Hours after Brits across pubs with names like the Gorkha and Khukuri in London and rest of UK had finished celebrating their 200-year old association – nay, kinship – with the Gorkha warriors of Nepal, the Himalayan kingdom turned secular republic was turned upside down with the long-predicted earthquake that devastated the temple town of Kathmandu.  The historic Dharahara, the landmark tower known to some as Bhim Sen's Folly, built in 1832 by late Prime Minister Bhim Sen Thapa,  which had survived previous earthquakes, submitted to the latest tectonic shift.

But even this massive earthquake will not cloud the dexterity of the famed Gorkhas charging with their khukuris belting the blood-curdling battle cry Aayo Gorkhali which helped in the creation of the British empire from the Falklands to Hong Kong.  As the sun set on the British empire in India, the Indian Gorkhas were born in 1947 after the division of Gorkha assets between Britain and India, and they have continued to display their battle prowess for the defence of India.

A glorious tradition

The 1814-'15 Anglo-Nepal war stretching between the Bagmati and Sutlej rivers exhibited the fighting skills of the Gorkhas. On two earlier occasions, British military expeditions to subdue Nepal succeeded only partially, having had to be abandoned due to their failure to penetrate the malaria-ridden Terai region. This fortuitous turnabout led to the British East India Company being able to turn foe into friend while also stemming the tide of the surging Marathas and Sikhs in India.

On April 24, 1815, three battalions, one each of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Gorkha Rifles were raised with 1 and 3 Gorkha regiments going to India in 1947.  Japanese, Germans, Italians and Turks have faced the brunt of the Gorkha battle cry fortified with their motto Kaffir hunu banda marno ramro (Better to die than to be a coward). In 1857, Gorkhas demonstrated their loyalty and mettle to the British when they helped breach the siege of Delhi even as 14,000 Nepali soldiers led by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana recaptured parts of Awadh.

The Gorkhas (pronounced and spelt Gurkhas, with a 'u' by the British) endeared themselves to the British Tommy and were called Johnny Gorkhas. Long before Gorkhas were recruited by the British East India Company, they would go to Lahore to join Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Punjab army. To this day, any Gorkha who joins the Army be it in Nepal, India or UK and the police in Singapore and Hong Kong and even retired Gorkhas being re-enlisted as private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan are all called 'Lahure'. Little wonder they were called Gorkha globetrotters resulting in this memorable conversation between American journalist Walter Lippmann and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the height of the Cold War.

John: “Hey ! We found new allies ! They are Gorkhas”
Walter: “But they're not from Pakistan”
John: “But they're Muslims”
Walter: “No, they're Hindus”
John: “Heck, who cares for detail, as long as they're on our side”.

This anecdote led to people saying, "Let's call in the Gorkhas" (instead of the Marines).

As many as 51 Gorkha battalions fought under the British flag in the second World War and a few fewer units in the first World War. In 1947, the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gorkha Regiments stayed with the British Army while 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th and 9th Gorkhas opted to join the Indian Army. A new regiment, 11 GR was raised in 1948. Facing a cash crunch, the British Gorkhas first amalgamated the regiments, downsizing from a Gorkha Brigade of 20,000 to just 2000 today with two battalions simply numbered 1 and 2 Gorkha Rifles, shedding completely all historic affiliations. Of the two, one is permanently located in the UK and the other in Brunei where its Sultan foots the bill. Till 1997 the Gorkha Brigade was located in Hong Kong until it reverted to China and the Gorkhas were brought to UK.

No reasons to cheer

The Anglo-Nepal celebration will also be dampened by the fact that one Col Lama whose wife works in the UK was held in London two years ago while on leave from a UN mission for alleged violations of human rights during the Maoist civil war in Nepal. The Nepal Army has already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in British courts to have the case transferred to a Nepali court. The Nepal Army Chief Gen Gaurav Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana has told his British counterpart that much of the 'cheers' (Jai Gorakh) over rum-coke will be missing due to this aberration.

Nepal is also cut up with the UK over their protracted discrimination in treatment between Gorkha and British soldiers and its belated resolution. The pay and pension of British Gorkhas is regulated by a tripartite agreement of 1947 between India, Nepal and UK where British Gorkhas were to be treated on a par with Indian Gorkhas. That is history now but many residual cases are being contested in British courts. For many years, an entity calling itself Gorkha Army Ex Servicemen's Organisation (GAESO) was helping hundreds of Gorkhas and their families and next of kin to claim their entitlements. It included the case of a company of 7 Gorkhas which had mutinied while on a tour of duty in the Hawaii in the 1990s. There have been mutinies among Brunei Gorkhas and Singapore police. These were not restricted to the British Gorkhas as their Indian counterparts were also involved in uprisings on at least two occasions.

