Friday, March 31, 2017

Who were the Gurkhas?

1st Gurkha Rifles, 1857
Ayo Gorkhali! (Gurkhas are coming!) 
- Cry of Gurkhas

Gorhkas or Gurkhas are one of the most revered ferocious fighters that the Indian subcontinent offered. It was no surprise that the British who recruited locals as soldiers took them into their wings. Now, many Gurkhas continued to fight for the British and for India continuing a rich legacy of bravery dating back from the 19th century.

Gurkha’s Roots

The Gurkhas traced their roots from the powerful Gorhka Kingdom of Nepal. Their name came from the word Go meaning cow and Rakh, which meant protector, which connoted their origins as cow herders. The kingdom rose up from a city state high up mountainous terrains into a kingdom that expanded its realm into its neighbors, forming the modern territory of Nepal. The ancestry of the rulers of the kingdom dated as far as the 16th century and from a group of Rajputs, warrior people from India, that came in the Gorhka. By the 18th century the Shah Dynasty orchestrated the expansion of the country.

By the 19th century, its expansion seemed to be inadequate to satisfy the Kingdom and started to raid lands under the jurisdiction of the British East India Company. Gorhka’s actions in the border lands attracted the attention of the aggressive East India Company that later declared war on November 14, 1814.

Soon the Gorhka faced 4 spearhead attacks by the Company from different locations. The Gorhkas fought well and used their treacherous terrain to their advantage, inflicting huge casualties to the British and their native troops. In one of the battles, in Fort Kalunga, Gorhka soldiers killed one of the Company’s top General, Rollo Gillespie.

The war caused the East India Company tremendous difficulties that it caused them huge money and resources as they send more and more troops both native Indian and British troops to contribute in the war effort.

Gurkhas in the Eyes of a British
Gurkha Soldiers During the 1815 War

“These men are regularly officered, somewhat after the manner of Europeans; and they affect much the European exercise, dress, and arms. Even the denomination of rank given to the officers is English…The corps often take the name of the person who raised them; and, as a specimen of their military nomenclature, and of the regime of their troops” said by James Fraser upon observing the Johnny Gurks as the British called them.

He added further:
“The regular army of Nepal has been for so long a time accustomed to active service, to a series of constant warfare and victory, that the men have become really veteran soldiers, under the advantages of necessary control, and a certain degree of discipline; and, from their continual success, they have attained a sense of their own value – a fearlessness of danger, and a contempt of any foe opposed to them. They have much of the true and high spirit of a soldier – that setting of life at nought, in comparison with the performance of duty, and that high sense of honour, which forms his most attractive ornament, and raises his character to the highest.”

Clearly, Fraser recognized the organization of the Gorhka army and their gallantry and discipline in the battlefield.

As for their physical aspect, Fraser described them resembling “Malay or Chinese physiognomy” and “Their soldiers are stout, thick, well-built men, in general; very active and strong for their size.” He described them as well versed the use of tulwar, sabre, along with matchlocks and muskets and “prefer close fighting, giving an onset with a loud shout” but their most distinctive weapons was the kukri, an all-purpose curved sword.

The ferocity of the Gorhkas in the war earned them the interest of British Generals. For such troubles, some British General saw the potential of Gorhkas as great addition to the line of their native troops from the so called “martial race.” In 1815, General David Ochterlony, while the war pressed on, he recruited soldiers captured from one of the defeated Gorhka Generals, Amar Sing Thapa, to form the 1st Gurkha Regiment, which later became the celebrated 1 Gorhka Rifles of the Indian Army. Soon, 2 more regiments, the 2nd Simoor Battalion and the 3rd Kumaon Battalion, later known as the 3 Gurkha Rifles, were formed.

Treaty of Sugauli

The Gorhka Kingdom strived to resist the Company’s invasion, but soon their efforts went in vain. As they faced stronger and stronger onslaught, the Kingdom decided to sue for peace than to be completely annihilated.

The Treaty of Sugauli signed in the early months of 1816 led to the subordination of the Kingdom to the British East India Company, who took over the its foreign affairs. They also lose several periphery lands, like Sikkim, which held one of the British’s most loved region – Darjeeling. Finally, they conceded to the British their right to hire Gorhkas to join the British East India Army, forming their own Gurkha units.

In British Service

Gurkha regiments started to grow in numbers, especially after the Treaty of Sugauli permitted it. Many joined for the pay, incentives, and other perceived benefits, such as favors and connections. The Gurkhas joined the ranks of other so-called “martial race” units of India such as Sepoys, Pathans, Rajputs, and later Sikhs. To distinguish themselves, they continued to arm themselves with their iconic curved sword, the kukri.

Soon, the Gurkhas proved themselves to the British during the Pindaris War in 1817. They earned their first battle honor when the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkhas fought during the campaign to capture the impregnable fortress of Bhurtpore in 1826. They also served in the 2 Sikh Wars (1845-1846; 1848-1849) that brought about the annexation of Punjab by the East India Company. And all these time, the Gurkhas continued to grow in numbers and their units, and by the middle of the 19th century, their regiments numbered at 6.

Indian Mutiny of 1857

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 tested the loyalties of local native units to the British. The mutiny that started with disgruntled Sepoy units spread into a massive rebellion that threatened the control of the British East India Company over the entire subcontinent.  The British then relied on the loyalty of some native units that decided to fight the mutineers instead of joining them.

The Gurkhas sided with the British and helped in reasserting British rule. Besides the Gurkha regiments, their native country Nepal also decided to join the British in July 1857, bringing in 10,000 Gurkhas to fight the mutineers.

During the battle to recapture Delhi, the 2nd Simoor Gurkha Battalion saw action, fighting in the initial encounter in the Battle of Badli-ki-Serai, where they suffered 0 casualties and only 8 wounded. And during the siege of the Indian city, they took up position in the so-called Hindu Rao’s House located in a ridge overlooking the city that was essential for the British. For about 3 months, they faced tremendous horrific attacks from the rebellious Sepoy and suffered hundreds of casualties. But in the end, by September, they held their position and contributed to the assault of the city that ended the siege, resulting to British triumph.
Hindu Rao's House after the Siege of Delhi

Eventually, the Indian “mutiny” failed and the British wrote with great gratitude towards the loyalty that the Gurkhas and other native local units showed towards them.

Continuing Legacy

From their early exploits, the Gurkhas remained in service for many wars and conflicts of the British Empire. They saw action in places such as Malaya, China, especially during the Boxer Rebellion, Burma, and Afghanistan.

Today, Gurkha Regiments continued to be in active service in the British as well as Indian Armies, continuing a long martial tradition of brave warriors.

See also:


“Gurkha History.” In the British Army. Accessed on April 14, 2017. URL:


Norman, C. B. Battle Honours of the British Army: From Tangier, 1662, to the Commencement of the Reign of King Edward VII. London: John Murray, 1911.

“Gurkhas.” In The Victorians at War, 1815-1914: An Encyclopedia of British Military History. Edited by Harold Raugh. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004.

Davies, Gerarld. “Gurkhas.” In International Encyclopedia of Military History. Edited by James Bradford. New York, New York: Routledge, 2006.

Roy, Kaushik. “Anglo-Nepal War (1814-1816).” In Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800-1914, Volume 1. Edited by Carl Cavanagh Hodge. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

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