The words Gurkha and kukri (Khukuri) go together – one cannot be said without the other. Their story is incomplete without each other.
The Gurkhas and the kukri achieved fame during WWI and WWII. The kukri has been better known since those days as “The Gurkha Knife.”
The kukri is not only the national weapon of Nepal, but also a utility knife for Nepalese people and it holds a unique as well as significant place in Nepalese culture. The kukri represents Nepalese traditions, history and to some extent, spiritual beliefs.
In some communities, it defines a social role as well as serves as a symbol of wealth, social status and prestige. The kukri has not only been the main weapon of war, but also a multi-purpose tool in peacetime and many men from various communities in Nepal love to carry one with them all the time.
Although the history of the kukri is long in Nepal, the knife was first seen by the British during the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16. Wherever the Gurkhas fought, the kukri went with them and there wasn’t a single battle where the kukri was not used.
Gurkha fighters have a fearsome reputation, and the kukri is the main reason. No Gurkha goes into battle without a kukri.
However, the kukri is much older than Nepal. The kukri was already the weapon of choice for the Kiratis in the 7th century BC. Some believe the history of the knife stretches back to the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of India and compare the kukri with the Macedonian version of the Kopis, the single-edged curved sword used by Alexander’s cavalry which was about the same size as the kukri. Both stories point to the kukri being at least 2,500 years old.
When Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king of the independent Kingdom of Gorkha and the founding father of Nepal, invaded the Kathmandu valley in 1767 and conquered it the following year, the kukri was credited wth playing a major role in his victory. It continued to be the weapon of choice for the Gorkha soldiers. His forces, widely known as the Gorkhali army, eventually clashed with British forces and the story of the Gurkhas and the kukri became widely known.
The kukri of King Drabya Shah, the King of Gorkha in 1627, is among the oldest and is in the National Museum of Nepal. Another famous kukri is the Fisher Kukri, used by Lt. J. F. L. Fisher during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58 in India and is displayed at the Gurkha Museum in Winchester in the UK. The Sepoy Mutiny was where the loyalty of the Gurkhas was tested and proved. As a reward, the Gurkhas were made riflemen and allowed to have their own regiments renamed the Gurkha Rifles. The kukri played a significant role in the Gurkhas achieving their status.
There are many famous knives and the kukri is one of the most famous, becoming a propaganda tool for the British during war.
The British have long used the Gurkhas and their kukris in various forms of propaganda, but the way they used them against the Argentines before the battles in the Falklands in 1982 was a classic. A photograph of a Gurkha sharpening his kukri instilled fear in many Argentine soldiers’ minds and worked well with the myth that a Gurkha must draw blood every time he unsheathes his kukri, which is not true.
The kukri is also the emblem of the Gurkhas, whether they are serving in the Nepal Army, British Army, Indian Army or Singapore GC. Badges, insignia, flags, signage and colors used by various armies with Gurkha soldiers all have a kukri on them.
The blade is made from high-grade steel, the handle of hardwood, metal or animal horn, the sheath of wood and animal hides. To make a high-quality kukri takes at least one week and highly skilled blacksmiths are involved. An average kukri is 14-16 inches long. It comes with two small knives in the top of the scabbard, one is blunt (Chakmak) and the other sharp (Karda). The blunt one is used for starting a fire with a flint and the sharp one is a general purpose knife.
The notch on the blade has a purpose. It stops the blood from spilling over the handle and prevents the grip from becoming slippery during the heat of battle.
In modern day warfare, it’s understandable that here are reservations about a knife. This is why kukris are mostly limited to ceremonies and special dances in both the British and Indian armies. In many wars foot soldiers are used to clear areas, which sometimes descends into hand-to-hand combat. It’s in those battles that the Gurkhas and the kukri reign supreme.