"If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha." (Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw)
The Gurkha Regiment is without question one of the most storied regiments of the British Army. Somewhat like the French Foreign Legion, however, it has traditionally been a regiment of adventurers and soldiers of fortune, with the simple difference that the Gurkhas represent only a minor ethnicity of the wider Nepalese population, distinguished by a long and august martial tradition. Traditionally, the officer corps of the various Gurkha regiments have been drawn from the regular ranks of the British Army, with fluency in Nepali a basic requirement. The rank and file, however, and more recently many officers, are drawn from the population of the Nepalese hill country.
To the Gurkha, Nepal means not the 56,000 square mile territory known as Nepal today but the Kathmandu Valley, or the Valley of Nepal, drained by the tributaries of the Bagmati River and surrounded by the Himalayan foothills that most Gurkhas call home. Today Nepal is an independent republic sandwiched between India and China and occupying the southern lee of the Himalayas. The nation is 520 miles long and about 100 miles wide, and it is the rugged and rarefied nature of the landscape that has shaped the physiques and mind-sets of the people within. Ethnic Nepalese are typically short and sturdy, with voluminous lungs and strong, muscular frames. Human portage has for millennia been the only means of transport in mountains and foothills surrounding the valley, and even today there are probably little more than 200 miles of blacktop roads in the country. The main thoroughfares are the foot trails that interconnect the mountain communities scattered across the region.
The word Gurkha can mean many things to many people, and this is largely because not every Nepali is a Gurkha, and certainly the Gurkhas are not confined strictly to Nepal. The most accurate definition of a Gurkha would probably be a member of a loosely confederated group of clans owing fealty to the Gurkha military tradition and belonging to the old state of Gorkha, which now forms just a small region of modern Nepal. Their religion is predominately Hindu, and their dialects vary considerably around the regional lingua franca of Nepali. There are nine main tribes of Gurkhas, and these are Thakurs, Chhetri, Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs, Limbus, Rais, Sanvars, and Newars. The single commonality of all of these, with the possible exception of the Newars, is an ancient claim to the bearing of arms and the signature weapon, the “Khukuri”, which is ubiquitous among all Gurkhas and is the basic weapon of any member of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
The Gurkhas: The History and Legacy of the Nepalese Soldiers Used by the British Empire in India examines these famous soldiers and their contributions over the centuries.