The Brigade of Gurkhas enlists just 230 new recruits each year. Every year, between 17,000 to 20,000 young men compete for the chance to be one of these chosen few.Would-be recruits are put through a set of rigorous and punishing physical and mental tests, including the infamous 'doko' race in which candidates run 5 kilometres across mountain slopes, carrying 35 kilos of rocks in a doko basket.
'Crossing the black water'
Words and photographs ©Alison Locke 2001
Between 1999 and 2000 Alison Locke, a documentary photographer, spent several months following two groups of young Nepali men as they went through their recruitment and training process. We are proud to showcase some of her photographs here. They are a set of powerful and very personal records of the experiences of these men as they begin their journeys into the ranks of the British Gurkhas.
Click on the thumbnail images below to see Alison's photographs at full-size in a 'lightbox' format.Start of the journey
Location: West Nepal
Tanahun District, Western Nepal.During hill selection, potential recruits have numbers painted on their chest in indelible ink. This prevents them from re-trying for selection elsewhere if they are initially unsuccessful. The boys' bodies are minutely examined for any signs of physical weakness and many boys are rejected for basic medical reasons which include high blood pressure, ear or dental problems. [Note: since these photographs were taken, the practice of painting numbers on potential recruits has been discontinued].
Dada Bazaar, Eastern Nepal.The local ex-Gurkha recruiters are known as Gallawallahs. They live throughout hill recruitment areas and initially select boys who may be suitable for the British Army. Many have a long family history of service in the British Army, and photographs proudly displayed outside a home can show generations of Gurkhas.
On their way
Location: The British Army Camp, Pokhara, Western Nepal
Recruits who have been successful at hill selection arrive at the Camp for central selection.Some of the boys will have travelled for several days, often on foot to reach Pokhara. Many arrive looking their best, wearing fashionable fake logos and imitation branded trainers.
A recruit takes part in the Doko Race at dawn, on the hillside outside the British Army Camp.This is traditionally the most gruelling part of central selection - a 5km race uphill, carrying 35kgs of stones in a 'doko' basket on the back. This is more arduous than any other selection test in the British Army.
Recently, the British Army has raised academic entry levels for central selection.All recruits are now required to pass tests that are equivalent to GCSE standards in English and Mathematics.
A recruit waits for a medical test to be carried out by independent British Army doctors at central selection.For many boys, this is the first time they will have been intimately examined by a doctor and tests frequently detect serious medical complaints previously undiagnosed.
The Attestation Parade is the formal ceremony of recruitment that occurs throughout the British Army.Here recruits swear allegiance to the British Crown by saluting a picture of the Queen and by touching the Union Jack. Contrary to the popular myth that Gurkhas are mercenaries, Attestation defines them as part of the British Army.
Wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends wait outside the British Army Camp in Pokhara.A successful recruit is unable to leave the camp, although he will be able to see relatives to say goodbye, since they will not meet again for 3 years.
Before their sons depart for the UK, families perform a moving farewell ceremony, hanging malas (garlands of flowers) and silk scarves around the necks of the recruits to bring luck and show respect.They also perform tika, the daubing of rice on the forehead as an outward symbol of the family's blessing.
Far from home
Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Church Crookham, UK
The relationship with a Section Commander, or Guruji, is one of the most important aspects of Gurkha training.It suggests an intimate mentor-like relationship with an emphasis on learning, companionship and obligation. It is known as kaida, the proper way of doing things, taught with knowledge that is handed down. This is at the heart of the Gurkha tradition of maintaining a tightly knit extended family.
Farnham Shopping Centre.Even a day out is treated as a military exercise. Exercise Pahilo Kadam, translates as 'first walk' and is an opportunity for recruits to observe British life for the first time.
The Brigade of Gurkha's official religion is Hinduism and all major festival days are observed as part of the military calendar.In Nepal during Dashain festival, the senior member of the family will give Tika (a blessing using a mixture of barley, vermilion powder, rice and milk curd) to all the family. Here a Gurkha Captain gives Tika blessing to each of the 230 recruits under his responsibility who are far from home.
An outdoor lecture on rifle use during the first three-day exercise of training in local countryside.
A day trip to Brighton is part of the training to acclimatise recruits to British life and customs.For many of them, seeing the sea for the first time is an added bonus. The slightly bemused local lads were unaware that this was a group of soldiers in training.
The Passing Out Party at the end of training.The soldiers are dancing alongside their Guruji. They are now ranked as Riflemen and will shortly leave to join their Regiments, serving in places such as Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone.
This article was first published in June 2001 on Reportage.org.
Words and photographs ©Alison Locke 2001
To these young men, winning entry to the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas is an honour and a source of great traditional family pride. The challenge of gaining, a place, however, is a daunting one. On average only 230 Gurkhas are recruited each year, undergoing a lengthy and rigorous training before joining their respective regiments or Corps units. For those who are successful, service with the British Army offers a well-paid career which will bring financial security and the ability to support their families, many of whom rely on the severely limited income from hill-farming, as well as a pension on retirement.
Extract from the Recruitment & Training page, Khukuri House Online