The Gurkha KUKRI.
Editor´s note, this paper/article was with JP´s rough draft on "The Kukri" and is a seperate work not intended for his book. It seems to have been prepared for a talk at the Gurkha Museum in the United Kingdom.
On the other hand the article contains information not brought up in other chapters and here included as a introduction. There was no images to the text but have been added based on the text material with images from JP, Gurkha Antiques, SirKukri and Heritage Knives.
“Kukri” is now the accepted spelling: “khukuri” the strict translation of the Nepali word. Either way, the thing itself is the renowned weapon of Nepal and the Gurkhas.
A Nepali boy is likely to have his own kukri at the age of five or so and necessarily becomes skillful in its use long before manhood. By the time a Gurkha joins the army, the kukri has become the chopping extension of his dominant arm. This is important, because this is not the weight and edge of the weapon that make it so terrible at close quarters so much as the skilled technique of the stroke; it can claim to be almost impossible to parry.
But it is important to remember that the kukri is a tool of all work; at the home on the hills and on active service it will be used for cutting wood, hunting and skinning, opening tins, clearing undergrowth and any other chore. From this it is plain there can be no truth in the belief that a Gurkha must draw blood every time before he may rehsheathe his blade.
Kukri knives with metal handles.
The Kukri as a tool and weapon, from childhood to old age. It is important to remember that the kukri is a tool of all work; at the home in the hills and on active service it will be used for cutting wood, hunting and skinning, opening tins, clearing undergrowth and any other chore. There can be no truth in the belief that a Gurkha must draw blood every time before he may rehsheathe his blade. The Kukri is used by all groups in all regions of Nepal.
The oldest known kukri appears to be one in the arsenal museum in Kathmandu, which belong to raja Drabya Shah, King of Gurkha, in 1627: it is interesting to note that it has a broad, heavy blade. But it is certain that its origin stretch far further back. There is one tenable theory that the “machaira”, the cavalry sword of the ancient Macedonians, was carried by Alexander’s horseman in the fourth century BC on his invasion of north west India. Its relationship to the kukri is plain. A third century BC sculpture, of which only a much later Greek copy exists, shown what is probably a Scythian prisoner of war laying down his arms: the weapon looks amazingly like a modern kukri.
In 1767 Prithwi Narayn Shah, king of Gorkha, invaded the Nepal valley: in September 1768 Kathmandu surrendered and Prithwi Narayan became the first king of Nepal. That his troops defeated much larger forces must be credited at least in part to their unusual weapon- The Kukri. It is reasonable to suppose that was the beginning of the universal custom of Nepalese troops carrying the kukri, a custom which spread in time to Gurkhas serving in the army of the British raj and the modern Indian army. It was carried also by many other hill units, regular and irregular: Assam rifle regiments, Burma military police, the garhwal and kumaon regiments. In the Burma campaign of world war II those British troops who did not carry a machete carried a kukri, and nowadays the Singapore police also carry them.
Machaira (sword), 5th–4th century B.C.
Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
Paintings of King Dravya Shah of Gorkha attacking Lig Lig Kot.
Military Museum of Nepal.
Kukri knives & traditional weapons of Nepalese commanders from the Unification period of the mid to late 18th century
at the National Museum of Nepal.
Kaji. Ram Krishna Kunwar, ca. 1728 - 1771 AD, Lord General during the unification battles of Nepal, fought in Makwanpur against the forces of Qasim Ali Khan (Mir Kasim), Nawab of Bengal in 1763 and later against Capt. Kinlochs expedition in 1767.
Jetho Buda Sardar. Bhakti Thapa, ca. 1741-1815 AD, Senior General, died during the Anglo-Gorkha War, Battle of Deothal outside Malaun (HP, India) in 1815 fighting against the British East India Company.
A small memorial plaque is raised at the place he died.
Mul Kaji. Abhiman Singh Basnyat, ca. 1744-1800 AD, first Commander in Chief of unified Nepal and Senior Lord. Annexed the Tanahun area, south of Gorkha.
Most hill-villages in earlier days would have a smith (or “lohar” of the “kami” clan) who forged kukris for the people; now there is a good deal of mass-production, though the best are still made by skilled craftsmen. In world war II Gurkha recruits were issued with mass produced government kukris but nearly al brought back their own from their first leave. Weight, balance and “fit” are crucially important.
The blades of ordinary kukris vary very much in quality. Many are made perforce from inferior steel and cannot hold a sharp edge: good ones are forged from military railway track and old motor-vehicle springs. But the best are forged the finest continental steel and can be of the highest quality, fluted and damascened. The scabbards are made of wood covered in leather with a protective metal cap over the point and two pockets in the back holding a blunt steel for sharpening the blade or striking starks from flint (the chakmak) and a ltttle knife (the karda) used for skinning small game or as a pen-knife: some have also a little purse for the flint.
