the fanciest kukris.
Two photo sets of Kothimora Kukri knives, mainly which JP himself had. Till today many of the best known Kothimoras were once JP´s.
Kothimora is a Nepali term. The word is formed from two nouns, namely kothi meaning in this context “ornamented tip” and hence the ornamented chape (tip) of a scabbard, and muhuda, meaning “face”. But the word is now used as an adjective, and note that strictly speaking the term is applied to the decorated scabbard, and only indirectly (by transference) to the kukri it holds. The well-known author of many books on Nepal and the Gurkhas, Colonel J.P. Cross states that the full pedantic wording would be “kothimora dap bhaeko kukri”. Although for convenience one refers to this style as a “kothimora kukri”, in reality the poorest of kukris would still be called a “kothimora” if carried in a kothimora scabbard. The term can be found spelled kothimora, kothimoora or kothimoda - all of which are attempts to approximate in English the correct pronunciation of subtle sounds that are more accurately expressed in the Nagri script or Sanskrit of Nepal and northern India.
The Rana Maharajas of the mid 19th to mid 20th century, held the office of Prime Minister as well.
Image: Gurkha Antiques
Carried by kings and prime ministers, high ranking Nepalese soldiers and given to officers of Gurkha Regiments this is about some of the most attractive and valuable kukris made. They have served as gifts or presentation pieces to important business contacts, heads of state, anyone who might be of influence and those who truly deserved an honorarium.
There is also a whole subset of kothimoras worn only by the Nepalese Royal Family and members of the many courts, palaces and 'kots' (editors note: arsenal/palace/courtyard) found throughout Nepal and India from the 1700s to today. Before 1954 (editors note: Nepal was closed for foreigners till 1951, and only allowed to visit if permission was granted by the Maharaja) when foreigners were still forbidden entrance to the Kathmandu Valley kothimoras were bought by tourists in northern India. The 60s saw the 'free spirits' going to Nepal to be enlightened by holy men, gurus and teachers plus a lot of the local grown herbs would pay a few rupees for a flashy 'bazaar' kukri (fig. 1) to hang on their wall. Tales of mysterious lands and dramatic events would come forth if the some of these knives could only speak.
The good news is that these kukris are easy to identify since they're the ones all dressed up to attract the eye with their elaborate and fine metal work making them look most impressive (show various pieces). And impressive many of them certainly are, but I must confess there is no easier way to classify a kothimora than there is the most common, crudely constructed kukri made in the poorest village as a basic tool. There has never been a commonly accepted terminology of the different styles of kothimora, so for clarity I have applied these names which seem appropriate to four distinct types. Some are defined by their structure or decoration and others by their intended user or owner.
The Palace or Court kothimora. (fig. 2) This first type has a typical leather covered wood scabbard with a gold or silver chape and locket (muhal, metal at the throat), both heavily engraved or embossed. The locket is crafted parallel with the throat and ends about a third of the way down on the scabbard in a straight line with no unique design or other obtrusive shapes. In many cases the Royal Crest (editors note: often State Arms / National Coat of Arms) is embossed, chiselled and added in delicate pieces (fig. 3) above a fragile retaining ring and through this would run various lengths of 'sangli' (linked chain or silver woven braid). This same ring could also be the attaching point for a leather strap going around the scabbard two or three times ending with gold or metal buttons (fig. 4).
This strap system is found on many standard kukris, but those buttons would be wood or made of leather. The purpose of this strap or chain is to keep the knife from slipping through the cummerbund (patuka, waist sash) where it would be carried. (fig 5)
Fig. 1. Two Bazaar Kukri´s (above and below).
Fig. 2. The Palace / Court Kothimora (above).
The term Royal Kothimoras is also used. (Image: Gurkha Antiques & SirKukri).
Fig. 3. Coat of Arms, Kingdom of Nepal on the Palace Kothimora
(Image: Gurkha Antiques).
