The Name: ‘Gurkha’

As the above video clip from the Gurkha Museum's 'Land of the Brave' DVD suggests, it is said that Gurkhas take their name from the Himalayan principality of Gorkha (Nepali: गोर्खा ) in west-central Nepal. It was from Gorkha that the original ‘Gorkhali’ army set out in the 18th Century, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Together they conquered all their neighbouring hill states, including the Malla kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, and in doing so created a 'Gorkha Raj' ('Gurkha Empire') much larger than modern-day Nepal. It was this same Gorkhali army that fought against the British in the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16, which in turn lead to the British recruiting Gurkhas into the British Army.

A devotee watches the sun set from the Temple of Goddess Gorakh Kali

A devotee watches the sun set from the Temple of Goddess Gorakh-Kali next to the 'durbar' (fortress) at Gorkha, West Nepal
Photograph: ©Sam Kang Li

However some historical accounts suggest that the name 'Gorkha' dates back much further, to 8th Century India, when the legendary mystic and 'warrior-saint' Guru Gorakhnath, gave his disciple Bappa Rawal, an Indian Rajput ruler, the title 'Gorkha' (derived from the Prakrit phrase 'go rakkha' meaning 'protector of cows' - cows being sacred animals to all Hindus).

So what links Bappa Rawal, an Indian king, to the Gorkhali warriors of Nepal? The answer is convoluted and perhaps surprising: in the 11th and 12th Centuries the Rajputs were besieged by invaders from the east and some of Bappa Rawal's descendants migrated east to the relative peace of the Himalayan foothills. It was there that they founded a new kingdom, which they named after the title that their patron saint had given them: Gorkha. In its capital they built a 'durbar', a hill-top fortess-palace, and a temple to the goddess Gorakh Kali, in which it is said they placed a sacred statue of Guru Gorakhnath, viewable only by their kings - members of the now abolished Shah dynasty. Kali is the goddess of death and destruction whose name is invoked in the Gurkha battlecry 'Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali!' ('Victory to Mahakali, the Gurkhas are here!') from which this site take takes its name.

So, the name 'Gurkha' is the Anglicised version of 'Gorkha' (pronounced Gorr-kha), a word that the British have struggled to pronounce since the time of the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16. The spelling of 'Gurkha' has changed many times over the past 200 hundred years - variations include: Ghurka, Goorkha, Goorkah and many others. The Gurkhas of the Indian Army have retained the more faithful spelling of 'Gorkha', which is also how British Gurkhas still refer to themselves in Nepali.

कांथर हुनु भन्दा मर्नु राम्रो - Kaathar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro.
Better to die than to be a coward.

The Gurkha motto

Who are the Gurkhas?

Soldiers from Gurkha Company (Mandalay), in the annual Freedom Parade of Brecon, Wales 2008

Soldiers from Gurkha Company (Mandalay), in the annual Freedom Parade in Brecon, Wales (2008)
Photo: Believe Collective

The Gurkhas are legendary soldiers with a reputation for loyalty and bravery that has been confirmed many times, as the 13 Victoria Crosses and countless other awards for valour that they have earned - and continue to earn in modern conflicts - prove beyond doubt. 

In the strictest sense, British Gurkhas are Nepali (Nepalese) citizens who have enlisted the British Army and undergone the necessary army training to become fully qualified soldiers. This is of course a military definition and does not reflect the reality of the much broader Gorkhali community - men, women, children and grandchildren who are not serving soldiers but who are indisputably Gurkhas by birth.

Historically there have been particular 'jaats' (tribes) who have made up the majority of men in the British Gurkhas. Although there is still a strong tradition of men from Gurkha families enlisting in the British Army, in today's Brigade of Gurkhas any young Nepali man who is able to pass the punishing tests and rigorous recruitment requirements is eligible to become a Gurkha.

Every Gurkha - like all Nepalis - belongs to a jaat (tribe) usually indicated by his or her surname, such as the Gurung, Limbu and Rai jaats. The people of some jaats prefer to use their clan name (or ‘thar’) as their surname. For example: Thapa, Pun and Ale are all clans of the Magar jaat. Our Gorkhali Mountain People page and upcoming Homeland section look at the many different jaats that have traditionally formed the core of the British Gurkhas, such as the Magars and Gurungs from the Himalayan foothills of west Nepal and the Limbus and Rais from the east.

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The Future

Gurkha students doing 'namaste' the traditional Nepali greeting, Brecon High School, Wales 2008

Gurkha students doing 'namaste' the traditional Nepali greeting, Brecon High School, Wales 2008
©Brecon High School (background image: Annapurna sunrise © Biplove Bhattachan)

An Enduring Legacy

In the early 21st Century, the Brigade of Gurkhas' future looks assured: the Royal Gurkha Rifles continue to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Back in Nepal the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) appears to have climbed down from its commitment to ban the recruitment of Nepali citizens into the British army, at least for now. Having won the right for all ex-Gurkhas to settle in the UK in 2009, Gurkha veterans who retired before 1997 continue to fight for their right to fairer pensions.

Today, communities of Gurkhas, Gurkha veterans (from both the British and Indian armies), their children and grandchildren can be found in Nepal, India, Brunei, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, France, the United States, across the United Kingdom and in almost every country in between. By virtue of their self-reliance, discipline and courage, this diverse group of men and women have progressed from living as subsistence farmers in the Himalayan foothills to working in every possible trade and profession in every corner of the world.

Whatever the future holds, the legacy of these men and women who have travelled so far, achieved so much and asked for so little, will continue to inspire those who learn about them and to live on through their descendants and in the hearts of those who have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing and serving with them. We salute you.

