Review of The Khukri Braves: Personifying bravery in battles

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 08, 2016 18:49 IST
Gorkha soldiers at a Khukri inspection (Photo: Jyoti Thapa Mani)

"If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gorkha," said Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and indeed, the bravery of the Gorkhas is legendary. Few know that TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, who played a major role for the allies along the Eastern Front during World War 1, was backed by a detachment of 30 Gurkhas (this pre-Indian independence spelling is now only used to refer to those serving in the British army) because he didn't want "ordinary men". Fewer still know that hundreds of Gorkhas died fighting for India's freedom under the INA at Port Blair and on the battlefields of the northeast.

Now, in the second centenary year of the 1st Gorkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment), The Khukri Braves by Jyoti Thapa Mani salutes a community that, through the change of empires, the consequent shifting of boundaries, and the emergence of the multi-ethnic Indian nation, continues to personify bravery in battle.

Jyoti Thapa Mani (HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

A Gorkhali herself, Thapa Mani, who has been the design head of many leading Indian publications, has written and designed the book. She has also clicked all the contemporary photographs in it and created the stained glass portrait of 9th century Shaivite saint Baba Gorakhnath (from whom the Gorkhas derive their name) featured in the first chapter.

"I was very involved with my design profession but, inspired by my father and a few others I met, I became interested in knowing more about the Gorkhas," says Thapa Mani, whose forefathers served with distinction in the 18th century Gorkha Army of Nepal, the 19th century Indian British Army, and in 20th century Indian Gorkha Rifles. The stories she heard about their battle exploits led to an interest in the history of the Gorkhas, their origins and their belief systems.

Along the way, she put together The Illustrated History of the 1st Gorkha Rifles for one of the Indian army's most famous regiments. While the earlier book was intended for the army, the current one, aimed at the general reader, will especially fascinate history buffs and those with an anthropological interest in the communities of the Indian subcontinent. Richer for not being the dry work of an academic historian, The Khukri Braves puts down the facts, the dates and numbers but also includes details about the many Gorkha forts and battlegrounds in Himachal Pradesh. "I was drawn to the idea of visiting the sites where all the historical events and battles took place," says Thapa Mani whose family has been living in Dharamshala ever since an ancestor came to the Kangra valley as part of the western campaigns of the Gorkha Sena 200 years ago.

The Jana Gana Mana Man

Subhash Chandra Bose entrusted Ram Singh Thakuri with setting Rabindranath Tagore’s hymn to a martial tune. It became the Indian National Army’s kaumi tarana. When India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru chose the INA anthem to be the national anthem. The letter (left) from Captain Lakshmi Sahgal (right) of the INA confirms Ram Singh’s contribution. He also set the music for Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja, the Indian Army’s song.

The terrain of her home state might have been familiar but identifying the exact location of forgotten battlegrounds was a challenge. "These places are very remote. Nobody goes there so there are no roads. History books referred to a lot of places by their old names. Because we keep on changing names of cities and towns, often the older name of a place would no longer exist," says Thapa Mani, who likens her battlefield quest to a treasure hunt. In truth, it seems more like intensive detective work. Identifying, for instance, the location of Ganesh Ghati where the Kangra fort battle was fought involved much deduction, knowledge of century-old natural calamities and eventually, trekking down forlorn paths frequented only by shepherds with their flocks of goats.

"A lot of the stories had already been recorded. I made my book different by going to the sites and not depending on bibliographies. I visited battlegrounds during the months when particular battles took place so as to capture the weather, the trees, the flowers. All my battle stories describe the environment. Nature doesn't change in 200 years," she says adding that history enthusiasts "are very kicked" that she has photographed these places. "Nobody has visited them for centuries because they can't even find them," says Thapa Mani, who has also included pictures of artefacts from her family archives like the sheet rolls of her great great grandfather Subedar Major Matbar Singh Thapa, who joined the "Goorkha" Regiment in 1857.

"The history of the Gorkhas is actually like my family history. The Gorkha today is a trans-national identity cutting across India and Nepal, and abroad," she says revealing that the community is largest in India. "While in Nepal, they are all Nepalese, only the ones who serve in Britain's Gurkha Rifles or in India's Gorkha brigade are known as Gorkhas," she says.

Conversation with Thapa Mani tends to be intense, stuffed with information about everything from the political history of the Punjab-Doab region to the dynamism of warrior kings like Ranjit Singh, Shivaji and Prithvi Narayan Shah, who emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how cannons were shot in 1814. All of this is further enlivened by cross references. You learn that the Gurkha Rifles, originally called the Nasiri (from the Arabic Nasr for 'help') Battalion were so named after David Ochterlony, the British Resident of Delhi in the early 19th century, who formed the regiment after negotiating the friendly treaties that followed the Anglo-Gorkha wars of 1814-16. Ochterlony - now remembered more for his daily parade around Red Fort with his 13 Indian wives, each seated on her own elephant - was conferred the title Nasir-ud-Daula in 1804 by the grateful Mughal emperor Shah Alam for defending Delhi against the Marathas. And so, Jyoti explains, the new Gorkha battalion formed by Ochterlony came to be known as the Nasiri (Nusseeree Pulteen). You learn too that it was Thapa Mani who had identified Ochterlony's grave at St John's Church in Meerut to Robert the caretaker of the place. He, in turn, led this writer to it on a visit there earlier this year.

The Khukri Braves is rich in the sort of details that delight Trivial Pursuit aficionados. Take the chapter on faith and tradition that talks of a number of festivals including the Kukur Teohar, or the Dog Festival when dogs are "garlanded with marigold flowers, tika is applied... and treats are fed". It's a celebration the rest of the country should definitely adopt.

Engaging and accessible, The Khukri Braves leads you to a deeper understanding of the culture of the Gorkhas and a greater appreciation of their immense contribution to the nation.

The Khukri Braves: The Illustrated History of the Gorkhas; Jyoti Thapa Mani

Rs 2795; PP407

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