An elite Nepali corps within the British and Indian armies for almost two centuries, the Gurkha regiments have long been rated among the finest fighting units in the world. Ironically, the regiments were born out of the 1814–16 war between Nepal and Britain’s East India Company: so impressed were the British by the men of “Goorkha” (Gorkha, the ancestral home of Nepal’s rulers) that they began recruiting Nepalis into the Indian Army before the peace was even signed.
In the century that followed, Gurkhas fought in every major British military operation, including the 1857 Indian Mutiny. More than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the two world wars, (often earmarked for “high-wastage” roles – sixteen thousand have died in British service) earning respect for their bravery: ten of the one hundred Victoria Crosses awarded in World War II went to Gurkhas. Following India’s independence, Britain kept four of the ten regiments and India retained the rest. More recently, Gurkhas have distinguished themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan and as UN peacekeepers. In 2011 Sergeant Dipprasad Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for single-handedly fighting off two dozen Taliban fighters.
Recruits hail mainly from the Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu ethnic groups, from Nepal’s middle hills. Most boys from these groups have traditionally dreamt of making it into the Gurkhas, not only for the money, but also for a rare chance to see the world and return with prestige and a comfortable pension. Those who fail can always try in the lower-paid Indian regiments; the Nepali army is considered the last resort.
Gurkhas used to be Nepal’s major source of foreign remittances, sending home $40 million annually, but the achievement of pension equality and, in 2009, the final acceptance of the right to reside in the UK, have changed the long-standing and culturally influential lifestyle pattern. Many Gurkha families have now moved to the UK, and in addition, the Gurkhas’ long and faithful service to Britain is winding down. The only remaining training centre is in Pokhara, where thousands of would-be recruits still try out for places. It remains to be seen how the removal of the Gurkhas’ cash injection will affect the economy of cities like Pokhara and Dharan, though the increase in other work migration (mostly to the Middle East) has made up for the remittance shortfall at a national level, at least.