The Name: ‘Gurkha’

It is said that Gurkhas take their name from the Himalayan principality of Gorkha (Nepali: गोर्खा ) in west-central Nepal. It was from Gorkha that the original ‘Gorkhali’ army set out in the 18th Century, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Together they conquered all their neighbouring hill states, including the Malla kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, and in doing so created a 'Gorkha Raj' ('Gurkha Empire') much larger than modern-day Nepal. It was this same Gorkhali army that fought against the British in the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16, which in turn lead to the British recruiting Gurkhas into the British Army.

A devotee watches the sun set from the Temple of Goddess Gorakh Kali

A devotee watches the sun set from the Temple of Goddess Gorakh-Kali next to the 'durbar' (fortress) at Gorkha, West Nepal
Photograph: ©Sam Kang Li

However some historical accounts suggest that the name 'Gorkha' dates back much further, to 8th Century India, when the legendary mystic and 'warrior-saint' Guru Gorakhnath, gave his disciple Bappa Rawal, an Indian Rajput ruler, the title 'Gorkha' (derived from the Prakrit phrase 'go rakkha' meaning 'protector of cows' - cows being sacred animals to all Hindus).

So what links Bappa Rawal, an Indian king, to the Gorkhali warriors of Nepal? The answer is convoluted and perhaps surprising: in the 11th and 12th Centuries the Rajputs were besieged by invaders from the east and some of Bappa Rawal's descendants migrated east to the relative peace of the Himalayan foothills. It was there that they founded a new kingdom, which they named after the title that their patron saint had given them: Gorkha. In its capital they built a 'durbar', a hill-top fortess-palace, and a temple to the goddess Gorakh Kali, in which it is said they placed a sacred statue of Guru Gorakhnath, viewable only by their kings - members of the now abolished Shah dynasty. Kali is the goddess of death and destruction whose name is invoked in the Gurkha battlecry 'Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali!' ('Victory to Mahakali, the Gurkhas are here!') from which this site take takes its name.

So, the name 'Gurkha' is the Anglicised version of 'Gorkha' (pronounced Gorr-kha), a word that the British have struggled to pronounce since the time of the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16. The spelling of 'Gurkha' has changed many times over the past 200 hundred years - variations include: Ghurka, Goorkha, Goorkah and many others. The Gurkhas of the Indian Army have retained the more faithful spelling of 'Gorkha', which is also how British Gurkhas still refer to themselves in Nepali.

कांथर हुनु भन्दा मर्नु राम्रो - Kaathar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro.
Better to die than to be a coward.

The Gurkha motto


Who are the Gurkhas?

Soldiers from Gurkha Company (Mandalay), in the annual Freedom Parade of Brecon, Wales 2008

Soldiers from Gurkha Company (Mandalay), in the annual Freedom Parade in Brecon, Wales (2008)
Photo: Believe Collective

The Gurkhas are legendary soldiers with a reputation for loyalty and bravery that has been confirmed many times, as the 13 Victoria Crosses and countless other awards for valour that they have earned - and continue to earn in modern conflicts - prove beyond doubt. 

In the strictest sense, British Gurkhas are Nepali (Nepalese) citizens who have enlisted the British Army and undergone the necessary army training to become fully qualified soldiers. This is of course a military definition and does not reflect the reality of the much broader Gorkhali community - men, women, children and grandchildren who are not serving soldiers but who are indisputably Gurkhas by birth.

Historically there have been particular 'jaats' (tribes) who have made up the majority of men in the British Gurkhas. Although there is still a strong tradition of men from Gurkha families enlisting in the British Army, in today's Brigade of Gurkhas any young Nepali man who is able to pass the punishing tests and rigorous recruitment requirements is eligible to become a Gurkha.

Every Gurkha - like all Nepalis - belongs to a jaat (tribe) usually indicated by his or her surname, such as the Gurung, Limbu and Rai jaats. The people of some jaats prefer to use their clan name (or ‘thar’) as their surname. For example: Thapa, Pun and Ale are all clans of the Magar jaat. Our Gorkhali Mountain Peoplepage and upcoming Homeland section look at the many different jaats that have traditionally formed the core of the British Gurkhas, such as the Magars and Gurungs from the Himalayan foothills of west Nepal and the Limbus and Rais from the east.

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The Future

Gurkha students doing 'namaste' the traditional Nepali greeting, Brecon High School, Wales 2008

Gurkha students doing 'namaste' the traditional Nepali greeting, Brecon High School, Wales 2008
©Brecon High School (background image: Annapurna sunrise © Biplove Bhattachan)

An Enduring Legacy

In the early 21st Century, the Brigade of Gurkhas' future looks assured: the Royal Gurkha Rifles continue to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Back in Nepal the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) appears to have climbed down from its commitment to ban the recruitment of Nepali citizens into the British army, at least for now. Having won the right for all ex-Gurkhas to settle in the UK in 2009, Gurkha veterans who retired before 1997 continue to fight for their right to fairer pensions.

Today, communities of Gurkhas, Gurkha veterans (from both the British and Indian armies), their children and grandchildren can be found in Nepal, India, Brunei, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, France, the United States, across the United Kingdom and in almost every country in between. By virtue of their self-reliance, discipline and courage, this diverse group of men and women have progressed from living as subsistence farmers in the Himalayan foothills to working in every possible trade and profession in every corner of the world.

Whatever the future holds, the legacy of these men and women who have travelled so far, achieved so much and asked for so little, will continue to inspire those who learn about them and to live on through their descendants and in the hearts of those who have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing and serving with them. We salute you.

Ayo Gorkhali!