The history of Nepal won’t and can’t be complete without the 200-year-long history of the Gurkhas.
I am not an expert on this subject. However, I’ve tried to find and read as many books as possible in researching this subject and found out that my choices were somewhat limited. The Gurkhas have a vibrant, diverse and distinguished history, especially during WW I and WW II. Unfortunately, they were mostly limited to oral history. As we didn’t bother to preserve them, they were mostly lost when the storytellers died. The damage is already done. They are mostly all gone and never going to be recovered again.
Nepali writers outside the country were more active than the ones inside when it came to writing about the Gurkhas. Indra Bahadur Rai, PaariJaat, Daulat Bikram Bista and Bhupi Serchan were some notable names, who wrote about the Gurkhas. The powerful poems of Bhupi Serchan brought the stories of Gurkhas to the masses and evoked emotions. Dr. Harka Bahadur Gurung, a geographer, anthropologist, author, and artist known for his conservation works, was one of the champions of the Gurkhas. Being a son of an Indian Gurkha himself, he spent his childhood and youth in an army garrison. The Gurung surname also helped. He had done a lot of research and writing on the subject and was the leading scholar on Gurkha matters, and any writer who had come to Nepal in search of the Gurkhas’ matter could not have done their job without consulting him. Almost all the books about the Gurkhas that I have seen so far have forewords by the eminent Dr. Gurung or mention his name. That clearly showed the influence and respect he had had among the writing communities. In brief, if anyone had done something for the Gurkhas, it was Dr. Gurung.
The interest and endeavour shown by the new generations on this particular subject are noteworthy. Basanta Thapa of Himal Books has published a trilogy of Gurkha-related books. Lahureko Katha (The Story of the Gurkhas) by Bharat Pokhrel, Basanta Thapa and Mohan Mainali is a collection of the stories of Gurkha war veterans and compiles a list of thirteen real, detailed and heartbreaking stories of Gurkha veterans who fought in WW II. British Samrajyaka Nepali Mohora (Nepali Footprints on the British Empire) by Jhalak Subedi is the second one of the detailed and up-to-date books on Gurkhas, and the book covers the history of the Gurkhas in general. This book is based on the life of former GAESO president Padam Bahadur Gurung.
The third and last book of the trilogy is Warrior Gentlemen: ‘Gurkhas’ in the Western Imagination by Lionel Caplan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and an expert on South Asian politics, including Nepal. British-Gurkha (From Treaty to The Supreme Court) is another good book on the Gurkhas and published by the British-Gurkha Study and Research Centre, Nepal.
Peter J. Karthak, the writer, musician and veteran journalist, who passed away in April 2020 was an authority on Gurkha-related subjects. Lt. Col. (Retd.) J.P. Cross is another enlightened author who has tried to bring the Gurkha legacy to the world through his various books. During the process of researching this book, I read some of his books as reference and found them very helpful. ‘Cross Saheb’ was the Commanding Officer of BGC Camp Pokhara when I joined the British Army as a recruit in 1980, and I still remember the speech that he delivered to us in fluent Gorkhali.
The main problem the intellectuals from Nepal have with the Gurkhas is that they always think of Gurkhas as naïve, thick-headed and sometimes even cocky. They don’t consider the Gurkha stories worthy of being written about. As a result, the Gurkha legacy has been neglected by all.
The singers and musicians of Nepal have compensated for the shortcomings found in the written word. Nepal is indeed rich in folk songs. We have a wide variety of folk songs in our society. The Gandharwa/Gaaine (the singing caste) with their one-size-fits-all-type of music instrument called sarangi, must take credit for continuing the old tradition. They did indeed sing a lot about the Gurkhas. Their songs genuinely reflected the actual situation: the pain of separation, and the agony of waiting, for the Gurkha community as a whole. Listening to their songs was the only way of forgetting their pain within the community, especially in the time of wars. Crowds would grow wherever they started singing.
Here are some examples of the famous folk songs of Nepal regarding the Gurkhas in the past.
● Cassino Attack Jandama Dekhina Ankha Dhuwale, Chhadyo Saathile … (On the way to the Cassino attack, they couldn’t see through the billowing smoke and were left behind by friends.)
● Gaai Palyo Banaiko Bhaglai, Chhora Palyo Germanko Dhawalai … (I raised the cow for the tiger of the jungle, and so were my sons in the battle with the Germans.)
