The kukri, or 'khukuri' (which is closer to the Nepali pronunciation), is the distinctive curved Nepali knife that is synonymous with the Gurkhas and Nepal. The kukri is respected throughout the world for its fearful effectiveness as a close combat weapon, but it is also a humble multi-purpose tool used in Nepal for everyday tasks. This iconic and instantly recognisable blade also holds deep spiritual and historical significance for Gurkhas and the people of Nepal.
Kukris have been used by Nepali (Nepalese) soldiers since the earliest days of the Gorkhali Army which conquered and united Nepal under the Shah dynasty. They have been the symbol of the British Army's Brigade of Gurkhas since it began. The regimental insignia of nearly all Gurkha regiments, past and present, have incorporated kukris into their design as can be seen from the pre-1947 insignia of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Gurkha Rifles below.
Every serving Gurkha carries a kukri as part of his standard issue equipment and today's Gurkhas undergo extensive training in the art of using of the kukri. Although there is little need for a close combat weapon like the kukri in modern warfare, it has a long history of being put to terrifyingly effective use by Gurkhas in the past. In his description of the battle for Moguang bridge in Myanmar (now Burma), in which he earned his Victoria Cross, Honorary Lieutenant Tul Bahdur Pun VC gives a graphic account of using his kukri in close combat fighting.
As Major Gerald Davies, Curator of the Gurkha Museum Winchester, explains in this highly informative BBC 'History of the World' YouTube clip about the Fisher Kukri', kukris are commonly used in Nepal for a wide range of everyday and domestic tasks: from chopping trees and cutting wood to butchering animals and cutting meat. As the traditional knife of the hill jaats (tribes) of Nepal, many Gurkhas grow up using kukris from a very young age and become extremely skilled in their use.
Origins & Manufacture
The design of the kukri has hardly changed over the hundreds of years that it has been in use. The oldest known kukris, belonging to King Drabya Shah, date back to the mid-16th Century and are displayed in Nepal's National Museum in Kathmandu.
Very little is known about the origins of the kukri. Historians have noted the kukri's similarity to several ancient weapons, such as the Iberian falcata sword and the Greek makhaira and kopis blades, which were brought to the Punjab (now in Pakistan) by Alexander the Great's armies in 326 BCE (Before Common Era). Equally the design may have evolved in Nepal through the refinement of the design of the Nepali khonra sword, a huge curved blade that requires a double-handed grip.
A Khonra Sword
A Ceremonial Kukri
Although the kukri's design has not changed in centuries, there are many types and variations, ranging from the large sword-like sacrificial kukri shown above to the slim and elegant 'Sirupate' - literally 'Siru leaf-shape' because its thinner blade resembles the leaf of the Siru plant (known in English as 'Japanese Blood Grass') - to the more familiar proportions of army issue-style kukris, which tend to be between 35-45 cm in length from the tip of the blade to the end of the handle and weigh between 400-900 grams.
Hand-crafted in Nepal
The kukri's blade is made of steel - very often recycled vehicle suspension bars - and expertly hand-made by highly-skilled Kamis - members of Nepal's blacksmith caste, traditionally one of the poorest castes under Nepal's rigid caste system. Over the course of hundreds of years, Nepal's Kamis have perfected the art of kukri-making - elevating their craft to an artform in its own right.
Design & Handling
Each part of the kukri has its own name and specific purpose as you can see from this diagram.
The small notch on the blade just above the kukri's handle is called the cho, kaudi or kauda and acts as a drip channel - diverting plant sap or blood away from the handle so that the hand of the wielder doesn't become excessively slippery. The kaudi is usually shaped like a small three-pronged fork, which is said to be symbolic of the trishul, the trident wielded by Shiva the Hindu God of destruction and preservation who is traditionally associated with the Gurkhas, since the time of the warrior-saint and Shiva devotee Guru Gorakhnath.
The harhari - the circular rings around the kukri's the handle - and the way in which the handle flares out at its base also help to improve the grip of the of the person using the kukri whether they are chopping or stabbing (see the demonstrations on the Khukuri House Online for step by step explanations of different handling techniques).
The kukri, its scabbard and two accompanying smaller knives, the karda and chakmak, constitute a multi-purpose toolkit. The small karda knife is a utility or 'penknife' used for small, accurate cutting or carving. The name of the blunt, block-like chakmak echoes the sound it makes when used as a flint-striker. Before matches and lighters came into common use in Nepal, the chakmak was used to make fire by striking its flat 'blade' edge against a piece of flint or another suitable rock, creating sparks. In days gone by, Gurkhas (and hill-men in Nepal) would carry some soft, dry tinder and a piece of flint in the khalti a small pouch behind the scabbard and fire sparks from the chakmak at a small bundle of tinder to start a fire. The chakmak's other - and now more common - use is as a blade sharpener for the kukri.
