Despite its status as the cradle of the nation, GORKHA remains strangely untouristed, even though the 24km paved road up from Abu Khaireni makes it a relatively painless half-day’s ride from Pokhara, Kathmandu or Chitwan. Conscious of its tourist potential, the government has spruced up Gorkha’s main monuments, but the lower town remains a fairly ordinary roadhead bazaar.
As the ancestral home of the Nepali royal family, Gorkha occupies a central place in Nepali history. Hunched on the hilltop above the bazaar is its link with that splendid past, the Gorkha Durbar, an architectural tour de force worthy of the flamboyant Gorkha kings and the dynasty they founded. Unless you’re setting straight off on a trek or just finishing one, you’ll have to spend the night here. The Durbar and its agreeable surroundings can easily soak up a day, and hikes around the area could keep you busy for another couple.
In a sense, Gorkha’s history is not its own. A petty hill state in medieval times, it was occupied and transformed into a Himalayan Sparta by outsiders who used it as a base for a dogged campaign against Kathmandu and then, having won their prize, restored Gorkha to obscurity. Yet during those two centuries of occupation, it raised the nation’s most famous son, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and somehow bred in him the audacity to conquer all of Nepal.
Prithvi Narayan’s ancestors came to Gorkha in the mid-sixteenth century, having been driven into the hills from their native Rajasthan by Muslim invaders, and soon gained a reputation as a single-mindedly martial lot. His father launched the first unsuccessful raid on the Kathmandu Valley in the early eighteenth century, and when Prithvi Narayan himself ascended to the throne in 1743, at the age of twenty, he already had his father’s obsession fixed in his mind. Within a year, he was leading Gorkha in a war of expansion that was eventually to unify all of present-day Nepal, plus parts of India and Tibet. Looking at the meagre terraces of Gorkha today, you can imagine what a drain it must have been to keep a standing army fed and supplied for 27 years of continuous campaigning. The hardy peasants of Gorkha got little more than a handshake for their efforts. After conquering the valley in 1769, Prithvi Narayan moved his capital to the bright lights of Kathmandu, relegating Gorkha to a mere garrison from which the later western campaign was directed. By the early nineteenth century, Gorkha had been all but forgotten, even as an alternative spelling of the name – Gurkha – was becoming a household name around the world.