● Ghar Ta Mero Himali Pakha Beisi Ho Re, Kun dinko Sanyogle Bane Lahure … (The Himalayan slopes and valleys are my home, which day’s luck made me a Lahure?)
● Lahureko Relimai Feshanai Ramro, Rato Rumal Relimai Khukuri Bhireko … (The fashion of Lahures makes my dear so lovely, with a red handkerchief for my love and sporting a kukri.)
The song below was sung by a singer named Jhalakman and heard in the aftermath of the Nepalese revolution of 1950.9 WW II had ended only a few years ago and the song clearly showed the pain, agony and misery of the people whose sons had gone to war and there was no guarantee they would return safely home again.
Aama Basi Dharti Naroya Aama, Banche Pathaula Tasvirai Khichera,
Don’t sit on the ground and cry, my dear mother, I will send you a photo if I survive,
Baba Runchan Barsha Din, Aama Runchin Jindaji Bharilai Hajura,
Father will cry for a year, and mother will cry for a lifetime, my dear!
Hai Barai, amale sodhlin ni khwoi chhora bhanlin, ranhai khulyo bhandias
Mother will ask where is my son; tell her the war had just begun
Babale sodhlan ni khwoi chhora bhanlan, ranh jitdaichha bhandias
Father will ask where is my son; tell him I am winning the battle
Dajaile sodhlan ni khwoi bhai bhanlan, aunsai badhyo bhandias
Elder brother will ask where is my brother; tell him his share has increased
Elder sister will ask where is my brother; tell her the gift has decreased
Bahinile shodlin ni khwoi bhai bhanlin, maiti ghatyo bhandias
Younger sister will ask where is my brother; tell her you’ve one fewer brother now
Chhorale shodlan ni khwoi baba bhanlan, topi jhikei bhandias
Son will ask where is my father; tell him to take his cap off
Chhorile shodlin khwoi baba bhanlin, sunchurako daan diyas …
Daughter will ask where is my father; tell her to forget about the gold bangle
Priyale shodlin khwoi swami bhanlin, baatai khulyo bhandias
Wife will ask where is my husband; tell her the way is cleared
Bhaujyule shodlin ni khwoi dewar bhanlin, khasi kaat bhandias
Sister-in-law will ask where is my brother-in-law; tell her to celebrate at her will
Saathile shodlan khwoi lahure bhanlan, mayamaar bhandias
Friend will ask where is my lahure; tell him to forget about me
The other famous song that every Gurkha must have sung at least a few times in his army career is the one called Resham Fiririri … During the recruit training especially, song and music play a significant role in the training, and a session of dances and songs was held every evening. No one was spared and all had to dance or sing in their turn and as far as I was concerned, the dance and singing sessions were the ones I would have liked to forget. I was shy then. But now, I can afford a smile or two at my misery.
Resham Phiriri, Resham Phiririi
The fluttering sounds of my silk handkerchief …
Udera Jaun Ki Dandai Ma Bhanjyang, Resham Phiririi
Shall we fly over to the mountain pass? The fluttering sounds of my silk handkerchief
Eknale Banduk Dui Nale Banduk Mirgalai Takeko
Single-barreled rifle, double-barrelled rifle pointing at a deer …
Mirgalai Maile Takeko Hoina Maya Lai Dakeko
My aim is not pointed at the deer but you, my love …
Resham Phiriri Resham Phiririi
The fluttering sounds of my silk handkerchief …
This song was said to have been collected from the villages near Pokhara, composed by Budhi Pariyar, and sung by Sundar Shrestha and Dwarika Lal Joshi through Radio Nepal. Although the official song came out later, the original song was already famous before that, especially among the Gurkhas, among whom this song was undoubtedly the most popular one.
Singing and dancing skills were one of the criteria for promotion in the army. Young soldiers with a feminine face and a slim body were encouraged to dance as a ‘Maaroni’ (man dancing in a woman’s attire). They were in massive demand for special events, especially in Dashera (Dashain) and other festivals. Some of them did achieve the rank of Gurkha officer or senior NCO through this particular skill, and all the Gurkha battalions had a few such talents of their own. The senior officers were quite fond of these dancers.
In time perhaps, the Gurkhas will be written about more, especially in Nepali literature.
Excerpted with permission from Ayo Gorkhali: A History of the Gorkhas by Tim I. Gurung, published by Westland, November 2020.