Most handles are made of wood, often walnut or “pat-pate” (talauma hodgsoni). They are secured to the blade either by rivets through a two-piece hilt or by the tang inserted through a one-piece grip and riveted over the cap. In a good example the scabbard (dap) may be adorned with cloth-work or engraving and the hilt made of bone, ivory, horn or metal, probably decorated. (see examples).
Village “working” kukris are much coarser affairs, often with heavy wooden scabbards and comparatively clumsy blades.
Kukri manufacturing gallery:
Images from Heritage Knives, combines Nepalese and Western traditions of black smithing for superior quality Kukri knives.
For example the use of anvils, thermometers, new high carbon steel (not recycled), proper heat treat and a scientific process of making.
Piuthan in the west and Bhojpur in the east are well-known centers of kukri manufacturer: choosing examples from east to west and from the 18th century onwards, we can see many styles and several types. The long, slender bladde is characteristics of early work and of eastern Nepal; the shorter, round-belled weapons are common later and in western districts: but there are many exceptions to the rule.
There is no specific set of dimensions: Gurkhas, like most Asians, have neat, small hands, so a six or eight inch kukri might be useful in some contexts to an adult as well as being right for a boy. But the standard length of service and general use kukri is twelve or thirteen inches. A kothimora kukri may be any reasonable size (see magnificent example presented to general sir Walter Walker in shop show case), though many of the best are service length.
The most impressive are the ceremonial and sacrificial blades. Because they must be capable of cutting cleanly through the powerful neck of a water buffalo they tend to be twice the length and weight of soldier’s kukri with a halt to fit a two-handed grip.
One interesting curiosity is the kukri-bayonet for the old tower musket. There is a drawing in perceval London’s book “Nepal”, vol I P96, of a Nepalese guard of honor (of between 1813 & 1837) at the present, musket’s complete with kukri-bayonets: but each soldier has his fighting kukri in his belt. So clumsy a weapon must have been for ceremonial purposes only. (see illustration and example)
The variety of shape of the blade is almost endless. A look at those on display will show widely differing curves on the cutting edge: the relation between the curve of the cutting edge and that of the back varies from almost parallel to that of semi-circle, and the curve of the back itself varies considerably. The one constant is that all are unmistakeably kukri-shaped.
Approx 600 km (the birdway) seperates Pyuthan to Bhojpur, both places were known for their Kukri manufacturing and had Iron mines in the area. Before the advent of modern roads in Nepal (1950´s) travelling on horseback it would take approx. 10-14 days of riding to reach Kathmandu from Bhojpur and approx. 16-21 days to Salyan at rate of covering approx. 25 km/day in a hilly country. With modernity and the closing of the mines, iron and steel was imported via India by road from the 1950s onwards.
Above, the Kukri bayonet as shown in Landons book "Nepal" and a modern replica (right) as sold by a American company based on the IMA & ACC purchase of the Nepalese Arsenal´s antiques.
Military Kukri knives from the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Two village Kukri knives from Nepal, one with white bone (Gurkha Antiques) and the other with a dark wooden handle (JP Collection).
There are clear differences between the military and village style of Kukri.
The notch (kaura)in the blade near the hilt arouses much interest. Although it may certainly act as a check to excessive blood on the hilt, and be used to catch and neutralize an enemy blade, it is essentially a Hindu religious and phallic symbol. There is a strong analogy with the hand-guard of the crausader sword which protected the sword-hand but equally represented the Christian cross and was commonly used as the guarantee of an oath- the right hand being placed on the cross with such words as “by these hilts”. Reference will later be made to myths but it is suitable to say here that the “kaura” or notch is not an ingenious sight with which to aim an about-be-thrown kukri: except in desperation, as an man might hurl his empty rifle in last defiance at the enemy, a kukri is never thrown: the Gurkha prefers to keep it in his hand.
The religious significance of the kukri must not be forgotten. In 1948 Maharaja Padma Shamsher Janga Bahadur Rana, prime minister and supreme commander of Nepal, wrote “---the khukri (SIC) is the national as well as the religious weapon of the Gurkhas. It is incumbent on a grukha to carry it a while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring. As a religious weapon it is worshipped during the Dashain (the most important Hindu festival) and at other times whenever any sacrifices is to be made.”
In the army, Dashain (called “Dashera” in India and the British Gurkha regiments) is of the greatest importance : during it the regiment’s arms are blessed, and goats and buffalos are sacrifices in the process- not now in this country. At home in Nepal goats dedicates to various causes are despatched and then a fine male buffalo is ceremonially sacrificed in the name of the regiment by proved and chosen experts. The large kukri (in the army) or “konra” (in the village) is used because the head must be cleanly served with one blow. When that is achieved, which is nearly always, the blessing of god always lies on the regiment for the ensuing year and morale is high: if the stroke fails, leaving even so little as an inch of the dewlap uncut, bad luck will dog the regiment all year, morale drops and the unhappy man responsible is chased by his companions who hurl the head at him and spatter him with the victim’s blood in attempts to avert the evil. It is the custom to honor the successful headsman with a “pheta” (white turban) bound round his forehead by his commanding officer, an honor much valued.