The Hindu festival of Dasain, also called Dashera in the Brigade of Gurkhas, is the largest and most important festival of the year in Nepal. Families come together and receive blessings from their elders - or senior officers in the case of the army.
The entire regiment's weapons are blessed and - in Nepal - goats, buffaloes and other animals are ritually sacrificed in the ceremony called Maar (literally 'kill' or 'sacrifice'). One sacrifice is of particular importance: that of a male buffalo. The honour of sacrificing the buffalo traditionally goes to an experienced hand as he must wield a large sword-like ceremonial kukuri (in the past khonra swords were also commonly used).
Tradition dictates that the buffalo's head must be cut off cleanly with a single blow in order to secure the regiment good fortune for the coming year. When the Maar ceremony was common practice (it has now been discontinued in the UK), a successful kukri or khonra wielder would be honoured with a white pheta or turban to signifiy his achievement, but if the sacrifice was a failure then it was believed to be a very bad omen for the coming year and the unsuccessful swordsman would be chased and splattered with blood from the sacrifice in an attempt to appease the gods.
Myths & Stories
There are many myths and tall tales associated with the kukri and Gurkhas in general. One that has persisted for decades is that a kukri must 'always taste blood' before it is returned to its scabbard. Another, more technically imaginative, notion is that the cho or kaudi notch in the kukri's blade is used by Gurkhas as a 'sight' with which they aim at targets before throwing the blade (and catching it on its return). These are of course completely untrue, but a part of the Gurkha mythology nonetheless. The quotations below are some of the countless other, slightly more reliable, accounts of Gurkhas and their use of the kukri.
On coming across a camp of disagreeably-minded CTs (Communist Terrorists), who almost always outnumbered us, (the Gurkhas) tended to drop their perfectly good firearms, draw their fearsome kukris (knives) and, screaming war cries, charge into the thick of them. My own preference was to fire from behind the thickest tree I could find, thus giving myself a reasonable chance of survival?.
A. J. V. Fletcher, 'Operation Sharp End – Smashing Terrorism In Malaya 1948-58: Memories Of The Malayan Police', ISBN: 190326376
Landing at Brunei airport, (the Gurkhas) double-timed into Bruneitown (Bandar Seri Begawan) and soon came in view of the rioters. Forming a thin khaki line across the lone main street, they unsheathed their kukris and stood facing the howling mob. Looking at that silent row of men, their knives sparkling in the sun, the insurgents had some fast second thoughts and slowly began to disband. The troops smartly about-faced, trotted back to the airfield, and flew home to Kuching. Elapsed time to crush a rebellion: under two hours?
Sid Latham, 'Knives and Knifemakers' 1974, ISBN: 0876911092
The Gurkha is worthy of notice, if only for the remarkable weapon which they use in preference to any other. It is called the 'Kukri' and is of a very peculiar shape.
...In the hands of an experienced wielder this knife is about as formidable a weapon as can be conceived. Like all really good weapons, its efficiency depends much more upon the skill than the strength of the wielder, and thus it happens that the little Gurkha, a mere boy in point of stature, will cut to pieces a gigantic adversary who does not understand his mode of onset. The Gurkha generally strikes upwards with the kukri, possibly in order to avoid wounding himself should his blow fail, and possibly because an upward cut is just the one that can be least guarded against.
When we were engaged in the many wars in India the Gurkha proved themselves our most formidable enemies, as since they have proved themselves most invaluable allies. Brave as lions, active as monkeys, and fierce as tigers, the lithe wiry little men came leaping over the ground to the attack, moving so quickly, and keeping so far apart from each other, that musketry was no use against them. When they came near the soldiers, they suddenly crouched to the ground, dived under the bayonets, struck upwards at the men with their kukris, ripping them open with a single blow, and then, after having done all the mischief in their power, darting off as rapidly as they had come. Until our men learned this mode of attack, they were greatly discomfited by their little opponents, who got under their weapons, cutting or slashing with knives as sharp as razors, and often escaping unhurt from the midst of bayonets. They would also dash under the bellies of the officers' horses, rip them open with one blow of the kukri, and aim another at the leg of the officer as he and his horse fell together.
Reverend Wood, 'Travels in India and Nepal' 1896