Kukri History & Heritage
Nepal Khukuri Gallery
2. EXPANSION OF THE GORKHA KINGDOM.
Mid - late 18th century.
Text: The Gorkhali Military.
Kora swords among other weapons from the Battle of Kirtipur in the mid 18th century at Bag Bhairav Temple, Kirtipur. Image: Spiral/IKRHS.
The Gorkhali Military –
The core of the military consisted of the Nobility of each Royal Court, they along with the King had the most to win and lose in case of battle and war. When a principality was lost or won, it was the king and his nobles whom lost land, the right to administer it, not the farmer, for him the king and landlord was replaced but taxes continued much the same, life went on as everything around us changes over time.
On most rare occasions the subjects of the area were mobilised and drafted for a campaign, as standing armies was not the norm as a costly affair. Being forced to partake, often as a war tax, became more frequent in the mid 18th century and even then, largely limited to the military/fighting class. For the average person, mainly peasants, life did not change much in times of War. It was about security of economic life. The land was wealth but without the farmers, the land had no meaning. In in the rare cases famers had to be utilised to fight wars, when it was season to plant and harvest the men returned to the fields, the very core of the economy and of life.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah is attributed for raising the first standing military force in Nepal, which was not recruited on a need to need basis, otherwise the custom. Part of the tax the subjects of a kingdom often paid was their contribution and partaking in military campaigns, both defensive and offensive. At least one member of each household of fighting age was required.
To every man who served in his army, no matter of how low or high his rank, land was given as "Jagir"*, the dream of every man. With military growth came the need to conquer lands, to give to the men who served.
*Jagir, was a land grant based on service to the King and used as a form of payment.
Born 1744- d. 1800. Son of Shivaram Singh Basnyat.
Came from a family with long ties to the Shah dynasty and served in many of the campaigns leading to the unification of Nepal. Among others:
1762 - Battle against Mir Kasim following the conquest of Makwanpur.
1764 - 2nd Battle of Kirtipur
1767 - 3rd Battle of Kirtipur
1768 - Conquest of Kathmandu Valley.
Appointed "Senadhipati" (Commander-in-Chief) following the conquest of Kathmandu Valley (1769), the first C-in-C of unified Nepal.
"Mul Kaji" in 1772.
1773 sent to conquer eastern Nepal with Sardar Ram Krishna Kunwar and commanded the south eastern sector (Sunsari & Morang) to the river Teesta.
Following the eastern campaign annexed Kaski and Tanahun in central Nepal to the dominions of the Gorkha Kingdom.
One of the Chief Commanders in the Sino-Nepalese Wars, 1788 - 1792.
Fell out of favour in 1790´s in the contest for power between King Rana Bahadur Shah and Prince Bahadur Shah. Died in 1800.
Land, the whole of society was organized around land and not money. Land was productive, money was not. To own or control land gave far greater status within the community than wealth based on money. This idea/notion was what partly made smaller states/principalities to emerge and also a driving force of the Gorkhali conquests. Owning land was life, security, wealth and prestige. New areas had to be brought under the Kingdom as the military grew, expansion was necessary.
The first five regiments were raised in approx.1762 and almost 20 years after Prithivi Narayan Shah had come to power and gained many years of experience. These regiments were raised for the main offensive of conquer the Kathmandu; Kali Baksh, Purano Gorakh, Sabuj, Shree Nath & Barda Bahadur. The names of these regiments were based on various gods and divine powers, for example Kali Baksh is named after the goddess Kali, Shree Nath and Purano Gorakh after the patron deity/saint of Gorkha, Baba Gorakh nath, Sabuj from its Sanskrit meaning as a gift of the divine powers and Barda Bahadur invoking the blessings of the divine powers for bravery. The traditional view maintained that wars were won if the gods and divine power were on your side and thus the names reflect a spiritual tradition. Even today every regiment of the Nepalese Army has their own patron divine power/deity and temple.
The regular regiments consisted of 100-150 soldiers and seven to ten officers. Following the Battle with Mir Kasim’s military in 1762 the regular units were issued with captured muzzle loading rifles and/or muskets, besides carrying traditional weapons such as bow & arrow, Khukuri, Kora, Tulwars and other blades, along with a shield. Armour in general was not used often and if used only by high ranking officers which would have had the means to acquire it. Yet no proof remains of Nepalese Armour, only of various shields. The five regular troops would wear traditional black dress (similar to the traditional Nepalese Labeda Suruwal), leather belt (and/or the traditional “patuka” cloth belt) and a black turban with insignia of brass, often a crescent moon, or if of higher rank the armorial bearings of the regiment. Commanding officers, such as Sardars had more freedom to choose suitable uniform.
See Notes on Gorkhali for images on uniform.
Amar Singh Thapa, Sano Kaji.
Born 1759 – d.1814
Father of Bhimsen Thapa and Nayan Singh Thapa.
He led several battles against various principalities in the unification of Nepal and expansion period.
1799- Appointed as Sardar. 1806- Governor of Palpa region after annexation.
1811- Appointed General
(by his son, the PM.)
