August 26, 2004

Nepal: some background and the mighty Ghurkas

Someone asked, in the comments section, about the Ghurkas of Nepal and I thought his inquiry merited a fuller response than a quick reply to comment so I decided to do a post. I know a bit about them. I have been fascinated by them since I was a child and intrigued by that whole region ever since I read, Kim, by Kipling.

Let's start with some background on Nepal. There is a really great US Government report on Nepal which probably will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the place, although it is a little old. You can find it here. In case you don't feel like reading it, let me extract from it here, down in the extended section, in case you are not curious about the Mountain Kingdom:

THE HIMALAYAN KINGDOMS of Nepal and Bhutan share a history of influence by Tibet, China, and India, and an interlude of British colonial guidance. Although the kingdoms are not contiguous, each country is bordered by China to the north and India on its other peripheries. Both kingdoms are ruled by hereditary monarchs and are traditional societies with predominantly agricultural economies; their cultures, however, differ. Nepal's Hinduism, a legacy of India's influence, defines its culture and caste-structured society. Bhutan's Buddhist practices and culture reflect India's influence by way of Tibet. The two countries' legal systems also reflect their heritage. Nepal's judicial system blends Hindu legal and English common law traditions. Bhutan's legal system is based on Buddhist law and English common law.

Nepal has existed as a kingdom centered in the Kathmandu Valley for more than 1,500 years. The country is known for its majestic Himalayas and has nine of the fourteen peaks in the world over 8,000 meters, including Mount Everest and Annapurna I.

* * *

In January 1951, the Ranas were forced to concede to the restoration of the monarchy, which then assumed charge of all executive powers: financial management, appointment of government officials, and command of the armed forces. The latter power became an increasingly useful tool for enforcing control. In 1962 King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev devised the centrally controlled partyless council system of government called panchayat (see Glossary). This system served as the institutional basis of the king's rule and was envisioned by the palace as a democratic administration although it functioned only at the king's behest. Incorporated into the 1962 constitution, the panchayat system was established at the village, district, and national levels. Successive changes in government and constitutional revisions did not weaken the powers of the absolute monarchy. In fact, a May 1980 referendum reaffirmed the status quo of the panchayat system and its continuation as a rubber stamp for the king. Elections in 1981 and 1986 were characterized by the lack of political programs.

* * *

The dissolution of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, and the successes of the prodemocracy movements in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had an impact in Nepal. In part as a result of the participatory experiences of Nepalese in India, movements arose to effect changes in Nepal's government and society. Nepal's longstanding history of continuity of rule and relative stability was challenged when the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, or prodemocracy movement, was formally established on February 18, 1990, almost forty years after the end of Rana control. Demonstrations and rallies--accompanied by violence, arrests, and even deaths--were held throughout the country. Political unrest became widespread. Ethnic groups agitated for official recognition of their cultural heritage and linguistic tradition and demonstrated against the monarchy. The goal of the prodemocracy movement, however, was to establish a more representative democracy and to end the panchayat system.

* * *

In November 1990, the king finally approved and promulgated a new, more democratic constitution that vested sovereignty in the people.

* * *

Nepal's population, estimated in 1990 as approximately 19.1 million, is very diverse. The country is home to more than a dozen ethnic groups, which originate from three major ethnic divisions: Indo-Nepalese, Tibeto-Nepalese, and indigenous Nepalese. Ethnic identity--distinguished primarily by language and dress--constrains the selection of a spouse, friendships, and career, and is evident in social organization, occupation, and religious observances. Hinduism is the official religion of Nepal, although, in fact, the religion practiced by the majority of Nepalese is a synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism and the practices have intermingled over time. The socioeconomic ramifications of the country's diversity have proven problematic for Nepal in the late twentieth century.

Considered a least-developed country, Nepal depends heavily on farming, which accounts for most of the country's gross domestic product. The work force is largely unskilled and mostly illiterate. Nepal's industrial base was established in the 1930s, but little process has been made in improving economic performance. In the early 1990s, tourism was one of the largest sources of foreign exchange; visitors from the United States were the most numerous.

Social status in Nepal is measured by economic standing. Landownership is both a measure of status and a source of income. Women occupy a secondary position, particularly in business and the civil service, although the constitution guarantees equality between men and women. Nepalese tribal and communal customs dictate women's lesser role in society, but their status differs from one ethnic group to another and is usually determined by caste.

As we have discussed before, Nepal is currently opposing a Maoist insurgency.

Now, let me point you to some sources about the Ghurkas:

The British Army has a great historical essay about the relationship between her Majesty's forces and the Ghurkas.

