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: