In photos: 200 years of the fierce, fearless Gurkha warriors

Quartz india
Quartz india

Such is the reputation of Gurkhas—the fearless, fierce soldiers from Nepal—that even the gritty Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, one of India’s greatest military commander, was an avowed admirer: “If a soldier says he is not afraid of death, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha.”

In 1814, the British first got a taste of the Gurkha’s fighting abilities, when East India Company’s troops suffered greatly at their hands, though the Nepalese warriors eventually lost. That led to the colonial power signing a peace agreement with the Gurkhas, so that instead of fighting against them, they could be recruited to fight for—and with them.

Then, on April 24, 1815—exactly 200 years ago—the first regiment of Gurkha troops was raised in the cantonment town Subathu, in Solan district of India’s northern state, Himachal Pradesh. Since then, the Gurkhas have made a habit of distinguishing themselves in battle after battle, almost always with the iconic khukri, a curved knife, and their blood curdling war cry: “Ayo Gurkhali” (The Gurkhas are coming).

Most Gurkha soldiers come from the hilly central and eastern parts of Nepal, comprising four ethnic groups: Gurungs, Magars, Rais and Limbus. To escape the peasant drudgery in their impoverished homes, young men often enlist in the military.

During the two World Wars, more than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for the British Army, with some 43,000 falling in battle.

When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the Gurkha regiments were divided between the two countries. Today, the Indian Army houses the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 11th Gurkha Rifles. Britain, meanwhile, got four regiments—the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles—and formed the Brigade of Gurkhas. In 1994, the four regiments were merged into one.

For the British, Gurkhas have fought several times including in China, Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of Gurkhas in the British army, however, has drastically come down—with some 3,500 left in 2010, and only 200 new soldiers recruited every year, comprising 3% of the British Army. In 2009, they fought for their rights with the UK government to live in the country post-retirement—and won. Now, they have the option of becoming British citizens.

Quartz takes you on a pictorial journey of the Gurkhas on the battlefield across the world over the last two centuries:

