The Gurkhas have served the British Crown continuously for over two hundred years. The elite Nepalese unit is world-renowned for their courage and discipline, heeding to their motto, “It is better to die than to live like a coward.”
The name “Gurkha” derives from the city-state of Gorkha in western Nepal. Today, the Brigade of Gurkhas continues to fight as an integral part of the British Army, and always ready to unleash their legendary war cry “Ayo Gorkhali” that simply means, “The Gurkhas are here.”
After conquering India in the mid-18th century, the British Empire looked to expand its reach north into the Kingdom of Nepal. Terrible idea. Spearheaded by the East India Company, imperial troops encountered stiff resistance from the fierce Himalayan fighters, who refused to be conquered.
The bloody campaign prompted one British soldier to write later, “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.” Eventually, the two sides signed a Peace Treaty in 1816, putting to an end to ill-advised invasion that resulted in heavy British casualties.
Such was the mutual respect that the agreement also stipulated that Gurkhas were now welcome to join forces with their ex adversaries. British officials in the 19th century declared the Gurkhas as a ‘Martial Race’, a term describing people thought to be ‘naturally warlike and aggressive in battle.’ In short, don’t mess with these guys.
Only the Best
Thousands of Gurkha candidates compete annually for just 400 places in the British Army, an increase of nearly double from previous years. Nonetheless, competition is stiffer than ever for the young men vying to secure life-changing opportunities both financially and as a matter of national pride.
The ranks are typically dominated by four ethnic groups of hill farmers living on the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains: the Gurungs and Magars in central Nepal, and the Rais and Limbus from the east. From an early age, these villagers from one of the poorest countries in Asia grow up lean and healthy from working long hours in the fields. They also benefit from their high altitude environment — an advantage that allows them to increase their red blood cell count by acclimating to the thinner air.
Preliminary qualification for the Brigade requires a recruit to perform a series of written and physical tests, including 12 pull-ups, 75 bench jumps in one minute and 70 sit-ups in two minutes. That’s the easy part. For those making the grade, they must also tackle the infamous doko race: a 5-kilometer uphill run in less than 46 minutes while carrying a wicker basket on their backs loaded with 55 pounds of rocks and sand. Because the standard is so high, additional points are awarded for excellence before the scores are tallied and the final selection is made.
For several centuries, Nepalese warriors have carried a traditional weapon into battle called the kukri. The iconic 18-inch knife features a distinct curved blade with a handle made from wood, bone, or the horn of a water buffalo. According to apocryphal legend, once a kukri is drawn in battle, it must taste blood before returning to its sheath.
Each soldier is issued one for every-day use and another for ceremonial purposes. The blade is kept razor sharp and serves a multitude of functions such as chopping, digging, clearing, and even opening cans. It’s also amazingly stealth at killing the enemy. In Military Anecdotes, author Geoffrey Reagan, describes a report from a Gurkha unit serving in North Africa during WWII: “Enemy losses: ten killed, ours nil. Ammunition expenditure nil.”
Another unique feature of the kukri’s shape is a notch at the base of the blade. Although several applications are utilized, the design allows for blood to run off the edge rather than dripping onto the handle and making it slippery. This feature is particularly handy when used in the ritual of animal sacrifice.
As some of the fiercest warriors ever to set foot on a battlefield, the Brigade of Gurkhas has produced astonishing acts of bravery and sacrifice since its inception in 1815. Their numbers peaked while serving in both world wars but suffered extremely high casualties of over 50,000 men.
While serving primarily in the infantry, the well-seasoned unit has seen combat from Borneo to The Falklands. The brigade most recently fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Prince Harry once lived with a Gurkha battalion during his 10 weeks in-country.
In all, the Nepalese soldiers have earned 13 Victoria Crosses (26 total by the Brigade) — the United Kingdom’s highest award for valor. British Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw famously once said: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha.”
All The Queen’s Men
When you’re the world’s longest-living monarch — as well as one of the wealthiest people on the planet — you can afford the fiercest bodyguards money can buy. Not surprisingly, Queen Elizabeth II is always flanked by two Gurka officers at her side during official state and key events.
The Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers, a highly specialized unit date back to Queen Victoria’s reign, are equally revered for being both tenacious in battle and intensely loyal. Sir Ralph Turner MC, had this to say about the Gurkhas following First World War: “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.”
After relinquishing their duties, the Gurkhas are then appointed as Members of the Royal Victorian Order, a dynastic order of knighthood recognizing distinguished personal service to the British Crown.
One Man Army
On the night of September 2, 2010, a gang of armed bandits posing as passengers stopped a crowded train in northeast India. The attackers, possibly as many as 40 men, began going down the aisles, looting and terrorizing the travelers. But unbeknownst to the robbers, a 35-year-old retired Gurkha named Bishnu Shrestha just happened to be on board. The bad guys never stood a chance.
Shrestha had been asleep in his chair when duty called. As he calmly assessed the mayhem unfolding all around, the men grabbed a girl sitting next to him and intended to rape her. That’s when the soldier sprang into action and went to work. He pulled out his kukri and quickly killed three of the robbers and injured eight others, causing the remaining men to take off running. During the melee, Shrestha suffered a deep gash to his hand but somehow managed to successfully thwarted the ambush.
Following the ordeal, the intended rape victim’s family offered him a substantial cash reward. The Gurkha refused it, saying: “Fighting the enemy in battle is my duty as a soldier. Taking on the thugs on the train was my duty as a human being.”
Shrestha spent more than two months recovering from his wounds and was later honored by the Indian government with three gallantry awards.
Strong family values provide the basic fabric of everyday life for the Nepalese people and are passed down from one generation to the next. A fighting spirit is also part of their bloodlines — and none more so than two warriors with the last name of Pun.
On June 23, 1943, Tul Bahadur Pun found himself in a dire situation while fighting the Japanese in Burma during WWII. All of Pun’s unit had been either killed or wounded following an onslaught by the enemy near a critical railway bridge. Undaunted, he picked up a Bren gun and kept blasting away while he dashed across a muddy open field. He then killed three Japanese soldiers and captured two machine guns as well as a large cache of ammunition.
His Victory Cross citation reads: “Rifleman Pun’s courage and superb gallantry in the face of odds which meant almost certain death were most inspiring to all ranks and were beyond praise.”
Flash forward to 67 years later: Pun’s grandson, Sergeant Dipprasad Pun, single-handedly fought off 30 Taliban soldiers in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. The Gurkha had been keeping guard on the roof of a checkpoint when the insurgents stormed into the command post armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.
Over the next hour, Pun exhausted all of his ammo as he dispatched the attackers. At one point, he even tossed a machine-gun tripod at a Taliban fighter who had climbed up to the roof. Pun’s actions earned him a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, the second-highest British military decoration awarded for bravery.
Never Say Die
One of the most significant battles ever won by the Gurkhas wasn’t fought on a battlefield but rather in a court of law. Despite two centuries of loyal service marked by courage and sacrifice, Nepal-born soldiers were paid far less than British-born subjects as well as denied pension rights. The case would involve a highly publicized campaign fueled by a former Bond girl, a Victoria Cross winner and public outrage to overcome the egregious injustice.
After the war, Pun returned to Nepal but decades later applied to resettle in Britain for much-needed medical treatment. He was refused. The absurd reason? Because he “failed to demonstrate strong ties with the UK.” In 2009, British actress Joanna Lumley, whose father life served as an officer in the Gurkha Rifles with Pun, helped lead the charge to create awareness for the cause. The UK government claimed former Gurkhas didn’t warrant the same treatment because Nepal isn’t a member of the Commonwealth and allowing them to relocate to the UK would lead to “massive pressure” on the immigration service. An overwhelming majority of British citizens disagreed.
Eventually, the High Court ruled in 2009 that all Gurkhas who served four or more years would be entitled to UK citizenship rights and allowed to settle there. The government’s decision prompted a rousing cry of “Ayo Gorkhali” by supporters on the steps of Parliament.