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Gurkha (or Gorkha) are a people from Nepal who take their name from the eighth century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorkhnath, whose disciple Bappa Rawal (real name Kalbhoj ) founded the house of Mewar . Later Bappa Rawal's descendants went further east to found the house of Gorkha, which in turn founded the Kingdom of Nepal. Gurkhas are most well-known for their history of service as foreign soldiers in the British Army.
Gurkhas claim descent from the Rajputs of Northern India who entered modern-day Nepal from the west. They take their name from the warrior Hindu saint Guru Gorkhanath of the eighth century A.D.. Guru Gorkhanath had a Rajput prince-disciple, the legendary Bappa Rawal (real name Kalbhoj), founder of the house of Mewar, who became the first Gurkha and is the ancestor of the present Royal family of Nepal.
Bappa Rawal was a teenage prince in hiding when he came upon the warrior saint while hunting with friends in the jungles of Rajasthan. Legend has it that he chose to stay behind and care for the warrior saint who was in deep meditation. When the Guru Gorkhanath awoke he was pleased with the devotion of Bappa Rawal, gave him the Kukri sword (the famous curved dagger of the present day Gurkha), and told him that he and his people would henceforth be called Gurkhas (the disciples of the Guru Gorkhanath) and their bravery would be world-famous. He then told Bappa Rawal and his Gorkhas to stop the spread of ideas of the Muslim invaders who were invading Afghanistan,converting the masses by the beauty of their religion, and deconstructing many hindu temples. Bappa Rawal took his Gurkhas and attempted to subjugate Afghanistan (originally named Ghandhar) and stopped the benevolent Islamic advance for the time being.[Reference: Dr. Sumerendra S. Chauhan, M.D.- Direct descendant of Maharana Jung Bahadur and Prithvi Narayan Shahdev][Dr. Joseph T. O'Connell, Prof. Emeritus, South Asian Studies Dept. University of Toronto]
It is a misconception that the Gurkhas took their name from the provinicial state of Gorkha, located in Nepal. Parallel reasoning would argue that everyone with the name Singh would come from Singapore, which is actually pronounced Singh-a-pur, which translates to "City of Lions", and was an old Indian city outpost. [Reference: Dr. Sumerendra S. Chauhan, M.D.- Direct descendant of Maharana Jung Bahadur and Prithvi Narayan Shahdev]
In the early 1500s 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, through the leadership of Maharaj Dhiraj Prithvi Narayan Shahdev, the Gorkha dynasty had taken over the area of modern Nepal. They made Hinduism the state religion, although with distinct Rajput warrior and Gorkhanath influences. [Reference: Dr. Sumerendra S. Chauhan, M.D.- Direct descendant of Maharana Jung Bahadur and Prithvi Narayan Shahdev][Dr. Joseph T. O'Connell, Prof. Emeritus, South Asian Studies Dept. University of Toronto]
In the Gurkha War (1814–1816) they waged war with the British East India Company army. The British were impressed by the Gurkha soldiers and began to regularly hire them as mercenaries organised into Gurkha regiments in the East India Company army, with the permission of then prime minister, Maharana Jung Bahadur, the father of Modern Nepal.
The original Gurkhas who were descended from the Rajputs refused to enter as mere soldiers and were instead given positions as officers in the British-Indian armed forces. The Tibeto-Mongolian Gurkhas entered as soldiers. The Thakur/Rajput breed of Gurkhas were entered as officers, one of whom, retired. Gen. Narendra Bir Singh, Gurkha Rifles, rose to become aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten. After the British left India, the Thakur/Rajput Gurkhas refused to serve the British, but allowed the Tibeto-Mongolians to continue seeking employment in British forces.[Reference: Dr. Sumerendra S. Chauhan, M.D.- Direct descendant of Maharana Jung Bahadur and Prithvi Narayan Shahdev][Dr. Joseph T. O'Connell, Prof. Emeritus, South Asian Studies Dept. University of Toronto]
Under international law present-day British Gurkhas are not mercenaries. They are fully integrated soldiers of the British Army, operate in formed units of the Brigade of Gurkhas, and abide by the rules and regulations under which all British soldiers serve. Similar rules apply for Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army.
East India Company army
Gurkhas served as troops under contract to the East India Company in the Pindaree War of 1817, in Bhurtbore in 1826 and the First and Second Sikh Wars in 1846 and 1848. During the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Gurkhas fought on the British side, and became part of the British Indian Army on its formation. The 2nd Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles) defended Hindu Rao's house for over three months, losing 327 out of 490 men. The 60th Rifles (later the Royal Green Jackets) fought alongside the Sirmoor Rifles and were so impressed that following the mutiny they insisted 2nd 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. Twelve Nepalese regiments also took part in the relief of Lucknow.
British Indian Army
From the end of the Indian Mutiny until the start of the First World War the Gurkha Regiments saw active service in Burma, Afghanistan, the North-East and the North-West Frontiers of India, Malta (the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78), Cyprus, Malaya, China (the Boxer Rebellion of 1900) and Tibet (Younghusband's Expedition of 1903).
Between 1901 and 1906, the Gurkha regiments were renumbered from the 1st to the 11th and redesignated as Gurkha Rifles. One hundred thousand Gurkhas fought in the First World War. They served in the battlefields of France in the Loos, Givenchy , Neuve Chapelle and Ypres; in Mesopotamia, Persia, Suez Canal and Palestine against Turkish advance, Gallipoli and Salonika. One detachment served with Lawrence of Arabia.
During the Battle of Loos the 8th Gurkhas fought to the last, and in the words of the Indian Corps Commander, "found its Valhalla". During the Gallipoli Campaign the 6th Gurkhas captured a feature later known as "Gurkha Bluff". At Sari Bair they were the only troops in the whole campaign to reach and hold the crest line and look down on the Straits which was the ultimate objective. Second Battalion of the 3rd Gurkha Rifles was involved in the conquest of Baghdad.
During World War II, the Nepalese crown let the British recruit 20 extra battalions — 40 in total — and let them serve everywhere in the world. In addition to keeping peace in India, Gurkhas fought in Syria, North Africa, Italy, Greece and against the Japanese in Singapore and in the jungles of Burma. The 4th battalion of the 10th Gurkha Rifles became a nucleus for the Chindits. They fought in the Battle of Imphal.
British Army Gurkhas
Four Gurkha regiments joined the British Army on January 1 1948:
- 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles)
- 6th Queen Elizabeth's Own Gurkha Rifles
- 7th Duke of Edinburgh's Own Gurkha Rifles
- 10th Princess Mary's Own Gurkha Rifles
Indian Army Gorkhas
- 1st King George V's Own Gurkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)
- 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles
- 4th Prince of Wales's Own Gurkha Rifles
- 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force)
- 8th Gurkha Rifles
- 9th Gurkha Rifles
The 1st Battalion of the 11th Gorkha Regiment fought in the 1999 Kargil conflict for India. In 1999 5/8 Gorkha Rifles were sent as part of the Indian Army UN contingent to Sierra Leone to secure the diamond fields against the Revolutionary United Front.
Gurkha soldiers have won 13 Victoria Crosses, all but one (Rambahadur Limbu) were won when all Gurkha regiments were still part of the Indian Army. An additional 13 VCs have been awarded to British Officers in Gurkha regiments. Since Indian independence, Gurkhas have also won 3 Param Vir Chakras.
Genetically Gurkhas who are presently serving in the British armed forces are Tibeto-Mongolians. Gurkhas serving in the Indian Armed Forces are of both groups, Tibeto-Mongolian and Rajput stock. Since the original Gurkhas were Rajput warriors from Rajasthan, all gurkhas regardless of genetic makeup speak a Rajasthani dialect. They are also famous for their large knife called the kukri.
In the mid 1980s some Nepali speaking groups in West Bengal began to organize under the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front , calling for their own Gurkha state. In 1988 they were given broader autonomy as the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
The treatment of Gurkhas and their families has been the subject of controversy in the United Kingdom following revelations that Gurkhas receive smaller pensions than their British equivalents.
The nationality status of Gurkhas and their families has also been in dispute, with claims that some ex-army Nepalese families are being denied residency and forced to leave Britain.
See also: History of Nepal
- Brigade of Gurkhas website
- Gurkha Museum
- The Tripartite Agreement (TPA) 1947
- Twenty-Six Victoria Crosses have been won by Gurkha Regiments
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