Gurkhas at kit inspection showing khukris on July 24, 1915.
Gurkhas at kit inspection showing khukris on July 24, 1915. (The British Library/HD Girdwood)
A football match: Gurkhas versus a Signal Company of the Dehra Dun Brigade, at St Floris, France, in 1915.
A football match: Gurkhas versus a signal company of the Dehradun Brigade, at St Floris, France in 1915. (The British Library/HD Girdwood)
British & Indian officers 9th Gurkhas at their headquarters in France, in July 1915.
British & Indian officers of the 9th Gurkhas at their French headquarters in July 1915. (The British Library/HD Girdwood)
Gurkhas charging a trench on July 29, 1915.
Gurkhas charging a trench on July 29, 1915. (The British Library/HD Girdwood)
Gurkhas marching out to dig trenches near Merville, France, on July 26, 1915.
Gurkhas marching out to dig trenches near Merville, France on July 26, 1915. (The British Library/HD Girdwood)
Several battalions of Gurkhas, soldiers from Nepal, Indian State on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, stripped to the waist, as they arrive in Singapore Sept. 21, 1941 to join other British troops stationed there. They were ready for fatigue duty to help unload the transport that brought them from India. (AP Photo)
Several battalions of Gurkhas stripped to the waist, as they arrive in Singapore on Sep. 21, 1941 to join other British troops stationed there. They were ready for fatigue duty to help unload the transport that brought them from India. (AP Photo)
These soldiers from Nepal-an independent state in the Himalayan Mountains of Northern India-have taken to jungle warfare in Malaya on Dec. 17, 1941 and have shown extra ordinary skill in concealment and surprise attack. A mortar team practices shell loadings. Nepal furnishes a force to the British Indian armies. (AP Photo)
Gurkhas take to jungle warfare in Malaya on Dec. 17, 1941 and show extraordinary skills in concealment and surprise attack. A mortar team practices shell loading. (AP Photo)
These soldiers from Nepal-an independent state in the Himalayan Mountains of Northern India-have taken to jungle warfare in Malaya on Dec. 17, 1941 and have shown extra ordinary skill in concealment and surprise attack. Nepal troops man an anti-aircraft post. Nepal furnishes a force to the British Indian armies. (AP Photo)
Gurkhas take to jungle warfare in Malaya on Dec. 17, 1941 and show extraordinary skill in concealment and surprise attack. (AP Photo)
Captain E. Gopsill of the 7th Gurkha Rifles gives final instructions to the platoon leaders before taking them into them into the jungle near Kuala Lumpur for insurgents sweep, July 10, 1948. The gurkhas were cooperating with police in combating the recent bandit outbreak. (AP Photo)
Captain E. Gopsill of the 7th Gurkha Rifles gives final instructions to the platoon leaders before taking them into the jungle near Kuala Lumpur for insurgents sweep on July 10, 1948. (AP Photo)
As professional warriors, Gurkha soldiers are avid students of modern warfare, June 1964. British soldiers serve as instructors. (AP Photo)
As professional warriors, Gurkha soldiers were avid students of modern warfare. In this June 1964 photo, British soldiers serve as instructors. (AP Photo)
Last recruit Gurkha soldiers surrounding Prince Charles take off their hats during a gathering at Hong Kong's Sek Kong airforce base November 8, as part of the last passing-out parade in the British colony
Last recruit Gurkha soldiers surrounding Prince Charles take off their hats during a gathering at Hong Kong’s Sek Kong airforce base on November 8, 1994, as part of the last passing-out parade in the British colony. (Reuters)
A member of the 67 Gurkha Independent Field Squadron puts the finishing touches to the uniform of a fellow squadron member prior to the unit's disbandment parade in Hong Kong September 6. The squadron is being disbanded as part of a phased withdrawal of British forces in preparation for the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty to China.
A member of the 67 Gurkha Independent Field Squadron puts the finishing touches to the uniform of a fellow squadron member prior to the unit’s disbandment parade in Hong Kong on Sep. 6, 1996. (Reuters)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II inspects the Gurkha regiment at the British Embassy in Bangkok on Thursday, October 31, 1996. The Queen, along with Prince Philip, have been in Thailand for a five-day official visit. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II inspects the Gurkha regiment at the British Embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 31, 1996. The Queen, along with Prince Philip, had been in Thailand for a five-day official visit. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
British soldiers from Royal Gurkha Regiment return to their base from a routine exercise near Brazzaville airport May 9. The situation in the neighboring Zaire is still uncertain as Zaire's President-Mobutu remains in Gabon.
British soldiers from Royal Gurkha Regiment return to their base from a routine exercise near Brazzaville airport on May 9, 1997. (Reuters)
British Army Gurkha NATO soldier Kamare Budha reads a British newspaper during a slow day at a checkpoint near Pristina airport Saturday, June 19, 1999. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
British Army Gurkha NATO soldier Kamare Budha reads a British newspaper during a slow day at a checkpoint near Pristina airport on June 19, 1999. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)
A Gurkha from the 1st battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles, part of five airbourne brigades in the area, sharpens his Khukris or knife June 8. Gurkha legend says that a Gurkha soldier can not place his Khukris back in its sheath without drawing blood. The Gurkha's, who originate from Nepal and have fought for the British army since the height of the Empire, are amongst a multi-national force massing around the Kosovo border awaiting news of further political developments in the crisis.
A Gurkha from the 1st battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, part of five air-bourne brigades in the area, sharpens his <em>khukri</em> in June 1999. (Reuters)
Soldiers of The Royal Gurkhas Rifles, part of British army battalion, prepare a machine-gun during an exercise at their training camp in Seria, Brunei, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001. As the U.S.-led alliance considers the deployment of ground troops in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, the elite Nepalese fighters renowned for grit and fearlessness during 185 years of service in the British Army may be called upon to play a prominent role. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Soldiers of The Royal Gurkhas Rifles, part of the British army battalion, prepare a machine-gun during an exercise at their training camp in Seria, Brunei on Nov. 7, 2001. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
British peacekeeping soldier Sgt. Ramkumar Rai with the Gurkha division is followed by children while on patrol in the hills above Kabul, Afghanistan in this Saturday Nov.1, 2003 file photo. The British government was expected to announce Thursday March 8, 2007 that Gurkhas serving in the British Armed Forces will receive the same pension benefits as the rest of the army, a newspaper reported. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
British peacekeeping soldier Sgt. Ramkumar Rai with the Gurkha division is followed by children while on patrol in the hills above Kabul, Afghanistan on Nov.1, 2003. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Indian soldiers from the Gurkha regiment take part in a rehearsal ahead of the Army Day parade in New Delhi January 13, 2004. India will celebrate its 56th anniversary of the formation of its national army with solders from various regiments and artillery on display on January 15. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore AH/TW
Indian soldiers from the Gurkha regiment take part in a rehearsal ahead of the Army Day parade in New Delhi on Jan. 13, 2004. (Reuters/Kamal Kishore)
Gurkha troops of the British army are welcomed by Kosovo Albanian youths, as they patrol the roads of Kosovo Polje, a town five miles west of Kosovo capital Pristina, Tuesday, March 23, 2004. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Gurkha troops of the British army are welcomed by Kosovo Albanian youths, as they patrol the roads of Kosovo Polje, a town five miles west of Kosovo capital Pristina on March 23, 2004. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles, execute an ambush for paratroopers with the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, May 7, 2013, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The soldiers are participating in Yudh Abhyas, an annual bilateral training event between the armies of the United States and India sponsored by U.S. Army Pacific. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles, execute an ambush for paratroopers with the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, on May 7, 2013, at Fort Bragg, N.C. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles, move through the forests of western Fort Bragg during a training exercise with paratroopers of 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, which is the reconnaissance element for the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, May 8, 2013. The soldiers and paratroopers were participating in Yudh Abhyas, an annual bilateral training exercise between the Indian Army and United States Army Pacific. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles, move through the forests of western Fort Bragg during a training exercise with paratroopers of 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, which is the reconnaissance element for the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, on May 8, 2013. (U.S. Army photo/Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
Recruits from the Indian Army's Gurkha regiment stand in formation in
Sabathu in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh October 24,
2002. All recruits to the regiment undergo a forty-two week training
program before being sent to various units in the army. REUTERS/Dipak
Kumar

JSG/JS - RTR154OU
Recruits from the Indian Army’s Gurkha regiment stand in formation in Sabathu in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh on Oct. 24, 2002. (Reuters/Dipak Kumar)
Soldiers of the Gurkha Regiment march in front of India Gate during rehearsals for the upcoming Republic Day on a foggy morning in New Delhi, India, early Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. The Indian capital and other areas of northern India have been experiencing below normal temperatures and heavy fog in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Soldiers of the Gurkha Regiment march in front of India Gate during rehearsals for the upcoming Republic Day on a foggy morning in New Delhi on Jan. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
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