Editors note: The following article was written for Arms Collecting by John Powell in 2002. It is very similar to his chapter on the Kothimora for the KUKRI book.
Carried by kings and prime ministers, high ranking Nepalese soldiers and owners of the huge tree plantations that dot the landscape of northern India, this is about some of the most attractive and valuable kukris made: the kothimora. They have also served as gifts or presentation pieced to officers of Gurkha Regiments, or to important business contacts and even to heads of state-people who might be of influence or who deserve an honorarium. There is a whole subset of kothimoras worn only by the Nepalese Royal Family and members of the many court, places and ‘kots’ found throughout Nepal and India from the 1700s to today. Kothimoras have also been bought by tourists, over the border in the northern India before 1950 when Nepal was still the forbidden to all foreigners, and more recently to hippies who paid a few rupees for something flashy to hang on the wall. Tales of mysterious lands and dramatic events would come forth if the kothimora could only speak.
Kothimora is a Nepali term. The word is form from two nouns, namely kothi meaning in this context “ornamented tip” and hence the ornamented chape (tip) of a scabbard, and mahuda meaning “face”. But the word is now used as adjective- and please note that strictly speaking the term is applied to the decorated scabbard, and only indirectly (by transference) to the kukri which it contains. 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” (kukri with kothimora scabbard). Although for convenience one refers to a “kothimora kukri”, in reality the cheapest of kukris would still be called a “kothimora” if carried in a kothimora scabbard. The term can be found spelled kothimora, kothimora or kothimoda- all of which are attempts to approximate, in our European script, the correct pronunciation of subtle sounds that are more accurately exposed in the Nagri script of Nepal and northern India.
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 and to look most impressive. And impressive many of them certainly are. But up front I must confess there is no easier way to classify a kothimora than there is the certainly are. But up front I must confess there is no easier way to classify a kothimora than there is the most common and crudely constructed kukri made in the poorest village as a basic tool. There has never been a commonly accepted terminology of the different recorded styles of kothimora, so for clarity I will apply some names which to me seem appropriate, to four distinct types which I have observed. Some of these types are defined by their structure or decoration and others by their intended use or owner.
The "Palace" of "Court" Kothimora.
This first type has a typical leather covered wood scabbard with a gold or silver chape and locket (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 is embossed, chiseled and added in delicate pieces above a fragile retaining ring and through this would run various lengths of “sangli” (linked chain or silver woven braid). The same ring could also be the attaching point for a leather strap running twice around the scabbard ending gold or metal buttons. This strap system is found in 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 (waist sash) where it would be carried.
A Palace/Court Kothimora with gold chapes/mounts.
The "Regimental" Kothimora.
These seem to be the type most readily available on the collector’s market. Many are true works of art, created by kami (armourer) who made the kukri and the sunar (goldsmith, silversmith) who created all metal artistry these scabbard are incased 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.
There are early drawings from around 1815 showing numerous Gurkhas wearing kothimoras of this type. It will 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 Gurkhas wealth is traditionally invested in gold and silver jewelry to be worn by his wife, so in the days before European-style uniforms, Gurkha warriors chose to display some of their hard-worn wealth in the form of what one might call “male jewelry”.
Certainly in the British-Indian army after about 1850, these “regimental” kothimoras were actually worn only by the Pipe Major (senior bagpiper) when in ceremonial “full dress” and perhaps the senior NCO of the Officer’s 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, in those Gurkha regiments still in the British Army today – traditional for the British officers to present one of their colleagues with a kothimora kukri when he tries from the unit, or for the soldiers in a company to do same when its commander moves on to his next posting. Such precious momentoes are often “named” or inscribed with the recipient’s name, battalion or regiment, and less commonly with a particular action or occasionally even by the kami who made the knife. Finding these names and dates is quiet 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-high impossible.
Whereas the “palace” types may date back to the 18th century, most surviving “regimental” kothimoras do not date any further back then 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. In this category, most scabbards are of wood covered first with velvet (red, green, purple and black are favorite colors) and then with chapes and lockets of deep repousse-worked silver.
(Editors note: Very few Kukris are known from the 18th century and those the collecting and researching community knows of are mainly found in the National Museum of Nepal then in private collections or international museums.)
Typical "palace" kothimoras with the upper chape clearly showing the Royal Nepalese State´s crest /Coat of Arms from the early to mid 20th century.
(Editor´s note: JP beilved these to be from the mid 19th century but that has since his writting been given new light and confirmed to be as mentioned above. Earlier palace Kothimoras, i.e. from the 19th century did not carry to Coat of Arms as it had not been "invented" nor used on Nepalese kothimoras of that time)
A Regimental Kothimora with badge of 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade, 1960´s.
Subhedar Subhir Singh, commander of a Gorkha company at Jaithak Fort during the Anglo-Gorkha War, 1815. He is armed with a Kothimora Kukri, tulwar and a shield (back).
Painting by J.B. Fraser.
The back of a Kothimora kukri, the pouch for the Karda and Chakmak, shows the attachment system. Here attached with a wooden stickbut more commonly sewn together unless a box kothimora.