These regiments were raised based on the subjects of the Gorkha King, loyal men who over the earlier years had served the King and his forefathers. They were composed of the martial classes, a vast majority of Magars as the largest group in the area, a fair amount of Gurungs and Chettris (incl. Thakuris) were included. The Chettri group was the traditional Warriors of the Hindu system but did not make up the majority of the troops due to not being a majority population in Gorkha area. In 2020 approx. 5% of the Nepalese Army is divided along socio-ethnic groups. The Purano Gorakh in the 1770´s was for example a Magar regiment with mixed officers of the martial groups. Brahmins (Bahuns) were traditionally barred from military service along with Newars, Dalits and other groups in the area.
The groups who were traditionally not allowed to be enlisted would have partaken as irregulars when ordered too, the luxury of any group being spared was not an option as men were needed and the “imposed” tax difficult to surpass. As the Hindu Caste system is strongly based on birth in an occupational group there was little question who does what when the time for war and battle came, every group had a duty to fulfil. The Dalits, the un-touchables, for example include leather workers (Sarki), Armourers & metal workers (Bishwokarma/Kami), Damai (Tailors) would be responsible for producing weapons, uniforms, saddles, sheaths and other needed material. The Shudras formed the base of the peasantry and included servants and commoners, were mainly responsible for agricultural production as no field can be left alone for long if it is to grow. The Vaishyas were the merchants and landowners, the business people of the area who could provide various services to the Court and military. The Kshatriyas were the traditional warrior class, in Nepali called Chettri and includes the Thakuri group, this was the backbone of the military and the royal court. The Brahmins, in Nepali called Bahun, were the priests and scholars who would guide the King on matters relating to both spirituality and Statecraft. Nepal in the mid 18th century was not as Hindu as it is today, many of the Tibeto-Burmese groups practised Buddhism or Shamanism/Animism and were brought into the Hindu system by military service and a relation to the King. Thus it poses some issues as to what socio-ethnic group belongs where at times. The Hindu system was well established among the “Indo-Nepalese” groups who at some stage came from ancient India into Nepal.
It is also known the King Prithivi Narayan Shah brought a small community of Muslims from the Varanasi-Lucknow area to work on arms production at this time. These Muslims remained in Gorkha after the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley and are still found in the surrounding hills. Like most Nepalese they consider themselves proud Gorkhalis.
Nayan (Nain) Singh Thapa, Kaji.
Born 1777- d. 1806/7.
Son of Sano Kaji Amar Singh Thapa, younger brother of PM Bhimsen Thapa. Father of Mathber Singh Thapa, Ujir Thapa (Col. at Anglo Gorkha War), Ganesh Kumari Thapa (mother of Jung Bahadur
Rana) and Queen Lalita Tripura Sundari (4th wife of King Rana Bahadur, held the regency from1816-1832).
A important commander in the Gorkhali military while annexing Garhwal and the eastern parts of current Himachal Pradesh (HP) in the early 1800´s.
Captured Nalagarh Fort in 1803 and crossed the Sutlej river by Shimla with Gorkhali Forces.
Under the joint command of Jetha Buda Bhakti Thapa, Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa and Kaji Nayan Singh Thapa, the ruler of Kangra, King Sansar Chand was fought in 1806 - 1809 at the Siege of Kangra (Fort).
Kaji Nayan Singh Thapa fought at Mahal Mori and Tira Sujanpur resulting in defeat for Sansar Chands forces in 1806.
He died of a bullet injury fighting in the siege of Kangra in 1807 trying to get King Sansar Chand out of the Fort.
In 1809 at Kangra the Sikh-Gorkhali War would take place (top image, right side, shows weapons from this War).
Nayan Singh Thapa was the owner of the Thapathali Durbar complex which today partly houses the National Bank of Nepal.
Poem, and portrait of the event of the death of Kaji Nain Singh Thapa in the conquest of Garhwal, by Garhwali Poet Mola Ram
Often overlooked fact is thatin many parts of Kumaon, Garhwal and Shimla hills (eastern Himachal Pradesh), the Gorkhali´s were invited by smaller rulers in these areas for protection and to fight a common enemy.
The campaign against King Sansar Chand was not only Gorkhali forces but consisted of many troops of various local ruler´s who opposed Sansar Chand.
Gorkhali expansion was not only about a strong military force but also strong diplomacy and alliance building.
The vast majority of the higher officers were Chettris with a smaller amount of Magars, who made up the largest numbers of the infantry.
Socio-ethnic & caste groups were raised as irregulars and disbanded after a campaign and/or raised for the next campaign and would often include the local population of a conquered area. In the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley for example a large number of Tamang’s were enlisted as they lived in the hills surrounding the valley. Similarly in the War with China & Tibet in 1788 the Khampas of Tibet were enlisted. Tamang´s also served on the Tibetan side.
The irregulars were officered by their own headmen/tribal/group chiefs and (attached) Gorkhali officers, fighting alongside the regular troops. A similar tradition is also found in the British East India Company where a British regiment would only be a minor part of the total military force, mainly of various native groups. In the Gorkhalis westward expansion from the 1780s for example, after Gorkhali military included the troops of areas which had been conquered as they expanded their territory.
