Unsheathing Khukuri: The Antiques and Romantics

Features Issue 91 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media & Saroj Lama

Though there are enough stories that romanticize the association of khukuri with the Gurkhas, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Gurkhas drew the strength to overcome their fear in death like situations and march into the enemy territory from the khukuris.

It is Nepal’s own version of WMD.Well, pretty close. It can do noth- ing against modern day Weapons of Mass Destruction, like atomic bombs, but during the time when wars were fought with cannons and guns, the khukuri definitely shone over other weapons on the battleground. Rival armies surrendered their weapons when faced with the prospects of fighting the dreaded khukuri-wielding Gurkhas. Like any other armies of the world, the Gurkhas also fought with guns from bunkers or by hiding behind a cover. But terror overwhelmed rival forces when the Gurkhas swarmed the war field with khukuris drawn out in the air, aiming for nothing less than their heads.

When his rifle misfires or runs out of bullets, a Gurkha unsheathes his khukuri and makes his final ‘do-or-die’ run on the enemy in a fury to finish the business.This scene created the romance and the legends.

In the hands of Gurkhas, the khukuri works almost like an extension of his arm, turning it into a formidable weapon. In the Gurkha soldiers’ grip, this seemingly small piece of curved steel becomes an incredibly menacing weapon with which he has demonstrated rare feats of bravery while facing enemies on many a battlefields.

The armies under British India, who fought with the original Gurkhas soldiers at Malau, Khalanga and several other places during the early 1800s, were the first to acknowledge the might of the Gurkhali soldiers and their khukuri. From the wars was born the legend and the romance. Though there are enough stories that romanticize the association of khukuri with the Gurkhas, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Gurkhas drew the strength to overcome their fear in death like situations and march into the enemy territory from the khukuris.

Documented Use of Khukuri in Nepal and outside
Some believe that khukuri has been in use as an agricultural tool right from the time of the early rulers like the Kirats and Lichchavis. The oldest known khukuri in existence, however, now in the National museum in Kathmandu, belonged to Raja Drabya Shah, the King of Gorkha in 1559 AD. (Also on display at the museum is another 18th-century khukuri dating to 1749, which belonged to Kaji Kalu Pandey, another of Nepal’s early military heros. Pandey’s khukuri was much heavier than today’s khukuris.)

In September 1768, the then ruling Malla king of Kathmandu surrendered to Prithvi Narayan Shah, and Shah became the first King of, more or less, unified Nepal. Since much of the warfare within Nepal during those times was fought with hand held weapons, Prithvi Narayan’s Gorkhali troops carrying khukuris easily overpowered the rival armies who fought with long spears, two-edged long swords, wrist-guard short swords and daggers. Because of its efficiency in hand-to-hand warfare, the khukuri quickly became the preferred and fabled weapon of Nepal.

It was with the Gorkha king and his soldiers that the tradition of wearing the khukuri into battle began, and with it the reputation of the Gorkha’s as tough fighting troops. It is reasonable to suppose that this was the beginning of the universal custom of Nepalese troops carrying the khukuri, a custom that spread in time to Gurkhas serving in the British and Indian Armies. It was also carried by many other hill units, including the Assam Rifle Regiments, Burma Military Police and the Garhwal and Kumaon Regiments. In the Burma campaign of World War II, those British troops who did not carry a machete carried a khukuri. It was also carried by the Gurkha contingent of the Singapore Police Force.

It is difficult to narrow down on the origin of khukuri. Amongst the various versions is an unswerving association with the classic Greek sword or knife known as ‘kopis’ that is about 2500 years old. Alexander the Great fought the Indians in the Punjab (then northern India) at the battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC using the kopis. Kopis first came about around 500BC and was made of iron. The Indians probably took the design from the kopis that many of the Macedonian/Greek cavalry and Hoplites used in that period. A third century sculpture, of which only a much later Greek copy exists, shows what is probably a Scythian prisoner of war laying down his arms. The shape and style of the knife strikingly resembles the khukuri. It is assumed that the design was  later copied  by local  blacksmiths and perhaps further improvised or changed to better suit their need and demand.

The Gurkha Museum in Winchester, UK, describes the action of the ‘kukri’ thus: “A notch in the blade close to the handle serves the purpose of preventing blood from reaching the handle and is also symbolic of the Hindu Trinity of Brahmah, Vishnu and Shiva. Two small knives are fitted at the top of the scabbard, one blunt (chakmak) and the other sharp (karda). The correct use of the former is for starting a fire with a flint stone and as a sharpening stone, and the latter is a skinning or general purpose knife… The wrist action with which the kukri is wielded makes it extremely effective in the hands of one accustomed to using it… there is also a sacrificial kukri with longer blade and handle suitable for gripping with two hands… little used except for sacrificing animals at festival time. The popular myth that blood must be shed every time a kukri is drawn from its scabbard is untrue and probably stems from the fact that if drawn in anger, then it was unlikely to be replaced without being used! Similar stories of the kukri being used as a throwing knife can be disbelieved.”