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 karda (small sharpened knife) and chakmak (small bunt edge knife used as honing edge or as a steel for fire lighting) may have grips of the same unique materials with bolsters and buttcaps of matching metals. Grips were made from different metals from common or highly polished caribao horn and also be found in giraffe horn, exotic woods, marine and ivory mammalian ivory and the rarest of all, 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. The animal was so regarded as the Royal Game ‘par excellence’ that it could not be taken without direct permission of the state. To receive such a knife the lucky considered himself ‘most beloved and honoured’ by the giver. But being how incredibly Machiavellian Nepalese politics were way back then, it could mean something completely and unhappily different. There is also mention of rock crystal and jade but this author has 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.
A locket/chape with inscription on top, the Hindu warrior goddess Durga ridinga lion followed below with the ring, stud and "sangli".
A Kothimora Kukri with the common "Chhepu" sign, often with serpants in his mouth is a demi-god in Buddhism & Hinduism. He is often associated with bravery and truthfulness and commonly found as a guardian of temples and protector against danger.
A Kothimora Kukri with the goddess Durga on the upper chape.
Above & Middle; a Regimental Kothimora from the 4th Gurkha Rifles, marked Bhanu Lohar. This piece was one of JP´s favorites and has amazing engraving on the blade.
In their decorative silver work, true “regimental” kothimoras feature many of the god’s and deities favored by the Nepalese or north Indians and the iconography can jump from Buddhist to Hindu quiet handily. Besides featuring the padma (lotus), matsya (2 fish), chhatri (parasol) or more among the many other symbols cut into intricate designs, there seem to be a fondness of Hanuman (a monkey faced god favored by princes and warriors) and 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 is more the oddity.
Wound around or hanging in a loop are different types of surrounding sangli (a woven silver chain) 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 piece 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 defined 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.
The reverse side of the locket can reflect some excellent engineered design with different types of attachment for the small scabbards for the “by-knives” and pouch holding the 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 the n 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 two cases illustrated here the kamis themselves. One who was so skillful 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 particular kukri also has an incredibly detailed scene of a stalking lion going after a deer amongst the foliage that hides a peacock while on the other side the success of the drama is played out with the deer in the lion’s jaws while the peacock looks back. This all being on the spine of the knife while following the edge below is a sinuous foliate design separated from the double fullered concave blade section by a continuous line of dots. The cho (the notch at the blade’s ricasso) is detailed and files and sits under a Nepalese arsenal mark that rests next to a Queen’s Crown. The silver grip itself is very detailed and heavily repousséd. The butt is crowned itself by a six petaled flower holding the polished tip of the tang to finish off quite an amazing kukri. The kami who made it, called Bhanu Lohar, was armourer for the 1/4th Gurkha Rifles and has left quiet a legacy. The scabbard (probably by an independent sunar) has a green velvet base covered with stamped edge guards of silver and 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.
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. Polished bone, ivory, silver capped woods and even a nicely carved ‘garuda’ can be found. These are all nice items, even from the poorest of grade of materials and engraving, up to the sales representative’s aluminum handled kothimora and chromed blade presented to the 8th Gurkha Rifles by Kehar Singh, contractor to the regiment.
A Box Kothimora with a beautiful engraved silver shield and chape. This piece is also unique in that the kukri itself is so elaborate with decorated grip of silver and rosewood. Late 19th c - early 20th c.
Berkley Bettis Collection.
The classical characteristics of the box kothimora is the attached "box" for the karda & chakmak, it is not a attached pouch but integral part of the scabbard. Image on the left shows first a "normal" kothimora with the pouch and secondlya box kothimora which is integral.
A simple box kothimora as the scabbard has a integral "holder" for the Karda and Chakmak.
The "Box" Kothimora.
The third type to be discussed is the “box” kothimora called this because of its unique structure. There are no special pockets or attachments to hold the kards and chakmak and there is no tinder pouch. Everything is integrated in its silver clad case. 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. Another difference besides the box construction is the addition of an engraved silver and chased center piece that is held around the knife just below the locket by a silver strap. These shields may be representations of Indian or Nepalese deities or god plus some hold a semi-precious stone or piece of jade. They are very good examples of the sunar’s expertise and done in a 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 of silver 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 1920’s and 30’s. The naming or presentation inscriptions will be found along the outer curve of the scabbards or on the center 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 good scabbards that are usually elaborately carved, but with no metal adornment. They are of a much simpler style and meant for use.
A "Standard" Kothimora of high quality from the Court of Balrampur, India, late 19th Century. JP Collection.
The "Standard" kothimora.
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 are evidently made for a small child from a prominent family and is only 10.5” from point to pommel.
The scabbard is frequently covered in velvet with a well chiseled or incised chape and locket. The furniture will be of worked silver, gold or in some cases precious and semi-precious stones. This later type can be confused with cheap baazar 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 presentation piece or is named, the inscription will be found on the spine 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.
This category is also where “Damascus” styles blades are to be found. 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 these beautiful 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 stimulate 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 skepticism when offered something of great value and history. The best defense against fake arms is knowledge. If you are lucky to find an authentic kothimora, it 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.
Image as found on the backside of the title page to the article.
A dragon image and floral/nature inspired pattern is often found on kothimoras.
The last page!
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