For some, Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha, the light of Asia; for some Nepal is the land of the mighty Himalayas, the land of Everest. Nepal is also known as the land of the mighty Gurkha soldiers, and as the land of the khukuri. The Gurkhas are small of stature, but with their famous courage and the deadly, razor sharp blades of the khukuri, they have carved the Gurkha name into the book of the most respected soldiers of the world.
The khukuri is a medium-length, semi-curved metal knife that is regarded as the symbol of the Hindu Goddess Durga or the God Bhairab (both related to strength and warfare). It was said that once a khukuri was drawn out of its sheath, it had to 'taste blood'- if not the blood of an enemy, its owner had to cut himself before returning into its sheath. The national weapon of Nepal is considered an icon of bravery and is listed among the most famous knives of the world - along with the bowie knife, samurai sword, Roman sword, kripan, and others. The khukuri is not only still held in high regard as a weapon, but also still used as an all-purpose knife in Nepal: for cutting through brush in the jungle, cutting grass, chopping wood, peeling vegetables, slaughtering animals and skinning meat, not to mention warding off dangerous animals and the occasional human invader. The khukuri is also used in sacrificial ceremonies, including during Dashain (the biggest festival of Nepal, concluding this month).
There is no written documentation that proves the origins of the khukuri. One possibility is that the blade shape of the khukuri was influenced by the classic Greek sword kopis, which is about 2500 years old. It is believed that the shape was copied by the Kamis (the metalsmith caste of Nepal) from the cavalry swords carried by ancient Macedonians in the troops of Alexander the Great when they invaded northwest India in the 4th century B.C. Some knife experts have found similarities between the construction of the khukuri and some ancient Japanese swords. Others say the khukhuri originated from a form of knife first used by the Mallas who came to power in Nepal in the 13th century A.D. Some suggest that the khukuri was first used even earlier, by Kiratis who ruled in Nepal before the Lichhavi age, in about the 7th century. According to retired Brigadier General Kedar Bahadur Singh, the birthplace of the khukuri is western Nepal (around Rolpa, Bhojan) where it was the native weapon of the Bhojange Thakuris.
The National Museum at Chhauni in Kathmandu has a display of khukhuris dated 500 years old or more. Among them, one belonged to Drabya Shah, who established the kingdom of Gorkha in 1627 A.D. Though there are now more than 60 different types of khukuris, the earliest types are bhojali (western Nepal), aathrai (eastern Nepal), kirtipure (developed by the Newars of Kirtipur), and the most important rajabara khukuri, carried only by the Royal family and high ranking officers of the Royal Palace. General Singh also reports that in ancient Nepal, the length of the handle of each khukuri informed about the caste and the social status of the person carrying it. The king's Khukuri had the longest handle or bid. Every Nepali had to carry a khukuri except for the lowest (untouchable) caste and the bahuns or the brahmins (the priests' caste). Every community had their own unique modification of the khukuri. The khukuri of Bir Bal Bhadra Kunwar (a famous Nepali warrior) is considered the most unique one. This khukuri has a unique bend and a long handle, which has a specially carved hole, believed to be the place where he tied a string used to swing his fatal weapon to slash his enemies.
The khukuri's peculiar shape is specially designed and hand crafted. It can take four men fully occupied for an entire day or more to finish one khukuri. Khukuri making is one of the oldest skills of the Kamis. The craftsmen carefully select the raw materials, including steel, brass, rosewood, buffalo horns and hides. The steel used these days is taken from car, bus or truck springs and railway tracks because these are considered the toughest and purest forms of steel. In ancient days three kilograms of iron would be heated to the point that only the pure iron is left (half of the original quantity). This pure iron would be repeatedly heated and hammered on the anvil. After this long, traditional method the piece of metal is transformed into the legendary khukuri. It is claimed that a khukuri made in the traditional manner has never broken in combat. Khukuris were originally made in the homes of Kamis but now there is a factory and khukhuri making is no longer designated by caste, but has become an art practiced by people from many backgrounds. The cities of Dharan and Dhankuta are especially famous for khukuri production.
Some of the most famous khukuris sold today are Service No. 1 (used by the British Gurkha soldiers in World War I). The blade is 10 inches long and the knife measures 15 inches with the handle and weighs 700 grams. The handle is made of buffalo horn and the sheath of buffalo leather. The World War II or Dheradune khukuri is another famous khukuri. Yet another is the Chainpure, which has a closed (circular) notch. The Dhankute wooden khukhuri is 14 inches long and weighs 600 grams; the cover is made of Indian rosewood. The Bhojpure Dragon is the stylish, heavier and bigger khukuri made by the renowned khukuri makers of Bhojpur (a city in the eastern part of Nepal). The Kothimora is the knife specially made for the retiring British or Gurkha army officer as a memento from his regiment. This is usually an expensive piece of art because it has an exclusive design and a pure silver filigree with velvet background (matching the color of the regiment) is used. Some of the other khukuris are Bhojpure (from Bhojpur and widely used in homes), Chitlange (from Chitlang), Sirupate (relatively thin and long), and Panjawal (the handle has grips for fingers).
The basic khukuri has the standard blade, which is very thick at the base - measuring a little more than a quarter of an inch thick. The blade gradually thins from the back to the edge, and tapers at one end towards the hilt and at the other end towards the point, so the blade is widest as well as thickest in the middle. The point of the Khukuri is as sharp as a needle, so that the weapon answers equally for cutting and stabbing. At the end of the blade, there is a crescent moon-shaped notch. There are different interesting stories of the reason for its existence. When looked at, the obvious use is as a lock for securing the khukuri in its sheath. It is also a defensive feature to lock the blade of the opponent's knife that might otherwise slip down the blade of the khukuri to its user's hand. Some say it is a fertility symbol or it is to interrupt the flow of blood down onto the handle, which would make it wet or slippery. It is also said that the notch of the khukuri near the hilt represents the trident of the Hindu God Shiva, the god of destruction. It has various other interpretations, including that it is the shape of the hoofprint of a cow, used to remind people that a khukuri can cut anything except a cow, because it is the national animal of Nepal and considered holy. The crescent moon shaped notch also represents the sun and moon, the symbols of Nepal. Khukuri handles are usually made from rosewood, buffalo horns, or metals such as aluminum or brass; in some cases ivory and antler are also utilized. The common scabbard is made from leather or wood and is often decorated with carvings.
Most khukuris come with two little knives: karda (sharp) and chakmak (relatively blunt), attached at the back of the sheath, held either in a built-in pocket or a leather purse. The karda is used to hone the master blade, and it serves for small cutting jobs. The chakmak is used to rub against a stone to produce enough sparks to start a fire. The combination of the three makes a Khukuri a complete survival knife.
Even if a Gurkha soldier is equipped with modern guns, he still carries a khukuri into a battle, because it is not just a knife. The khukuri for a Gurkhali and a Nepali is a blessing: a source of power and courage and pride.
Khukhuris can be purchased at:
The Khukuri House, Thamel and Ekanta Kuna, Jawlakhel.
Phone: 5554235 (Ekanta Kuna)
and 4412314 (Thamel).
The Gurkha Knives Center, Thamel. Phone no. 4246627
Photo: Pramod Neupane-WWF Nepal From red pandas swaying on branches in the eastern Himalayas...