The knife itself would be of the highest quality with a bolster of silver or gold, and if there was a buttcap it would be made of the same precious metals. The grips of the karda (small knife) and chakmak (sharpening steel) may have the same wood, horn or ivory with bolsters and buttcaps of matching metals. Grips were made from common but highly polished caribou horn (editors note: water buffalo), jade, crystal, exotic woods, marine and mammalian ivory and the two most uncommon, giraffe and rhinoceros. The hunt for the rhino was so important and prestigious that only a small area of royal preserve of the Sidhara range was available. This animal was so regarded as the Royal Game 'par excellence' that it could not be taken without direct permission of the Kingdom. To receive such a gripped knife the lucky recipient considered himself 'most beloved and honoured' by the giver. But considering how Machiavellian Nepalese politics were, it could mean something completely and unhappily different. As mentioned rock crystal and jade were used, but I have never had the pleasure to see this applied to a kukri. These precious and semi-precious stones are much more common in Indo-Persian kards, khanjars or the many versions of the pesh kabz.
Fig. 5. The traditional way of wearing a Kukri, in the waist sash/cummerbund (patuka).
The Regimental kothimoras. (fig. 6)
These seem to be the most readily available on the collector's market. Many are true works of art, created by the kami (blacksmith or armourer) who made the kukri and the sunar (goldsmith, silversmith) who created all the metal artistry these scabbards are encased in. Some of these would be the original fighting kukri that has been given to the sunar to make and fit with a fancy chape and locket. Thus, a very standard kukri may have seen some heroic action, battle or something unique to the recipient, and was presented to him with great honour in this dressed up form.
Fig. 6. Regimental Kothimora with beautiful metal work, often silver was used on the 19th and early 20th century Kothimoras.
Additional images of how the Kukri traditionally is worn. Left: Gorkhali/early Gurkha soldier, ca. 1815 depicted by J.B. Fraser. Right: Maharaja Dev SJB Rana, 1901.
There are early drawings (fig. 7) from around 1815 showing these Gurkhas wearing kothimoras of this type. It would be tempting to assume they were officers or trusted members of early regiments, but the artist's notes indicate they were ordinary Gurkha soldiers.It seems likely that just as much of a Gurkha's wealth is traditionally invested in gold and silver jewellery to be worn by his wife, so in the days before European-style uniforms, Gurkha warriors chose to display some of their hard-won treasure in the form of what one might call “male jewellery”.
Fig. 4. The "buttons" on the Palace kothimora, range from metal, leather to gold.
(Image: Gurkha Antiques).
From about 1850 in the British-Indian army, these “regimental” kothimoras were worn only by the Pipe Major (senior bagpiper) when on parade and (fig. 8) senior NCO and ORs of the Officer's Mess.
Fig. 7. Left. Early Gorkhas/Gurkhas, depicted by JB Fraser, ca. 1815, wearing their Kukris the traditional way in the waist band and most of the Kukris seem to be Kothimoras.
Fig. 8. Right. Gurkha NCO or OR´s of the Gurkha Officers Mess.
Perhaps the majority of kukris in this category were presented to British Officers in Gurkha regiments of the British-Indian Army. In such regiments it was and still is, traditional for the officers to present one of their colleagues with a kothimora kukri when he retires from the unit, or for the entire company to do the same when its commander moves on to his next posting. Such precious mementos are often “named” or inscribed with the recipient's name, battalion or regiment, (fig.9) and less commonly with a particular action or occasionally by the kami who made the knife. Finding these names and dates is quite a lucky thing since it may be the only way to find the provenance of the knife. And finding any true history behind a kukri bought on the open market is well nigh impossible.
Whereas the palace types may date back to the 18th century, most surviving “regimental” kothimoras do not date any further back than the mid 19th century, and most are later than that. Today they are still being presented to retiring officers, and poor copies are easily found in bazaars and shops.
Fig. 9. Regimental insignia (6 GR / 7 GR / 10 GR / 4 GR) as found on the Kothimora Kukri flanked by regimental insignia (4 GR) etched on the blade.
Scans of Chapter 3.
Fig. 10. Traditional Kothimora motives based on the cultural heritage of the Gurkhas and Nepal. Often a mix of Buddhist and Hindu symbols and motives. This style pre-dates the use of regimental insignia on Kukris. Top figure is the Mayura (Peacock), followed by a round Chhepu and below it another "Chhepu".
