nepali border with 4000 men and 20 guns. He captured the valley of Dehra Dun but was abruptly halted for six weeks by Gorkha resistance run from a small fort in Kalunga; famously known as the “Nalapani Ko Ladain” in Nepal. It was built on a 152-meter high hill and was surrounded by dense undergrowth. In it were 600 men and women of Magar and Gurung descent under the astute command of Bal Bahadur Kunwar. Gillespie’s army had surrounded the fort and was convinced that the Gorkhas would give up any kind of resistance since the British heavily outnumbered them. He sent a message asking the Gorkhas to surrender. Instead, the leader of the Gorkhas in the fort tore the letter and in the next few days repelled several attacks by the British. One of Gillespie’s officers, James Fraser wrote: “they fought us in fair conflict like men, and in the intervals of actual combat, showed us a courtesy worthy of a more enlightened people.” Another officer 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 mayhem, a Gorkha soldier 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 Gorkhas and their women 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 Gorkhas escaped under the cover of darkness to fight another day. The battle of the fort had been ferocious and the British had suffered more losses. The British casualties included 31 officers and 732 soldiers while the Gorkhas lost 520. Both armies fought with utmost bravery and military proficiency and in return succeeded in earning mutual respect and admiration for one another in and through the battle. Two years later, two obelisks were raised at the sight of the fort in honor of the British and the ‘gallant adversary’.
The western front was under the leadership of General David Ochterlony and faced the Gorkha General Amar Singh Thapa. The Gorkhas were forced to retreat but this small British victory did not dampen the Nepalese spirit. The British still needed more firepower to dislodge the Gurkhas. Given the circumstances, the court of directors decided to mobilize 35000 men and 120 artillery pieces. 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 Nepalese forces were heavily outstretched and were forced to seek a settlement before being completely outrun.
The Gorkhas finally caved in to pressure from the British and had to relinquish large parts of land they had won thus withdrawing from Sikkim, territories west of the Kali River and most of its lands in the terai. (Southern lowlands bordering India). One of the British generals wrote in 1815: “they are hardy, cheerful and endure privations and are very 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 became known as the “Treaty of Segauli”. The clause gave
the British army the right to recruit Nepalese citizens. From then on, Nepal became the only country whose citizens 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 been two sides so impressed by the others performance and bravery that they decide to unite rather than collide. This speaks volumes about the ferocity as well as the gentlemanly amicability of the Gurkha soldiers. From then on, the camaraderie between the British and Gurkha soldiers has grown unflinchingly.
The formation of the Gurkha Army started long before the “Treaty of Saguali” was actually signed by Nepal, India and Britain. 1st, 2nd and 3rd Gurkha Riffles (as they were later known) were raised from the captured Prisoners of War of Indo-Nepal war in 1814-15 and large number of volunteers from Nepal (Gorkha). They were initially recognized as the “Local Battalion” or “Native Army” and were deployed to numerous fronts and successfully assisted the British achieved their military objectives. However, it was
only after the “Great Indian Mutiny” in 1857 in which the Gurkhas exhibited extra ordinary military prowess, fearsome courage and utmost loyalty that the British comprehended the Gurkhas and realized the importance and thus in the process it cemented the relationship of the British and Gurkha which continues till this day. The Honorable East Indian Company was in the verge of collapsing during the great Indian Mutiny that lasted for almost three years. The deployment of Gurkha Units came as a savior for the company that was further boosted by the reinforcement of 7 Nepalese Regiments commanded by Prime Minister and Army Chief of Nepal Jung Bahadur Rana who himself eliminated the mutineers. This highly commendable support from the Gurkhas strengthened the bond of friendship and loyalty in between Britain and Nepal and both have been the closest of friends and allies since then.
Gurkhas along with British have fought countless wars, campaigns, battles including the Great War (World War I) and World War II and in many post-world war fronts where Gurkhas have shown their outstanding bravery, courage and spirit to fight till death under the harshest of conditions. More than 200 thousand fought in WW I and more than quarter a million in WW II with more than 45 thousand killed or injured in both wars. Gurkhas continues to serve the British with the same passion, attitude and faith and their courage, loyalty and ability as an honorable and a fearsome soldier of the world has never been questioned and presumably will never be.