Impoverished hillmen have always had more to fight for, having less to lose.
The small town of Gorkha sits in the middle of Nepal halfway between Pokhara and Kathmandu, near the important road junction of Mugling. The 23 km-long mad up to Gorkha is one of the most pleasant drives in Nepal, passing through the handsome open paddies of the Daraundi river. The savage red of the hill soil is set off by the green of the forest. An attractive, arched bridge indicates that this road was built by Chinese engineers and the waltzing curves have the grace of a Chinese work of art.
As the road reaches Gorkha bazaar, it bears up steeply and then stops dramatically at a dead end, with the old durbar and fort of Tallokot rearing on the skyline a thousand feet above the bus stand. There is no better psychological demonstration of the phrase “commanding heights”.
The contrasts between the soft open valleys to the south and the steep gorges of the Great Himalaya must have convinced Prithvi Narayan Shah that he was king of all he surveyed. Could it be that the success of the Gorkhalis has been the hillman’s unromantic appraisal of battle? Only the fully professional survive to enjoy their hardwon earnings.
The first myth about the Gurkhas to fall under closer examination is that of the martial race theory. The Gorkha district, from where many of the men are recruited, has a mixture of tribal backgrounds, each with their own customs, dialect and dress. The famous Gurkha fighting spirit can have nothing to do with the place as such, for the regiments comprise of too many heterogeneous elements. The face of Maharaja Prithvi Narayan Shah, founder of modern Nepal and creator of the Gorkhali fighting forces, as well as his name, is more Aryan than the typical Mongol features one associates with the Gurungs, Rais and Magars who form the backbone of today’s Gurkha units. In fact, his appearance could easily be mistaken for that other genius of warfare, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore.
Is it so remarkable that brave but poor fighting men led by a military genius from Gorkha should have conquered the rich Newer kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley? The highlanders of Scotland could have altered English history if they had had a less ornamental leader than Bonnie Prince Charlie. Their guerrilla tactics which terrorized the English as far south as Derbyshire were foolishly abandoned for a pitched battle at Culloden where the clansmen with claymores were decimated by grapeshot. It is interesting that the initial British assessment of the Gorkhali infantry was conditioned by what seemed to be the enemy’s extraordinary tenacity. History shows that other factors including the uselessness of the East India Company strategy and the dismal leadership of some of its generals were responsible for the debacle. Having conquered Napoleon and India by the thin red line of formal advance, the Company failed to realise that the hill terrain demanded a change of t actic s. Captain Young in Debra Dun had demonstrated how one shrewd decision — to cut the Gorkhali water supply — would have made unnecessary weeks of heroics and the loss of life of hundreds of the Company’s soldiers, including that of General Gillespie.
Some might arguethat having been worsted in battle, the British were bound to boost the valour of their opponents, specially when the curious weapon of the khukuri lay in hand as a kind of secret weapon which provided scope for unlimited legends. In fact, the Sikhs were poised to give the Company a much greater drubbing, but infighting cost them their chance.
The British capture of Kumaon is often portrayed as a fluctuating battle outside the gates of Almora when it seems likely that the over-stretched Gorkhali commander in fact succumbed to a British bribe. The old gazetteers are agreed that the Gorkhali rule was hated throughout the hills for its “cruelty” and hence the enlightened British administration was welcomed by the paharis. It seems this so-called “cruelty” is precisely the attribute the British admired in their Gurkha recruits and which they gave the more dignified name of “fighting spirit”.
The term “mercenary” has never been less popular than in the present era; yet it has a savoury history. The papal guard of Switzers are legendary for their loyalty and the francs and liras had obvious advantages over the nebulous concepts of patriotism andchivalry. Impoverished hillmen have always had more to fight for, having less to lose. Whether it was McKays’ highlanders fighting for the king of Sweden or the Gurkhas inspiring dread in the Falklands, the motivation is the sound one of a man being paid for doing a dangerous job well.
It seems a pity that the down-to-earth acquisitiveness of the hillman, which gives him the edge in toughness over conscripts; has been romanticised and the line of little Johnny Gurkhas are supposed to be guarding Buckingham Palace with the same motivation as that of the Guardsmen in bearskins who tower over them.
Incidentally, in Gorkha I did not see a single person carrying a khukuri. Instead, I saw evidence of much-traveled mercenaries, brave men willing to go anywhere for the king’s shilling or the republic’s rupee. In the shops of Gorkha bazaar were tartan bolts from Scotland, maroon velvet shawls from China and floral lungis from India. The latter, copied from Nepalis once resident in Burma, are now worn by all Gorkha women in preference to the hill skirt or saree.
One gets the feeling that the Gurkhas are in danger of swallowing their own myth and would like to believe that every man, woman and child in their founding village goes around toting a khukuri with which to pick teeth and toenail. The reality is that Pentax cameras from Hongkong are much more in their thoughts.
Aitken is, among other things, a writer of Himalayan travelogues. He lives in New Delhi.