The Anatomy of Khukuri
In Nepal khukuris are still made in traditional way, but their manufacture is more organized nowadays as people who used to make them individually at home in villages now work for companies engaged in large scale manufacturing and selling. The khukuri commonly has metal fixtures and decorative brass and wooden fixtures on the handle.

Saroj Lama of Khukuri House – a Kathmandu store that sells these knives – says it can take hours to find the right metal for making the khukuri blades. He sources it out from the scrap dealers from Jadi Buti, near the airport along the road to Bhaktapur. The spring (suspension) steel from old heavy vehicles are used for making the blades. “They must be selected carefully as even a small wound or hairline cracks on the steel due to the wear and tear of long use might pose a problem while forging the blade under intense heat and pressure,” he points out.

The hilt of a khukuri is made either from local walnut wood (satisaal in Nepali) or buffalo horn or simal (silk cotton tree) wood. Though the hilt made of satisaal wood is most prized for the texture and burnish it produces while finishing, its use has been highly restricted due to ban on cutting satisaal imposed by the government. The hilt made of simal wood, on the other hand, is very strong, but it does not produce the shine and texture of the satisaal wood. The most popular alternative, therefore, is the solid top portion of a buffalo horn. Some khukuris also display very fancy hilts made from brass, aluminum and even ivory or rhino horn.

The notch in the blade near the hilt is a design unique to the khukuris. Although it is said that the notch keeps the excessive blood from spilling, and is used by deft fighters to buckle an enemy blade, it is essentially a Hindu religious symbol or aum, that is associated with Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. This is why the soldiers or even common men draw it to their forehead as a mark of respect and as a way of seeking blessing before using the khukuri. There is a strong analogy with the hand-guard of the crusader sword, which protects the sword-hand, but also represents the Christian cross and was commonly used as the guarantee of an oath with such words as “by these hilts”.

The khukuri is carried in a scabbard called a dap in Nepali. Traditionally, a dap is made by covering two pieces of wooden frames with buffalo hide. The wooden frames are covered simply by sewing hides of domesticated animals and fastened by decorative metal fixtures. Very old scabbards had tiny pockets for the small karda and chakmak ‘knives’, and an extra leather pouch (khalti) for carrying small survival tools like tweezers, pen knives, nail clippers or scissors. The chakmak is a blunt knife used for sharpening the khukuri blade and striking sparks from flint, whereas the karda works as a small utility knife.

The decorative scabbards are inlaid with brass, colored glass, turquoise or lapis lazuli, and even the ivory. Khukuri intended for display purpose are given extra time and effort to design the scabbards using horn, wood and other expensive decorative materials and crafting beautiful designs and carvings with traditional or religious symbols. The scabbards for these very superior khukuris feature gold and silver mountings.

Scabbards in the early days did not have a belt frog (loop), so people used untreated raw leather hide for carrying the khukuri. They were stuck in the owner’s sash or patuka. The frogs were introduced by the British Gurkhas to carry the khukuri from a waist belt and, later, steel and brass fixtures were used for better appearance and to protect the naked tip of the scabbard.

Shapes and sizes of khukuris from ancient to modern times have varied intensely depending on how, where, or who made them. The districts of Pyuthan in west Nepal, and Bhojpur in the east, are famous as the pioneers of khukuri manufacturing. The bhojpure khukuris are usually very heavy as they have a thick spine. The thickness decreases significantly towards the edge and the sharpness coupled with weight along the chopping area make bhojpure khukuri highly effective. Likewise sirupate, the most famous khukuri in Nepal, is very slim and thin and is considered to have originated from Dharan. Khukuris from Salyan District are long and slender with a deeper belly. Dhankuta, a village in the east, is popular for simple, army type blades and well decorated, ornate scabbards.

It impossible to characterize khukuris manufactured in Nepal, as there are no standards set to distinguish one from the other. Only the standard army issue are made of the same dimension and measurement in order to bring uniformity and tidiness to the unit.

Some of the famous knives of the world such as the bowie knife, the stiletto, the scimitar, the Roman sword, the machete and on the like, have all (at one time or another) played great historical roles as formidable weapons with which men have demonstrated raw power and courage in battle. The khukuri, however, outdoes them all!

The successful war campaigns and swift victory of the Gurkha brigades must be credited to some extent to this unusual, but practical weapon. The great romance and the extraordinary accounts of bravery that this knife evokes are legendary and historic, but one must not forget that the khukuri is also a work tool. At home in the hills, for example, and on active service, khukuris are also used for wood cutting, hunting and skinning, opening tins, clearing undergrowth and in other day to day activities. It is an indispensable working tool in almost every household, especially in those belonging to the Gurung, Magar, Rai, Limbu and Tamang ethnic groups of the Nepal hills.

In 1948, the then Prime Minister Padma Shamser Jang Bahadur Rana, wrote: “The Khukuri (Kukri) is national as well as religious weapon of the Gurkhas. It is incumbent on a Gurkha to carry it while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring.”

Much of the text is adapted from www.thekhukurihouseonline.com. That website records extensive research done by Mr Saroj Lama, the owner of the Khukuri House Handicraft Industry of Nepal.