When General Gillespie’s men finally broke into the fort at Nalapani in western Nepal, his army was less by seven hundred and fifty men. Moreover, thirty-one of the officers had either been killed or wounded. It was a heavy price to pay for the defeat of a small force of only six hundred Gurkhas.

The battle of Nalapani in 1814 was one of the most important milestones in the history of warfare. It was the battle that opened the eyes of the world to the fact that a small kingdom called Nepal possibly had the bravest people in the world. The leader of the Gurkhas at Nalapani, Bal Bahadur Thapa, escaped with ninety soldiers and retreated to Jyathak where they were joined by three hundred fresh Gurkhas. Here, they were attacked by a combined force of three detachments of British soldiers, but when the smoke of battle had cleared, the British forces were in disarray, with twelve officers and almost fifteen hundred soldiers dead or wounded.

The numerically superior British soldiers, better armed and better trained, began to dread the Khukuri, the weapon of the Gurkhas. When Ranjit Singh Thapa, along with two hundred Gurkhas, attacked and defeated two thousand soldiers under Lieutenant Young in February 1815, the reputation of the Gurkhas as the finest soldiers in the world was confirmed. The fall of Malaon brought the British campaign of 1814-1815 to an end. But another was fought in 1816 – it was then that General Ochterony’s soldiers saw the heroism of the courageous Gurkhas. After the epic battle of Makwanpur, the war came to an end and the highly impressed British signed the Treaty of Sugauli (on March 4,1816) with the Nepalese government. It was as honourable a treaty as possible under the circumstances.

Thereafter, the British started to recruit Gurkhas into the Indian British Army, and the first of three battalions so raised consisted of Gurkhas from General Amar Singh Thapa’s defeated forces. So impressed were the awed British that they admitted, “…as compared to other orientals, Gurkhas are bold, enduring, faithful, frank, very independent and self reliant men….”. Brian Hodgson, an authoritative figure of the times, records further"…. and they possess preeminently that masculine energy of character and love of enterprise which distinguish so advantageously all the military races of Nepal." At the same time, as befit their traditional thoroughness, the British were slightly confused, at first, as to the identification of the real military races in the mountain kingdom. What they did know was that in Nalapani in 1814, the six hundred Gurkhas under Bal Bahadur Thapa’s command were predominantly Magars. The British knew that the Magars made up the awesome Purana Gurakh Army.

They, however, were also aware that the enchanted valley of Kathmandu was occupied by Newars, and these were the same people history had recorded as having repelled twice the attacks by the Gurkhas under King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Were these also martial races? It was said that they had showed exemplary valor in defending their valley. The British were also aware of the fact that in the eastern parts of Nepal there lived people similar in appearance to the Gurkhas in the western region of the country. Were these soldiers also as worthy as the others? A little bit of investigation brought to light the knowledge that these were the people of Limbuwan and Khumbuwan, Limbus and Rais (or Kirants), respectively. And they were much feared for their ferocity as much as for their hot temper. Definitely, these people were brave warriors.
The British commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel Eden Vannistart in the late 1800s to make a thorough investigation into the different races of Nepal and to come up with concrete recommendations for a policy to follow regarding recruitment into the British Army. It was concluded that the people of Nepal as a whole were a courageous lot, but Khas, Magar, Gurung, Kirant and Limbu men were thought to be the bravest of all soldiers. Yes, some from the Newar community too could possibly be regarded as good soldiers: in fact, Subedar Kishenbir Nagarkoti of the 5th Gurkha Rifles had won the order of Merit three times for gallantry in Kabul and was awarded a clasp the fourth time for conspicuous gallantry in Kabul and in the black mountains in 1888.

Vannistart further reported that the Limbus and Rais, being quite quick tempered, should be kept away from the others, as was being done in Nepal with the Bhairavnath Regiment consisting entirely of Limbus. Till 1887, most of the 6th, 7th and 8th Gurkha Rifles consisted of recruits from areas around the Darjeeling hills. Later on, however, more and more men from western and eastern Nepal began to be recruited into the British Gurkha Army. It has been a long time since the battle at Nalapani, but in the course of history, the valiant Gurkhas have reinforced their reputation as the best warriors in the world time and again in the battles of the First Great War and in the killing grounds of the Second World War, as well as in battles in many places stretching from the jungles of Burma to the mountains of Ladakh, from the valley of the Ganges to the islands of the Pacific. And in recent times, in Afghanistan (Prince Harry is said to have served with a Gurkha battalion for the ten months he was there till recently) and in Iraq.

This proud race of warriors have won a total of thirteen Victoria Crosses (VC’s) between them and more than 6000 other gallantry awards. The Gurkhas today occupy pride of place in the legends of warfare, and it is believed that even a tiger retreats when the battle cry of the Gurkhas, “AYO GORKHALI!” reverberates in the stillness of the humid jungle night.


amar b shrestha

Joined December 2007

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