Potential recruits taking part in the 'doko race' (carrying 35 kilos of rocks in doko baskets)

Potential recruits taking part in the 'doko' race (carrying 35kg of rocks in a doko basket) ©Alison Locke

In 1886 the British doubled the size of the first five Gurkha regiments, and by the beginning of the First World War, the Gurkha Brigade had doubled again. In addition to men from the Magar and Gurung 'jaats' (tribes) from West central Nepal, who provided the majority of Gurkha manpower for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Gurkhas, Limbus and Rais from East Nepal were recruited to the newly formed 7th and 10th Gurkhas, and higher caste Khas and Chhetris went into the 9th Gurkhas. Until the late Nineteenth Century, the expansion of the British Gurkha forces was hindered by the difficulty of recruitment in Nepal. The country was closed to foreigners and the ruling Rana Regime had its own army and tried to prevent the flow of military manpower into British India.

To keep up the numbers in their Gurkha units, the British relied on local recruiters, known as gallawallas (usually serving or ex-soldiers), returning to their hill villages in west central Nepal (and later in the east as well), gathering up groups of young men - who of course had to be fit and strong - and shepherding them along the hazardous trail to the Indian border where the recruiting depots were. In 1885, a struggle for succession between two branches of the Rana family gave the British the opportunity to regularise the recruitment of Gurkhas in return for official recognition of the Shamsher Rana faction as the legitimate rulers of Nepal. British officers were still denied access to the country, but from then until the fall of the Rana regime in 1950, the ruling dynasty facilitated rather than obstructed Gurkha recruitment, even to the extent of stripping the country of able-bodied young men during the Twentieth Century's two World Wars in return for a hefty subsidy and a guarantee of 'independence'.

Recruitment Today: the Best of the Best

Up until 1914, the British recruited about 1,500 men a year in order to keep the Gurkha battalions up to strength. Generally, men from the same jaat were assigned to the same units and, in many instances, several generations of one family served in the same regiment. Over the years, Magars, Gurungs and Rais have provided the most Gurkha recruits, but the Limbu, Chhetri, Tamang, Sunwar, Thakuri and other jaats have also provided many fine soldiers.

The modern Brigade of Gurkhas enlists 230 recruits every year. For these 230 places there are between 17,000 and 20,000 applicants. Would-be recruits are put through a set of rigorous and punishing mental and physical tests, including the infamous 'doko' (basket) race in which candidates run across a variety of terrains carrying a load of 35 kilograms of rocks. Present day Gurkha regiments accept Nepali men from all jaats and castes as long as would-be recruits are able to pass the selection procedure.

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