Once upon a time, the Gorkha kingdom extended from Trisul Ganga in the east to the Marsyangdi River in the west, with its capital being the hill state of Gorkha, which gave them the name ‘Gorkhali’. The late 1700s were a period of great expansion of the Gorkha kingdom. In 1789 they annexed Sikkim, and then invaded Tibet, but were driven back by a huge Chinese and Tibetan army. In 1794, they occupied Kumaon and Garhwal in India. These aggressive excursions eventually resulted in war in 1814 with the colonial power of the time, the imperial British forces of India. The major highlight of this war was the British army’s siege of the Khalanga-Nalapani fort in Dehradun—the famous ‘battle of Nalapani’.
The British, led by General Gillespie, had impressive resources: 20 battalions of infantry and cavalry, 20 pieces of artillery, and two troops of horsed artillery. At the time, the entire Gorkhali army numbered just 12,000 soldiers, and the Nalapani fort was manned by a meager 600 Gorkhas. The battle dragged on for over a month, at the end of which, 750 soldiers and 31 officers of the British army had been killed or wounded. The Gorkha leader, General Balbhadra Singh Thapa (Kunwar), managed to escape with just 90 soldiers. In a place called Jyathak, 300 fresh Gorkhas joined their depleted ranks, which, soon after, came under attack by three British detachments, and a ferocious battle ensued. At the end of it, 12 British officers and 1,500 of their soldiers were either dead or wounded. On February 17, 1815, 2,000 Indian soldiers under Lieutenant Fredrick Young panicked and ran for their lives on coming face to face with 200 Gorkhas under Ranjore Singh Thapa. Young was taken prisoner.
Finally, in 1816, the war came to an end with the signing of the Sugauli Treaty on March 4, 1816, the British finally having managed to defeat Amar Singh Thapa’s army in Makanpur. A major term of the treaty was that Gorkhas should be allowed to be recruited into the British army. There could not have been a greater recognition of an adversary’s valor. Now, true to their fondness for order and discipline, the British set about identifying the true Gorkhas; to them, all the martial races of Nepal were ‘Gorkhas’. They discovered that the Gorkhas in the Nalapani fort had been mostly Magars. Besides this fearsome clan, Gurungs, Tamangs, Thakuris, and Puns (most of them living in the western hills) also had an excellent aptitude for soldiering. The British also realized that there were some pretty tough clans in eastern Nepal, as well: the Rais, Limbus, and Sunwars, as well as Tamangs. People of another martial community, the Chettris, were spread throughout the country. It was from Amar Singh Thapa’s defeated forces that the first three battalions of British Gorkha soldiers were raised on April 24, 1816, in Dehradun. Eleven Gorkha regiments were serving in the British Indian Army by the time World War I started.
During the course of World War I, heavy recruitments led to the formation of 33 battalions consisting of 200,000 Gorkhas. How vital was their contribution to the allied efforts is evident from the fact that 2,000 gallantry awards were awarded to the Gorkhas. Similarly, the Gorkhas played an equally vital role in World War II, when 250,000 of them in 42 infantry battalions further added to the already legendary status of the Gorkhas as the best fighting soldiers in the world by winning 2,734 different awards for courage under fire. Till date, the Gorkhas have won a total of 26 Victoria Crosses, the highest possible recognition for valor.
The Gorkhas have exhibited their tremendous courage and bravery in many arenas of war at different times around the world, and undoubtedly, the two World Wars have been the biggest arenas by far. Many legends have arisen out of their exploits, and some are close to mythical, so fantastic are the tales. Here’s one—during World War 1, an officer ordered some Gorkhas to bring back as many severed heads of the enemy as they could, and in quick enough time, one Gorkha, returning from the dense jungle, came up to the officer and threw some two dozen human ears to the ground. Before the gawping officer could utter a single word, the Gorkha explained in a matter of fact manner, “The heads were too heavy.” Here’s another: a Japanese officer with a samurai sword comes face to face with a Gorkha carrying a khukuri, the dreaded weapon of the Gorkhas. What ensues is a slash and hack duel, during which, the Japanese slices off one arm of the Gorkha. His exultation is evident on his face. It is, however, short lived, because the Gorkha tells him, “Okay, so you cut my arm, but why don’t you just nod your head?”
Indeed, it’s difficult to say where fact ends and fiction begins when talking about the exploits of Gorkhas in the fields of battle. Whatever the case may be, an awesome reputation precedes them wherever they go, and this was well vindicated during the Falkland War in 1985. At the end of it, this is what Brigadier David Morgan said, “It was the Gorkhas’ reputation that helped win the war in the Falklands.” The surrender of the Argentinean forces was hastened by the sight of hundreds of deadly blades glinting in the sunlight, as the Gorkhas landed on the beach with their khukuris in their hands. One Argentinean soldier reportedly said later that they didn’t want their heads to be chopped off!