Legendary valour 

Mutinies and revolts notwithstanding stories about Gorkha valour are legend. A soldier's General who endeared himself to the Gorkhas was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who was popularly nicknamed by the Gorkhas as 'Sum Bahadur'. Sam's famous quip is: 'If a man says he is not afraid of dying he is either lying or a Gorkha'.

On a special mission with Orde Wingates Chindits Force in Burma, Gorkhas were required to be dropped behind Japanese lines. When the fixed wing aircraft was 5000 feet above the drop zone, Top Bahadur Gurung, when asked to jump out, requested the pilot to lower the aircraft just a wee bit. “It won't make a difference” the pilot said, because you will have a parachute” the pilot said. “In that case, theek chha (it's ok)” replied Gurung.

The most tragic incident of the first invasion of Burma during the First World War was the rout of the British Indian Army at the hands of the Japanese culminating in the hasty retreat over the Sittang Bridge in which two Gorkha battalions – 2/5 GR and 1/3 GR – were virtually annihilated partly by the Japanese and partly by the blowing up of the Sittang Bridge with bulk of the Gorkhas being either on the bridge or on the wrong end. To make matters worse, Gorkhas can't swim. For a few weeks the remnants of the two battalions were merged – this is the first time in modern war that this has happened – and called 5/3 GR till they were respectively re-raised and made fit for war.

The 2nd Fifth Gorkhas was to win three Victoria Crosses in the second Burma campaign, two in one action within 24 hours near Imphal and the third a year later. 1st Three Gorkha Rifles is in Calcutta and along with 1st First GR at Pathankot have celebrated their 200 years of youth last week with glory, gusto and gallons of Hercules rum. The Indian Army has 38 Gorkha battalions with around 40,000 troops, 80 per cent hailing from Nepal.

Anecdotes abound

No story of the Gorkhas is complete without this anecdote: having escaped from a Japanese jungle prison, three Gorkhas kept marching, armed with intuition and instinct, qualities cultivated in their mountain homes . They would run by day and tie themselves to the branches of trees to try and sleep by night avoiding the Japanese. Bedraggled, the three reached Imphal and, when searched, the Sikh military policemen found one of them had a map of Thailand.

The 2nd Five's Gaje Ghale who won his Victoria Cross in Burma was born in Barpak, the epicentre of the earthquake. Barpak and the villages in the area have been flattened. Gaje Ghale became so big in size thanks to an astonishing appetite, that he could never make the climb to Barpak. After several rum punches he would joke how he fantasised about food, making some exceptions. "Among the two-legged, I don't eat humans. Among the flying, no aeroplanes, and among four-legged, I avoid the charpoy. I eat everything else”. Translated from Nepali to English this anecdote loses much of its flavour.

Giri Prasad Burathoki, a retired Subedar Major became the provincial governor and later the Defence Minister of Nepal. He told me how, before World War II, 2nd 5 Gorkhas had trained for the Middle East theatre while being located in the North West Frontier Province but landed up to fight in the jungles of Burma. Also how, the Mechanical Transport platoon took their driving lessons in the Commanding Officer's Austin car. He would say: “British officers loved and cared for us. It was both mutuality of pride and respect. But they kept us in the dark. At home, we were suppressed by the Ranas. Abroad the British did the same, keeping us on a tight leash. No mixing with Indian troops, minimal education and insistence on a shaven head. Only the chutia was allowed .”

The Gorkhas are endowed with many skills and virtues. After 200 years some are worth recalling: “Gaiety, simplicity, bravery and loyalty; these the gifts they bring from their homes among the hills; vigour and stout-heartedness and pride befitting royalty; and love of high achievement and the strength that love instils”.  Two hundred years of distinguished soldiering have put a halo around the Gorkha in the hall of fame. In this hour of national calamity it is the Gorkha-ness of the Nepalis that will be the greatest enabler to confront the monumental tragedy.

Jai Gorakh! Jai Nepal.

The author has been travelling in Nepal since 1959 and is a retired General Officer from the Fifth Gorkha Regiment.