Kukri: The Gurkha's national weapon

The Gurkha is worthy of notice, if only for the remarkable weapon which they use in preference to any other. It is called the "Khukuri" or "Kukri" and is of a very peculiar shape. As may be seen by reference to the drawings both the blade and hilt are curved. The blade is very thick at the back measuring a little more than a quarter of an inch in thickness. From the back it is thinned off gradually to the edge, which has curve of its own, quite different to that of the back, so the blade is widest as well as thickest in the middle, and tapers at one end towards the hilt and the other towards the point. The steel of which the blade is formed is of admirable temper, as is shown by the fact that specimens which had not been cleaned for thirty years, but have been hung upon walls among other weapons, are scarcely touched with rust, and for the greater part of their surface are burnished like mirrors. The point of the Khukuri or Kukri is as sharp as a needle, so that the weapon answers equally for cutting or stabbing. In consequence of the great thickness of the metal, the blade is exceedingly heavy. It may be imagined that a blow from such a weapon as this must be a very terrible one. The very weight of the blade would drive it half through a man’s arm if it were only allowed to fall from a little height. But the Gurkhas have a mode of striking which resembles the "drawing" cut off the broad sword, and which urges the sharp edge through flesh and bone alike.

To make a complete set every Khukuri or Kukri must come with two small knives at the back. The two smaller knives used are of very similar form, but apparently of inferior metal. These are kept in little case attached to the side of the Khukuri or Kukri sheath, just as is the case with the knives attached to a Highlander's dirk.

In the hands of an experienced wielder this Khukuri or Kukri is about as formidable a weapon as can be conceived. Like all really good weapons, Khukuri's or Kukri's efficiency depends much more upon the skill that the strength of the wielder and thus it happens that the little Gurkha a mere boy in point of stature, will cut to pieces of gigantic adversary who does not understand his mode of onset. The Gurkha generally strikes upwards with the Khukuri or Kukri, possibly in order to avoid wounding himself should his blow fail, and possibly because an upward cut is just the one that can be least guarded against.

"When we were engaged in the many wars in India, the Gurkha proved themselves our most formidable enemies, as since they have proved themselves most invaluable allies. Brave as lions, active as monkeys, and fierce as tigers, the lithe wiry little men came leaping over the ground to attack moving so quickly, and keeping so far apart from each other, the musketry was no use against them. When they came near the soldiers, they suddenly crouched to the ground, dive under the bayonets, struck upwards at the men with their Khukuris or Kukris, ripping them open with a single blow, and then, after having done all the mischief in their power, darting off as rapidly as they had come. Until our men learned this mode of attack they were greatly discomfited by their little opponents, who got under their weapons, cutting or slashing with knives as sharp as razors, and often escaping unhurt from the midst of bayonets. They would also dash under the bellies of the officers’ horses, rip them open with one blow of the Khukuris or Kukris, and aim another at the leg of the officer as he and his horse fell together."

(From Travels in India and Nepal by the Rev Wood, 1896)

“If we didn’t kill them, they’d kill us.” – VC Lachhiman Gurung

In this final installment of his recollections as a Gurkha soldier in the British Army, Lachhiman Gurung speaks of receiving his Victoria Cross for bravery in Burma. He shares his views on war and describes the horrors of the final days on the Burma front. This and other testimonies of living Gurkha soldiers are taken from lahure ka katha, published by Himal books and translated for Nepali Times in this space every week by Dev Bahadur Thapa.

I have no idea where I was kept for five or six days. After that I was on another plane. We arrived at Comilla at well-equipped hospital. Some were bleeding from fresh wounds and others are recuperating. I had a lot of trouble because of my wounded hand. It had to be operated on three times. In the first operation, the hand was only shortened a little, yet it would not heal. So I had another operation where my hand was amputated. I stayed for 22 days in Comilla and was then shifted to Calcutta from where I was taken to Murshidabad for three months. By then I slowly started regaining my strength and was walking as little.

After that I was sent to Poona to get an artificial limb. A Gurkha captain and a lance corporal went as escorts .I was brought back in time for the Dasain festival. I was then told that I was to go to Delhi for the investiture ceremony. It was earlier proposed that to go to London, but I had never been there before and did not know any English. So, I chose Delhi instead of London. My father, mother and elder brother arrived from home for the ceremony. I was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery on the Burma front, and then I went home.
In the meantime, the armistice was signed. I was on the front only a short while compared to others who spent up to seven years fighting. One of my instructors served right through the war but remained unscathed-well, they command from the rear and face little chances of being hit. On the other hand, we were involved in the front. A number of my comrades-in-arms laid down their lives. Many millions had died. The sole purpose of the war was to lower the population, which it succeeded in doing. Politics warranted the state to lessen its people when it could not provide food and shelter. The sons and descendants of rulers were spared. Ordinary people became victims. Many just disappeared. In the war we focused on fighting and how to do away with the enemy. If we didn’t kill them, they killed us.

Since we were recruited by the British, we had to fight on their behalf. We knew they were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. At that time, Germany was a big power. Physically too, they were bit. They were strong enough to thrust in the bayonet in the body of a Gurkha soldier and then raise his body up. They could squeeze a Gurkha to death using one arm.

Quite a few Nepalese died in the war. One of them was my brother-in-law. Unfortunately, on one can collect his pension because his father and mother were long dead and as he joined the army as a lad and died in the war, he never had the chance to marry. I enrolled at the age of 22 and was a bachelor. I married only at the end of war. In those days no one could refuse to enlist in the army. I did not inform my family about my own voluntary enlistment till after I had joined the army. I knew how to read and write a little, so I sent them a letter. Since we belonged to family of headmen, our grandfathers had taught us to read and write. Quite a few of the other soldiers were illiterate.