For irregular troops (Dhakre) weapons were on a bring your own basis, while if there was a surplus from the regular troop it would be given to the irregulars. In the regular units besides being issued shooting weapons there is no record of an ordnance system for traditional weapons until later. During the 1788 Sino-Nepalese War for example the Khampas were given surplus bows and arrows by the Gorkhalis, a large number which had been taken while conquering the eastern part of Nepal. When new areas were conquered or annexed, weapons which could be used for an uprising or battle were often confiscated.
The Gorkhali military under Prithvi Narayan Shah usually sought a non-violent approach at first, the concerned are as given the option to subjugate and accept the rule of King of Gorkha. For most inhabitants who ruled the land did not make a big difference as taxes had to be paid either way, local customs were often maintained but the threat was to the nobility and the ruler of an area whom had the most to lose. One of the important tasks faced by the victor in conquered areas was the enlistment of the support of the local nobility. The Gorkhalis were by no means inexperienced in this task during the 1780s and could often convince the nobility of a concerned area to side with them.
When there was no other option left, only then would war erupt. The Gorkhalis struck fear into their adversaries, not only as a strong force but by being cruel. Kirtipur for example experienced this when it became called Naskathpur following the third campaign in 1767. Due to a large number of its inhabitants losing their noses as a punishment. The terrorising factor was a strategic move on the Gorkhalis part as it often resulted in troops being able to march in and get close to the royal palace to subdue the king of that area.
Ranjit (Ranajit) Kunwar. Kaji.
Born 1753 - d. 1815.
Son of Ram Krishna Kunwar.
1770s- Took part in the unification campaign fighting against the Chaubise and Baise states of central and western Nepal.
Fought in the:
1st Sino - Nepal- War (1788-1789)
2nd Sino - Nepal War (1791-1792).
Played a important role in Nepals westward expansion by annexing Someshwar Fort and Upadrang in south Nepal (bordering current Bihar, India), which was a major trade route from Kathmandu to India.
Served as Governor of Jumla & Pyuthan in the
1790´s and supressed the Jumla rebellion in 1794.
During the conquest of Garhwal & Kumaon served under BadaKaji Amar Singh Thapa and known to have fought:
1803-1804: Garhwal (during the Battle of Khadbuda killed Maharaja Pradyumna Shah (Chand) of Garhwal.
Appointed Kaji in 1804.
Died fighting in the Anglo-Gorkha War in 1815.
Ranjit Kunwar was the grandfather of Maharaja Jung Bahadur Kunwar Rana.
In the Arms & Amour gallery of the Museum there is not only Nepalese weapons but also from India and further away, including European and Chines Swords and Knives.
In newly conquered territories after King Prithivi Narayan Shah, during the westward expansion a standard practise was that all property looted from the palaces of the vanquished kings and the houses of members of the nobility should be transmitted to the royal palace (in Kathmandu). Property looted from the ordinary people should be handed over to the irregular (dhakre) troops. The military had also grown from a force of approx. 3000 men in 1775 to over 10,000 in the late 1780s. Rules like above were often created by the regents to win favour and support in the military, a security to power.
To some extent, this practise explains how the Gorkhali campaign of military conquest in the western hill region gathered momentum. Property plundered in this manner included not only valuables, but even "cows and buffaloes." Many people escaped along with the vanquished rajas. Their houses were confiscated, and re-allotted to other persons in the military.
Further Permanent Military Regiments were raised between 1779 - 1793 AD, date of raising is approx. and +/- 1 year. Does not include the large irregular troops.
1779: Shardul Jang, Shree Mehar.
1780: Arko Mehar.
1781: Bhairav Prasad.
1783: Devi Dutta, Durga Buksh, Naya Gorakh, Naya Sri Nath, Ran(a) Bhim, Ram Dal.
1784: Barakh, Bhawani buksh.
1785: Ajaya Dal, Bhairav, Bhairavi Dal, Batuk Dal, Bhawani Dal, Guru Buksh, Jwala Dal, Kali Dutta,
Rana Shardul,Rana Sur, Tara Dal.
1786: Rana Shah, Singha Nath.
Units raised in conjunction of the 1st and 2nd Sino-Nepal Wars of 1788-1792:
1788: Rana Sher.
1790: Rana Bam
1791: Siddhi Buksh, Shree Buksh, Durga Dal, Hanuman Dhoj, Indra Buksh, Jabar Jung, Kali Dal
1792: Gorkah Buksh
1793: Rana Dal, Shree Dal, Birbhadra Jung.
Further regiments were raised in conjunction with the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-1816, 3rd Nepal-Tibet War in 1855-56, by the Shumsher Rana brothers in the 1880s and in WW1. Currently in 2020 most remain but several have been disbanded.
The train of conquests were to continue till the start of the Anglo-Gorkha War in 1814 whereby the area we now call Nepal was largely defined and agreed on belonging to Nepal and the Gorkha King, both by the neighbouring powers and by the various subjects around the “new” country Nepal. Following Nepals assistance in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 some land in south west Nepal was returned in the 1860´s, Naya Muluk, finalising Nepals territory.