Gurkhas and martial race: The connection

Gurkhas’ kits being inspected, First World War (Credit: Asian Center)

When we think of a physical appearance of the Gurkhas, we believe most of them as a robust and East-Asian looking smiling Nepalese men with an average height of 5’5 (feet’ inch), possibly armed with a khukuri. Precisely speaking, this is the general view of the Western people in regard to the physical appearance of Gurkhas. However, why some Nepalese are considered best to be Gurkhas whereas the others are not?

To dig the reason behind it, we have to go back no more than the 19th century – or more precisely, we have to follow the British Empire in the Indian continent. Of course, India, like almost any other countries, had a vast mass of unwarlike people whose hand had never put against others in combat. As to segregate the unmilitary race, recruitment in Britain’s imperial army had been mainly from a specific Indian caste, and this caste was recognised as martial races.

As ‘martial races’ these men were believed to possess a biological or cultural disposition to the racial and masculine qualities necessary for the arts of war. Within many, Scottish Highlanders, Nepalese Gurkhas and Punjabi Sikhs were few in the British Imperial Army in India. Much controversy and accusation, especially amongst the Indian people, was that, for them; the classification of the martial and non-martial race was based on the outcome of 1857 of the Indian Mutiny where loyal forces of British had been classified as ‘martial race’.

However, leaving the Indian politics aside and if we concentrate solely on Nepal; Nepal was divided into tribal or ethnic units, and a particular set of characteristics would be attributed to the whole people on the strength of often very causal personal observations when recruiting the Gurkhas. This principle of ‘martial race’ had been used meticulously, whereas the first recognised martial races were the surnames Gurung and Magar from the central part of Nepal, and later, Limbu and Rai surnames were recruited from the eastern part of Nepal. Also, Thakurs and Chettris were considered martial race to a certain extent.

Today, we can still see the influence of the regimental ethnic system in the British Gurkha infantry regiments such as with the First Royal Gurkha Rifles and Second Gurkha Rifles. The elimination of this system has been progressively taking place. However, when the British were in India, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Gurkha Rifles consisted of Gurung and Magar surnames, the 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles recruited were the Limbu and Rai surnames and the 9th Gurkha Rifles was from the Thakurs and Chettris surnames. The tradition of recruiting Chettris to this equal number is still carried in the Indian Gurkhas; however, it is practised in a much lesser degree in the British Gurkha.

From this historical standpoint, we can find out the connection between the Gurkhas and their martial race root. As you can see, it was the product of the British. Should you wish to inquire further whether the categorisation of certain Nepalese into the martial race worked effectively, you should look no further than the performance of Gurkhas in battlefields, especially in the First World War and the Second World War.

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