Ayo Gorkhali!

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Comments (11)
  • joan kelly  |  'Wonderful Website'
    I've had the honor of working with some retired Gurkhas in Angola & Uganda in the Security Industry. Your website is very wonderful and informative. I am glad that Joanna Lumley is supporting your organisation - It takes a women to care :). Wishing you all a healthy and safe life
  • manish bohra  |  'jai bharat jai gorkhali'
    i m much impress with the story written about our gorkhas who are brave and i m proud to be gurkhas. in india there are more than i crore gurkhas. gurkhas are still fond of joining army. my father, grand grand father even grand grand grand father and my many fatarner uncle and brother served in army and still serving in army. right now gurkhas are struglling for their indedtityfication in india. we have no representative in indias parliament though we sacrifice lot for our country.i want to unite our gurkhas brother so that we rise in our life. i hope our future will bright. thanks jai bharat jai gurkhas
  • Narayan
    I would like to bring some genuine problem being faced by the Nepal domiciled retired Gorkha soldier of the Indian Army. Untile the Gorkha soldier are in service, they provide unflinching, unquestional, sincere,honest and dedicate service in each part/frontier of the country ubder any condition/situation during peace/war anti terrorist operation/natural calamities without turning back and ready to sacrifice smilingly for the cause of nation. But, when he retires after providing such selfless service without a single question, there is descrimination between Indian and Nepal Domiciled ex service men for getting job in Centre/State Govt or simi Govt jobs tenable by the ex servicemen like in District Soldier Board, ECHS and other places. Because, there is a discriminatory major condition for employment that the ex service man should be the citizen of India. While he was in the service, there were no question for his citizenship. After sacrificing own entire youth life for the cause of nation, why such conditions are demanded from the same person till the time he was loyal, sincere and faithful to the nation when he retires from the army service and wanted the job for resettlement to lookafter himself and his families ? Does he lost his all credibility, sincerity and loyalty towards the nation once he retire from the army. I would like to request to the appropriate authority to review such discrimination between Indian and Nepalomicile ex servicemenn for equal opportunity for resettlement job in Govt/Centre Govt/Semi Govt organisation. Because, there are no much job opportunities for Nepal domiciled Indian army exservice in Nepal once he retires from the army. In such conditoins, where does he go in search of job to look after his family if he will not come back to India where he contributed his selfless and faithfull youth unflinchingly. At the present situation, his meager income from pension is not suffient to bear the expenditure of his still school going children and family members neither he gets other help from Centre/State Govt.
  • ddsgdsgsdg  |  'bappa rawal fake'
    haha,,guru gorakhnath ko kahani chai fake nai ho...
  • erin  |  'grandfather served with the british gurkha army'
    i am trying to insure the knowledge of my families colourful history doesn't die with my mother and am looking for any information and pictures to document their time in Nairobi and Uganda around 1957. Your website has filled in another piece in my ever expanding album, Thank-you.
  • Anonymous  |  'How come??'
    How come the younhsters seen in above photo called gurkhas?? they aint any armed force or so on.They are nepalese or foreigeners of nepalese origin.Dont create an identificationscrisis bro. Only those who have sworn their allegience with indian or british crown as mercenary forces are called gorkhas/gurkhas.Get ur facts correct bro,little knoweledge is dangerous.
  • Yogendrasaud  |  'Gorkhali army job paunuchahun6u'
    Malai sanei Dekhi gr ko dherai chahana thiyo ma ahile physical gardai chu ab aune sal ma bharti hunchu ok jai gorkhali jai desh,bidesh
  • suraj thapa  |  'Jai gorkhali'
    malai nepali hunu ma garva lagcha,ajha gorkhali bhannu ma.nepali jaslai bahadur ko naam le sambodhan garincha.pura bishwa ma nepali armyko aalag pahechan cha. JAI NEPAL JAI GORKHALI,JAI GORKHALI
  • Gorkhali's are Not from India.  |  'Hey'
    whatever I read all comments about gorkhali, but my concern is on that comment of Manish Bohara, he says that jay bharat jay gorkha, first I wanna say that, wherever you go manish, if world hears the name gorkha than the world directly say from Nepal, and another thing you said that gorkha is searching identity, there is not meaning of searching Identity because Gorkha belongs to Nepal and originally from Gorkha nepal, you made your self paradox. if you don't know the identity than ask the world they will say Gorkha means Nepali, In todays world "Gorkha and NEpal and Gorkhali and Nepali" are synonyms so stop searching Identity. Jay Nepal, Jay Gorkha Jay Nepali " The bravest of the brave" Proud to be Nepali
  • Anonymous
    What a ridiculous comments ? We are talking about Gorkh and Gorkhali. The comment is about the bussiness. Yes, certainly, money is necessary. But, where does come this bussiness here and is it suitable to discuss with the subject which is entirely related to "bravest of the brave" "Gorkhali" of the world. May I request to all members to bring out some motivating subjects to inspire and kindle the light in the heart of our new generations about the past glowries of our brave ancestors.
  • Sarjone Sapkota  |  'Finding meaning of being a Gorkha'
    Hi bro.I'm from Myanmar and I wanna understand our history and wanna make good relationship between our race.In Myanmar our race need to be more friendship.I wanna open the eyes of the villagers as much as I can.Now I'm studying and I'll promise after that I'll serve for Gorkha.So if u can send message to me how can I know our origin and religion.I don't understand we r part of Indian or not.Tibet r Gorkha or not.
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