A regimental Kothimora (4th Gurkha Rifles, ca.
1920-30´s) and a standard issue military Kukri from WW2. The larger Kukri was formerly in JPs collection.
A modern Kora being used in a Indian Gorkha Rifles Regiment (likely 5 GR).
Image: Sonam Atuk
A Kora sword (left) and a Palace Kothimora Kukri (right) which supposively belonged to the King of Sweden, but has since then been been located to a private collection in Europe.
Larger Kukri knives, often +15" are used during Dashain/Dushera/Durga Puja and other times of animal sacrifice. The Kora (usally overall 65-80 cm) is often prefered for Water buffalo sacrifices.
"A Goorkha regiment about to start for Burmah, preforming heathen rites of sacrifice" from a British newspaper, late 19th century.
The kukri appears in the cap-badges of all Gurkha Regiments and units except 2 GR, with an ingenious variety of arrangement, as can be seen in the display. In the second war it was also in the shoulder-flash of 43 Gurkha Lorried Brigade, and after that war it appears in the formation signs of many Gurkha groups, and after that war it appears in the formation signs of many Gurkha groups, including 18th, 48th, 51st, 63rd, 99th Brigade, the 2nd Gurkha Brigade , 28 squadron in the gulf war and the Gurkha field force. The present Gurkha Brigade Badge is the simple crossed kukris, blades down. Very shortly all current badges will be obsolete except for the three corps units; engineers, signals and transport. The badge of the new royal Gurkha rifles is to be that of the brigade surmounted by a queen’s crown (see display).
The kukri is widely used for publicity of all things Gurkha: how many here first noticed the little advertisement in the Hampshire chronicle because of the crossed kukris? (Editors note: in reference most likely to the Gurkha Museum in Winchester, Hampshire, United Kingdom).
Gurkha insignias of Gurkha units to mark the 200th anniversary of Gurkhs service to the British Crown (1815-2015).
Over the course of history many various badges have been used.
Patch of the 48th Gurkha Brigade (late 1940´s), similar design in various colors was used during WW2 and post WW2 by different Gurkha formations.
Patch of the 28 (Ambulance) Squadron, The Gurkha Transport Regiment as used in the Gulf War 1991.
Apart from working and service kukris there are all sorts of “imitations”: Tourism has produced a flourishing trade in northern India of cheap “decorated” kukris with elaborate scabbards, strange hilts and “punched” designs and slogans on the blades. In Kathmandu also many of these are offered for sale. A comparatively recent notion has been to bottle good Nepalese rum- A favourite drink- in a glass “Kukri”, and very striking it is. Many hotels in northern India dress their security guards in quasi-uniform with some from of crossed-kukri badge as a signal that they are not to be meddled with- and it works.
Khukri Rum, is Nepals oldest rum brand (1959) and has won several international awards.
Khukuri beer was launched in the UK (2003) and since 2019 a Nepalese brewery makes it too.
A Indian made Kukri with lion head handle. Variations of this type is the most commonly found Kukri in India. They are exclusively made for decoration with bad steel and maximum profits. They are not made for being used.
Myths and Legends.
The kukri has somehow produced a fertile crop of myths and legends in the western world; and the most impossibly wild among them are the most tenaciously believed. Two already mentioned are that a kukri once drawn in whatever circumstances must taste blood before its is resheathed, and that a Gurkha, if has possibly can, will take careful aim through the symbolic “kaura” or notch and then hurl the weapon like boomerang’ snick off his enemy’s head and casually snatch the kukri out of the air as it returns. If the first of these were true no Gurkha would survive to adulthood: he would lose pints of blood every day as he chopped wood, sharpened a wooden peg, opened a tin of beans and slashed down encroaching underneath: after each task he would have to shed some of his own blood. The second fails to stand the test of a little thought: much as the writer would hate to be in the path of a flung kukri, he would hate much more to oppose one in the hand of an angry Gurkha.
Not very different is the story (set variously in china, Italy, Burma and the north-west frontier) of the Gurkha coming suddenly on an enemy soldier. Naturally he struck first – The decapitating blow. “yah, missed” said the enemy. “try shaking your head,” came the reply.
Finally, a true story told by general sir (later Field marshal Viscount) W.J.Slim.
Early in his command of 14th army he encouraged constant patrolling by all forward units. One Gurkha patrol on return “presented themselves before their general, proudly opened a large basket, lifted from it three gory Japanese heads, and laid them on hid table. They then politely offered him for his dinner the freshly caught fish which filled the rest of the basket.”
Nepal, The Gurkha, The kukri: The three inseparable in reputation. And the Gurkha soldier keeps his kukri as he keep his honour – Bright and Keen.
GURKHAS & KUKRI KNIVES,
PAST & PRESENT.
JAI GURKHAS & JAI KUKRI !!!
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