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The ceremonial kukri (known as the konra) is usually about twice the size of the military kukri and has a large handle to allow the user to take a double handed grip. Traditionally, the konra will be used to sacrifice a water buffalo during the Hindu festival of Dashain (or ‘Dashera’). The soldier selected to do this is under real pressure. If he decapitates the animal with a single blow, then his unit will be blessed with good luck in the year ahead; if he fails to do this, then bad luck will follow. Although this practise still takes place in Nepal, it is not permitted in the UK.
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A group of Gurkhas from 3rd Gurkhas circa 1890. Note the kukris being held by the two soldiers bottom right.
The Gurkhas are famous for their fighting knife, known as the kukri or ‘khukuri’. Short, broad-bladed and with a distinctive curve, the kukri is widely used in the hills of Nepal for chopping wood, killing animals, opening cans, clearing undergrowth and indeed any other task that requires a strong blade. Young men learn to use the kukri from a very early age and it is this deep familiarity with the weapon that makes it so effective in the hands of a Gurkha soldier. By the time a young man joins the Army in his late teens or early twenties, the kukri has effectively become an extension of his dominant arm. This article looks at the background to the kukri and examines why, even after hundreds of years, the kukri remains a key part of a Gurkha soldier's personal armoury - indeed, the prospect of a Gurkha soldier deploying on operations without his kukri remains as unthinkable today as it was over 200 years ago when Gurkhas were first recruited into the service of the British Crown.
A soldier from The Royal Gurkha Rifles holds his kukri aloft as he storms a trench during an infantry exercise.
A painting by Jason Askew of the Sirmoor Battalion (later 2nd Gurkhas) defending Hindu Rao’s house against an assault by mutineers during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The kukri carried by today’s soldiers is little different to that carried by the Gurkha in the centre of the painting. Then as now, it is a lethal weapon in the hands of a Gurkha.
Although all kukris have a similar basic shape, there are a number of different variations on the theme. Historically, kukris from the west of Nepal tended to be short and ‘round-bellied’ whilst those from the eastern districts had longer, more slender blades. Kukris used for ceremonial or sacrificial purposes, such as chopping the head off a water buffalo during the Hindu festival of ‘Dashera’ or ‘Dashain’, are necessarily bigger and heavier. Kothimora kukris, which are frequently given as gifts to esteemed people, are highly polished and often have intricate silver designs on the scabbard.
Soldiers from the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas performing a kukri display to music.
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A painting of the storming of Delhi in 1857 showing ‘the incident at Subjee Mundi’. A soldier from the Sirmoor Battalion (later the 2nd Gurkhas) is about to draw his kukri and decapitate a mutineer.
A soldier from 3rd Gurkhas about to decapitate a water buffalo in 1945 or 1946 as a sacrifice during the Hindu festival of Dashain. Severing the head with a single blow will bring the Battalion good luck in the year ahead - anything less will bring bad luck.
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A Gurkha soldier and his kukri. In 1948, the Prime Minister and Supreme Commander of Nepal, Maharaja Padma Shamsher Jangabahadur Rana, wrote that the kukri ‘is the national as well as the religious weapon of the Gurkhas. It is incumbent on a Gurkha to carry it while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring.’
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A Gurkha soldier on operations in Afghanistan with a ceremonial kukri (known as a ‘konra’). Note the two handed grip necessary to wield this kukri.
There are a number of different theories about the origin of the kukri. One is that it is a descendent of the machaira, the curved cavalry sword of the ancient Macedonians carried by Alexander’s horseman when he invaded north west India in the Fourth Century BC. Another not necessarily contradictory theory is that it originates from a form of knife used by the Mallas who came to power in Nepal in the Thirteenth Century. Arguably the most credible theory is that the kukri was developed in isolation by the peasants of Nepal. Its size and dimensions may have been shaped by the environment as a longer weapon would have been impractical given the very steep hillsides that characterise much of Nepal.
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A modern military kukri is usually about 30cm in length. The scabbard contains two pockets at the back to hold a pair of small knives. One of these, the chakmak, is for sharpening the kukri and can be used with a flint to create a spark. The other, the karda, is used as a penknife for skinning animals.
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Soldiers from The Royal Gurkha Rifles practising their kukri drills in Bosnia in 2005. Its size and shape make the kukri an ideal weapon for close quarter fighting.
As well as being a fearsome and effective weapon, Gurkhas use their kukris as general utility tools. This photograph, taken in Afghanistan on OP HERRICK, shows a kukri being used to carve up a watermelon.
A soldier from the 9th Gurkhas demonstrates the use of the kukri to incapacitate an adversary as a group of senior officers approach. Although this photograph was taken in 1945, young Gurkha soldiers are still taught the same slashing action during recruit training.
A Rifleman of the 10th Gurkhas smiles as he tests the edge of his kukri. The photograph was taken in Italy in 1945.
When in the field, the kukri’s scabbard is usually covered in camouflage material as in this photograph taken in Afghanistan on OP HERRICK.
Young Nepalese men grow up using the kukri as a general utility weapon in Nepal. During their basic training in the UK, they are taught how to turn this familiarity with the kukri into a lethal capability.
The kukri is ubiquitous in Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas. It has a prominent position on the capbadges of all Britain’s Gurkha units and it is carried by soldiers of the Brigade both on ceremonial duties and in the field. But it is not just an historic symbol. Although the basic design of the kukri has changed little over the centuries, it remains a potent weapon in the hands of a Gurkha, delivering lethal effect even on today’s contemporary battlefield. Its continued utility is well illustrated in this extract from the citation for the Military Cross awarded to Lance Corporal Tuljung Gurung for his actions in Afghanistan on 22 March 2013:
‘Showing exceptional instinct and courage he picked up the grenade and threw it out of the sangar. The grenade detonated, peppering the sangar with fragmentation. Gurung was again knocked off his feet. Through the obscuration of the debris he quickly identified an insurgent climbing into the sangar. Due to the close quarters, and unable to bring his rifle to bear, Gurung instinctively drew his kukri and slashed at the insurgent. In the ensuing hand to hand combat Gurung and the insurgent fell three meters from the sangar, landing on the ground outside of the Patrol Base. Exposed to possible further insurgent firing positions, he aggressively and tenaciously continued to fight with his kukri. The two insurgents, defeated, turned and fled.’
Gurkhas from The Royal Gurkha Rifles in Afghanistan.
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A Rifleman of the 3rd Gurkhas taken in the Regimental home of Almorah circa 1907. The kukri is worn on the soldier’s right hip with the handle free of obstruction, enabling the kukri to be easily drawn when required.
Modern military kukris tend to be about 30cm in length. The blades are made of steel and have a distinctive notch near the handle known as the kaura. There are numerous interesting explanations of its presence. One of these is that it is an ingenious aiming sight for when the kukri is thrown at a target. Another is that it is to stop blood running down the blade and onto the handle. Yet another is that it is to catch and then neutralise an enemy blade. Whilst the latter two explanations might contain an element of truth, the reality is that the kaura is a decorative Hindu religious and phallic symbol.
The handle of the modern military kukri is usually made of dense wood. It is secured to the blade by rivets through the hilt or by flattening the end of the hilt over the bottom of the handle. On more expensive kukris, the handle might be made of bone, horn, ivory or even metal. The kukri's scabbard is traditionally made of wood with a leather covering. There are two small pockets at the back of the scabbard to hold a pair of small knives. One of these, the chakmak, is for sharpening the kukri and can be used with a flint to create a spark. The other, the karda, is used as a penknife for skinning animals. The tip of the scabbard is protected by a metal cap. When worn in the field, the kukri is normally covered with camouflage material and attached to the soldier’s webbing.