Kukri History – Roots of the Iconic Gurkha Military Knife

Posted in: Knife Blog by Michael on April 17, 2014

History of the Kukri, the traditional knife used in Nepal by  Gurkha soldiers.The Kukri (Khukuri), pronounced koo-ka-ree (with stress on the first syllable), is derived from Sanskrit and means razor. This curved and broad-bladed knife resembling a machete is used primarily in close range hand-to-hand combat. It has been the national weapon of Nepal and a part of the soldier’s uniform since 1837 with the Gurkhas’ struggle for control of the Kathmandu valley.

The Gurkha soldiers of the Nepalese army, well-known for their fierceness and fearlessness in combat, are trained with the Kukri until they are capable of wielding it as if it were an extension of their own arm. A Kukri in the hands of a skilled warrior is a frightening obstacle. One that is nearly impossible to defend against in melee combat. Let’s continue and uncover the mysteries, origins and cultural significance of this magnificent weapon of war.

Origin of the modern Kukri knife

The roots of this weapon might be reliably traced back to the 17th century, when Gurkhas used it for digging holes, cutting vegetables and meat and for other odd jobs. Some historians insist the basic design and shape dates back further as outlined by one temple drawing in India; perhaps up to one thousand years.

Drabya Shah, the king of Gurkhas, in 1627, is known for keeping a Kukri with him. This Kukri knife is also part of the collection of weapons present in Arsenal Museum in Katmandu.

Prithvi Narayan Shah became the king of Gurkhas in 1742. Though his army was small, he took over as the first king of Nepal in 1768. It is believed that the use of Kukri knife was the primary reason behind his victory. From that time on, the Kukri became a popular weapon in Nepalese military.

In the year 1948, Janga Bahadur Rana, supreme commander and prime minister of Nepal, wrote: “The Kukri is the religious as well as national weapon of Gurkhas. It is obligatory for a Gurkha to carry it all the time and keep in under the pillow when sleeping.”

Having its origins in the medieval times, the Kukri is not merely the national weapon of Nepal but is likewise symbolic of the glory of a Gurkha soldier. The British had their first encounter with the Kukri in India in 1814, when they had to face a well documented battle with Gurkhas of the Western Nepal. The Gurkha regiment in India was established after this battle, where Gurkhas were trained in using the Kukri.

Exactly how old is the Kukri design?

While it is not possible to tell the exact origin of the weapon, who created it or when, it is definitely one of the oldest weapons of this world. Here are several facts, which provide good evidence that it is amongst the oldest knife design in the world.

The shape of the blade has probably descended from the classic Greek sword known as a Kopis. This particular design happens to be about 2500 years old. Many historians and knife experts have noted that there are similarities between the forging and construction of the Kurki and old Japanese Samuari swords; Another reason to believe that the Kukri is one of the oldest knife designs.

There are others that believe the Kukri is an advanced version of a type of knife first used by the Mallas who ruled Nepal in the 13th Century. There are many Kukris shown on the walls of the National Museum in Kathmandu that happen to be older than 500 years, including a model that belonged to Drabya Shah.

In addition to that, there are people who suggest that the people of Kiratis were the first to use what could be defined as a Kukri as we know it today. They came to power in the 7th century, before the Lichchhavi age.

Cultural impact of the Kukri in Nepal

No matter what people say about the roots of this weapon, a traditional Kukri is the national knife of Nepal, with its origins in medieval times. It is also a peaceful and all-purpose multi-tool for the people of Nepal, rather than being just an effectively brutal weapon. It is actually a very versatile working tool, making the Kukri and indispensable possession of virtually every household in Nepal, especially of people belonging to the Gurungs, limbu, Rai and Magars ethnic groups of eastern and central Nepal.

Many Kukri knives also feature a notch (Cho) located near the handle at the base of the bade which is symbolic of a cow’s foot which is widely worshiped in Nepal. It also has practical benefits as it prevents blood and other liquids from dripping down the blade and onto the handle, which would compromise the grip. Kukri knives are used in many ceremonies that take place in Nepal, including weddings where the groom typically wears a Kukri on his hip and even rituals which involve animal sacrifices which the Nepalese believe will bring good fortunes in their future.

Despite being an effective war weapon, the Kukri is also a symbol of exquisite Nepalese craftsmanship and culture. It is truly a memento you should consider bringing home should you ever find yourself in Nepal.

A Gurkha soldier is incomplete without a Kukri sheathed to this belt. Together they have earned their fame, which is hard to forget. Kukri knives, the Gurkhas and Nepal will be forever linked in the pages of history.

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