Wound around or hanging in a loop are different types of surrounding sangli (fig. 11) and many have a central disk or rupee holding it altogether. The dates on the rupees mean nothing as both the Nepalese and Indian smiths utilize them as an inexpensive and attractive pieces of silver. The rupees are referred to as 'kampani' as they were originally minted by the British East India Company. The other discs may have a gold wash or inset, be elaborately engraved, contain some symbol or be a simple silver ring. Above the retaining stud of these rings or discs may be another inset square of gold engraved with some of the symbols mentioned and many portray a peacock or “Mayura”. In the Hindu-Buddhist culture it is regarded as a basic symbol of good luck and prosperity. It is also deified as one of the five protective goddesses and is able to prevent death from snakebite. Because of this resistance to poison it is generally regarded as the symbol for longevity along with its other attributes.
In this category, most scabbards are of wood covered first with velvet (red, green, purple and black are favourite colours) and then with chapes and lockets of deep repousse-worked silver.
In their decorative silver work, true “regimental” kothimoras feature many of the god's and deities favoured by the Nepalese or Indians and iconography can jump from Buddhist to Hindu quite handily. Besides featuring the 'padma' (lotus), 'matsya' (2 fish), 'chhatra' (parasol) or more among the many other symbols cut into the intricate designs, there seems to be a fondness of the fierce 'Chhepu' who consists only of a face and hands that hold a 'naga' (snake) firmly clamped in his jaws. Somewhere in these designs one or more of the 'Astamangala' or Eight Auspicious Signs will be worked in to give the kukri more power and protection for the owner. Sometimes the regiment's badge is featured, but that was less common with early examples. (fig. 10)
A Kukri with the "Chhepu" figure below.
Fig. 11. The "Sangli" metal band on the Kothimora is a traditional feature if leather straps are not found.
The reverse side of the locket can reflect some excellently engineered design with different types of attachment for the small scabbards carrying the by-knives and pouch made for tinder and flint. Not only is the leather work of this part superior, but sometimes it will be covered in the same velvet as the scabbard. The pieces can be formed as one unit and can be attached with stitching at the top or bottom, or with a series of metal or thread loops that are then joined with a small piece of wood or metal similar to a toothpick. The entire trio of scabbards and pouches can then be easily removed and because of this these kothimoras are frequently found without this important component.
The knives of this type of kothimora are often excellent and provide a fine canvas for some elaborate engraving. Not only will you sometimes find the recipient's name here, but a salesman's company, some of the symbols previously mentioned, and in these two cases (fig. 12) the kamis themselves. One who was so skilful that he elaborately and humorously engraved the spine with a finger pointing to his name to make sure you would see who did all this fine work. The cho (the notch at the blade's ricasso) is detailed and filed and sits under a Nepalese arsenal mark that rests next to a Queen's Crown. The silver grip itself is very detailed and heavily repousseed. Kami Bhanu Lohar who made this kukri was the armourer for the 1/4th Goorkha Rifles and has left quite a legacy. The scabbard has a green velvet base cover with stamped edge guards of silver and a chape surmounted by a ritual fountain. The locket is also unique in that it holds no stud for the usual discs and rings and also because herein lie 'Chhepu' also known as 'Kirtimukha' and above this crossed thunderbolts or 'Viswa Vajra', the destroyer of all evils.
Fig. 12. Regimental Kothimora, this piece was described by JP as the "best engraving I have ever seen". A magnificeint Dui Chirra blade with the Royal British crown, Crescent moon and many other fine details.
Spine is marked "Bhanu Lohar Armourer 1. 4 Goorkhas", meaning 1st battalion 4th Gurkha Rifles.
JP Collection (currently in the SirKukri collection).
Even though some kukris found in kothimora scabbards aren't special in themselves, you will tend to find very good blades and sometimes elaborate and engraved grips on regimental kothimoras (fig. 13). Polished bone, ivory, silver capped woods and even a nicely carved 'garuda' (a giant eagle, who appears in the Hindu epic Ramayana) can be found. These are all nice items, even from the poorest grade of materials and engraving, up to the sales representative's aluminium-handled kothimora and nickeled blade presented to the 8th Gurkha Rifles by Kehar Sing, contractor to the regiment.
Fig. 13. Regimental Kothimora with (watered) Wootz blade and lion or chinte carved karda and chakmak.
JP Collection (formerly in SirKukri collection).
Fig. 14. A Box Kothimora, mid 20th century.
Fig. 16. Many of the wooden (at times covered in cloth material or velvet) Box Kothimoras have beautiful plaque/sheild´s with motives.
The Kehar Sing (contractor to the 8th Gurkha Rifles, 1938) Kothimora Kukri with a beautiful Tin (3) Chirra (fullered) blade and metal handle.