The heritage of the Brigagde of Ghurkas is set forth as follows:

The word Gurkha is derived from the valley of ‘Gorkha’ in West Nepal. Gurkha is more loosely used as the generic term for the indigenous population of the middle hills of east and west Nepal. Gurkhas have provided service to the Crown since 1815. On the conclusion of the Anglo-Nepali War (1812 – 1815), the British East India Company, impressed by the extraordinary bravery and fighting qualities of the Gurkhas, raised the first Gurkha regiments. When India became independent in 1947, four Gurkha regiments transferred into the British Army but remained based in the Far East. The Brigade conducted itself with distinction. The Brigade, which at its peak, formed ten regiments of Gurkhas, participated in every major conflict fought by the Indian Army including the North West Frontier, and the First and Second World Wars. At the partition of India in 1948, four regiments – 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles - moved across to the British Army whilst the remainder continued to serve with the Indian Army. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Sirmoor Rifles (later the 2nd Goorkhas) served with great distinction alongside the 60th Rifles (later the Royal Green Jackets). So impressed were the 60th Rifles that following the mutiny they insisted Gurkhas be awarded the honours of adopting their distinctive rifle green uniforms with scarlet edgings and rifle regiment traditions and that they should hold the title of riflemen rather than sepoys. At the same time, and as a mark of respect, Gurkha riflemen were invited to share the same canteens as British soldiers, Indian sepoys were excluded from this privilege.

This section on how the British Army recruits the Ghurkas is particularly interesting reading:

Gurkha recruiting takes place once a year in Nepal. The British Army maintains a skeleton recruiting structure based on the British Gurkha Camp at Pokhara, in the West of Nepal. In a process that begins in September each year, local recruiters, known as Galla Wallahs, recruit a specified number of young men from their respective areas in the hills of both west and east Nepal. The pool of young hopefuls is further reduced at a second stage in the process. Here, senior retired Gurkha officers select a final tranche of potential recruits at a number of hill selection sites. These individuals then move down to Pokhara where a stringent and demanding final selection process is conducted by British and Gurkha officers. Once selected, the lucky few are flown to the UK to start recruit training and a career in the Brigade of Gurkhas. The number of Gurkhas recruited depends on the Brigade’s annual manning needs. The figure is currently around 230. Last year there were 28,000 applicants for 230 places.

Finally, I recommend checking out this section here on the Kukri, the almost mythical knife used by the Ghurka, which looks like this:


There is also a very well illustrated essay I found on the origins and the current role the Ghurka's play in the British military. If for nothing else, go check it out for the pictures. The article is put out by a company that sells Kukris. They have quite a selection.


This little look at the Ghurkas would not be complete without a mention of the controversy regarding payment by the British government to the Ghurkas for their time in service and their time as prisoners of war in Japan during World War II.

The prisoner of war issue may be resolved. The British government has announced that it will make a one time 10,000 pound payment to the ex-Ghurka POWs.

The pension issue is more serious and seems a bit of a national disgrace. The issue is that the Ghurkas are paid far less in pension benefits than other British service personnel. The Ghurkas have sued over this disparity but the Appeals Court has dismissed the suit and the disparity is now beyond review. The position of the government is that the Ghurkas retire back to Nepal where the cost of living is so much less than if they retired in England. My view? If they accepted the same risks as the other soldiers, they deserve the same pension, as simple as that. But then no one asked me.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 26, 2004 08:03 AM

It's very interesting. Thanks for writing about it!

Posted by: Mick at August 26, 2004 09:40 AM

I'm glad you liked it. It was fun to look into it.

Posted by: RP at August 26, 2004 10:08 AM

I wanted to add that I spent over an hour looking at the Kukris they have for sale at the Himalayan Imports shop. What a beautiful and mysterious knife! I must have one to add to my knife (actually, it's more of a pocketknife collection, but who's checking?) collection!

Posted by: Mick at August 26, 2004 02:30 PM

It isn't "almost mythical" -- my dad has a few which he abuses by using them to hack down stray tree branches in our yard. ;-)

The number of servicemen in the Gurkha brigade is an awfully interesting historical detail. Forty battalions in the Second World War!

Posted by: Ben at August 27, 2004 11:36 AM

Thanks for the info. It explains why these
formidable fighters are not available to fight
the insurrection in Nepal, and it doesn't seem
like the siphoning off of Ghurkas for private
security in Iraq is making a difference.

A friend was in Khatmandu when the royal family
was murdered. Pretty scary.


Posted by: tex at August 27, 2004 01:42 PM
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