I was sat next to Elspeth, daughter of John Forbes. It turned out that her Godfather was Col J. P Cross, 7th GR, a legend in his own lifetime, especially among the Gurkhas. It was said that he spoke 14 Asian languages, including several jhat kuras, or Nepalese tribal dialects, Nepali being the second language for much of the population. I had met John Cross when he was running the Gurkha Brigade’s western recruiting depot at Paklihawa on the Indian border with Nepal.
I was a young Gurkha Engineer Officer enroute to Pokhara to begin a two month trek into the west of Nepal to carry out a series of welfare-related tasks. The two of us were joined for dinner that night by Horace Kadoorie of the famous Hong Kong Kadoorie family.
Horace was a well-known philanthropist, passionate supporter of the Gurkhas, and the man behind the Kadoorie experimental farm overlooking the Sekkong airstrip that was home to the HQ Brigade of Gurkhas in the New Territories of Hong Kong. One of the aims of the Kadoorie experimental farm was to develop strains of crops, such as rice, that could better prosper in the often arid soil of the ‘middle hills’. Horace had flown over to check on the progress of various Kadoorie-funded projects.
John Cross had gone on to become Military Attaché inVientiane, Laos, from 1973-74 where his command of the language had proved invaluable, and had subsequently settled in Pokhara where he was granted Nepalese citizenship. It was a most pleasantly small world.
Angus’s young grandsons Archie and Hamish, who had piped us in at the beginning of the evening, provided an excellent musical interlude with the pipes. Alistair then delighted the Gurkhas by picking up the bagpipes and playing a rousing Ayo Nepali. The Gurkhas then responded with a well known Nepali folk song, which was responded to in kind by Alistair. We of course had to reply again. It was a wonderful, convivial, family evening enjoyed by all and I felt thoroughly ashamed of my frankly petulant thoughts earlier in the day.
I felt that such an evening should not pass without an appropriate speech and vote of thanks, so I gave a brief description of our journey to date and some of the more humorous escapades, including Rajiv’s sock moment (which was met with another round of hilarity from the Gurkhas – poor Rajiv). I pointed out that, surprisingly, every one of the Gurkhas came from a different tribe or jhat. We had in our team a Gurung, a Tamang, a Chhetri, a Limbu, a Pun and a Malla. A voice from table three then called out,
“No-one from Cornwal lthen?”
Gurkhas are in fact descended from the Hindu Rajputs and Brahmins of Northern India who spread through what is now present day Nepal from the west in the 8th Century. They were given their name by the Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorkhanath who had a Rajput Prince disciple, the legendary Bappa Rawal. Born Prince Kalbhoj, Bappa Rawal founded the Royal house of Mewar in Rajasthan and is said to be the ancestor of the present Royal family of Nepal.
The story goes that Bappa Rawal was on a hunting expedition with friends in the jungles of Rajasthan when he came upon the warrior saint who was in deep meditation. Bappa Rawal chose to stay behind and care for the warrior saint. When Guru Gorkhanath awoke, he was pleased with the devotion of Bappa Rawal and in thanks gave him a Kukri knife, the famous curved blade of the present day Gurkhas. He told Bappa that he and his people, the disciples of Guru Gorkhanath, would henceforth be called Gorkhas, from the Prakrit words “go rakkha”, literally “cow-protector”, and that their bravery would become world famous. He then instructed Bappa Rawal and his Gorkhas to stop the advance of the Muslims, who were invading Afghanistan (which at that time was a Hindu/Buddhist nation).
Bappa Rawal took his Gorkhas and liberated Afghanistan, at that time named Gandhara, from which the present day Kandahar derives its name. This, and further actions in the 8th Century stopped the initial Islamic advance in the Indian subcontinent. In the early 1500’s some of Bappa Rawal’s descendants went further east, and conquered a small state in present-day Nepal, which they named Gorkha in honour of their patron saint. By 1769 the Gorkha dynasty had taken over the area of what is now modern dayNepal. They made Hinduism the state religion, although with distinct Rajput warrior and Gorkhanath influences.
The majority of the early Gurkhas were from the ethnic groups Thakuris (which includes the Shah dynasty and Rana dynasty of Nepal), Chetris and Brahmins. These “original” Gurkhas refused to enter the army as soldiers and were instead given positions as officers in the British-Indian armed forces, one of whom, (retired) General Narendra Bahadur Singh, Gurkha Rifles, great grandson of Jung Bahadur, while a young captain, rose to become aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.
During the 17th century expansion of the Gorkha kingdom they were joined by the ethnic groups Gurung and Magar from the west and centralNepal and by Limbus and Rais from the east ofNepal. This combination of warriors from different ethnic groups made the Gurkhas a dominant military force in the history of the Indian subcontinent from the 18th century onwards.
In the Gurkha War (1814–1816) the Gorkha forces famously waged war against the British East India Company army. The British were impressed by the Gurkha soldiers and after reaching a stalemate with the Gurkhas madeNepala Protectorate. Much laterBritainwas granted the right to freely hire them as mercenaries from the interiors ofNepal, as opposed to the early British Gurkha mercenaries who were hired from areas such asAssam(i.e. the Sirmoor Rifles). These Gurkhas were organised into Gurkha regiments of the East India Company army with the permission of then prime minister, Shree Teen Maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana Prime-minister and the man who initiated the Rana oligarchic rule inNepal.