Although Nepal is a country of great ethnic diversity, the Gurkhas have historically been recruited from the mountain tribes of 'pahad' (pa-haar), the Himalayan foothills.


As you can see from the Land of the Brave clip above, the Nepali tribes who call the mountainous foothills of pahad their home grow up in conditions that are hard to imagine for anyone who has not visited there. There are almost no roads and nearly all travelling is done on foot, along rocky paths that meander between villages, across mountain passes and roaring rivers. Going anywhere involves walking either up or down steep slopes (usually both) with whatever loads you need to carry - whether you are a student taking your textbooks to school, a farmer leading his oxen and carrying his plough or an aged villager going to visit a relative.

Life in pahad revolves around agriculture: tending crops, looking after the terraced fields and caring for livestock. Most remote villages have little or no electricity and domestic plumbing is rare. Villagers’ lives are simple and very hard by European standards. However it is precisely the harshness of the conditions in pahad that have made the people of the Gurkha jaats (tribes) so strong, resilient and resourceful. The people of pahad are polite, proud and generous. They are quick to laugh and love to eat, drink and make merry, but it is worth remembering that some jaats, especially the Rais from the east, are also well-known for their fierce tempers.

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'Jaats' & 'Thars': Tribes & Clans


The Western Hill Tribes

The original Gorkhali army, which set out from the small hill state of Gorkha in west-central Nepal and conquered the rest of Nepal in the late 18th Century, was a multi-racial and multi-caste army. At that time it was unusual for an army to be made up of men from different jaats (tribes) and from different levels of Nepal's strict Hindu caste hierarchy. Rather than restrict his army's intake to the men from the (higher) warrior caste - who, like him, were largely descendants of Rajputs from India - the King of Gorkha (and later of all Nepal) Prithvi Narayan Shah also recruited men from other castes, including the local men from the 'Matwali jaats' (alcohol drinking tribes).

This meant that most of the infantrymen in the original Gorkhali army were from the Magar and Gurung jaats - hard-working, self-disciplined men whose courage was matched only by their physical strength and stamina, borne from the the daily toil of mountain life. When Gurkhas were later recruited into the British Indian Army following the 1814-1816 Anglo-Gorkha War, it was initially men from these Western tribes who made up the core of the British Gurkhas.



The Eastern Hill Tribes

As the Gorkhali army conquered Nepal, the eastern jaats, such as the Rais and Limbus - descendants of the Kiratis who once ruled the nation but now lived as subsistence farmers in the north-eastern foothills - were also defeated and recruited into the ranks of the Shahs' army. Much later, when the British expanded the Gurkhas in the late 19th Century, they too began to recruit men from the east and these eastern jaats were to become as critical to the Gurkhas as their westen comrades.



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Modern Gurkhas

Whilst the history of the British Gurkhas is inextricably linked with the Western Magars and Gurungs and the Eastern Limbus and Rais, men from many other Nepali jaats have played major roles in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Lieutenant Colonel Bijay Rawat, who is from the Chhetri jaat, was commander of the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles at the time of the Handover of Hong Kong. He, alongside Lt Colonel Lal Bahadur Pun, was one of only two Gurkhas to reach such a high rank. Both of them were Sandhurst-commissioned British officers.

Today's Brigade of Gurkhas accepts young Nepali men of every jaat - they do however need to pass the punishing physical and mental tests that potential recruits are put through and to demonstrate exceptional qualities to be worthy of being chosen above the, literally, tens of thousands of other candidates.

As time has passed and Gurkha families have gradually settled in the cities and towns of Nepal - and now the UK and other countries - and as the educational qualifications required of Gurkhas have risen, new recruits are as likely to come from urban areas as from the hills of pahad. However this does not make them any less effective, or fearsome, than their forefathers. They are, like those who served before them, the best of the best.