The Box kothimora. (fig 14)
The third type is called this because of its unique structure. There are no special pockets or attachments to hold the karda and chakmak and there is no tinder pouch. Everything is integrated in its silver clad case (fig. 15). These are presentation pieces also, with the typical example having sheets of silver containing the sides and locket of the scabbard, but a chape similar to the previously mentioned regimental type.
Fig. 15. The Karda and Chakmak pocket is "integrated" to the scabbard on Box Kothimoras (right).
Another difference besides the box construction is the addition of an engraved silver and chased centre piece that is held around the knife just below the locket by a silver strap (fig. 16). These shields may be representations of previously mentioned deities or gods plus some hold a semi-precious stone or piece of jade. They are very good examples of the sunar's expertise and done in silver alone or with a gold wash. The artistry extends to both the chape and the locket. Some pieces will also have nicely engraved sides because the construction afforded such large surfaces to work with. The kukris inside such scabbards are rarely decorated or fancy, but may include a grip of ivory, highly polished wood or horn. These aren't early pieces and all that I have seen have a brass bolster which puts them after 1900 and well into the 1920's and 30's.
The naming or presentation inscriptions will be found along the outer curve of the scabbard or on the centre design. In my opinion kothimoras of this type were made just as presentation pieces for civilians and those not in any military service. The scabbards themselves will be found with velvet coverings or done completely in horn. This box construction will also be found in pure wood scabbards that are usually elaborately carved, but with no metal adornment. (fig. 17) They are of a much simpler style and meant for use.(fig. 18)
Fig. 18. Simple (village) kothimora.
The Standard kothimora. (fig. 19)
For lack of a better classification, the fourth type can be referred to as standard kothimoras. This category would include any kukri that doesn't fit into the previously mentioned three, but are just as beautifully finished and decorated. Some of the best examples of kukri art from both India and Nepal fall into this category, but there are no specific dimensions or guidelines on these. One of the examples shown here (fig. 20) was evidently made for a small child from a prominent family and is only 10.5" from point to pommel.
Fig. 17. Above. Box Kothimora, full wooden scabbbard, beautifully carved.
Left - Ibid.
JP Collection (formerly SirKukri collection.
Fig. 19. Above. Box Kothimora, full wooden scabbbard, beautifully carved.
Left - Ibid.
The scabbard is frequently covered in velvet with a well-chiselled or incised chape and locket. The furniture will be of worked silver, gold or in some cases precious and semi-precious stones. This latter type can be confused with cheap bazaar models that are just a piece of flat brass to which inset designs and glass and are literally wired to the front of any common kukri.
If the kukri was meant as a presentation piece or is named, the inscription will be found on the spine (fig.21) rather than on the scabbard or the sides of the blade. If the kukri is Indian made there will be no karda or chakmak. In many cases the blades are signed by the kami or dated.
Fig. 20. Above. Box Kothimora, full wooden scabbbard, beautifully carved.
Even though many early kukris are of steel that has been folded or layered during the forging process, it seems they didn't go through the final process necessary to show off or emphasize any patterns. The furniture has designs that, rather than emphasize all the previously mentioned deities, are of a foliate or geometric pattern.
Like any antique, kothimoras may have been embellished or just plain distressed to increase their value. I have seen new engraving, or composite grips made to simulate ivory. I have also seen the wrong knife put into a regimental scabbard complete with a fabricated but detailed story of the knife's fame and lineage. As with anything we collect there must be some scepticism when offered something of great value and history. The best defence against fake arms is knowledge. If you are lucky to find an authentic kothimora, it will usually be worth the expense as an addition to a collection of Indo-Persian Arms, military pieces or just as a fine example of the armourer's and silversmith's art.
Fig. 21. A Kukri presented by
the Maharaja of Balrampur (current Uttar Pradesh, India), inscription on spine. Scabbard silver chape details below.
Left & right: Two images of early Kothimoras.
The use of quil embroidery seems to have been a typical sign of the early kothimoras and is also depicted in Kirkpatricks work from 1793/1811 AD.
Metal chapes seems also to have been used but more often of the filigree style then a solid piece with is then worked, which took over by the mid to late 19th century.
Read more about the History & Heritage of the Kukri by pressing HERE.
200 years of writting on the Kukri of the Gurkhas!
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