Gurkha soldiers are some of the bravest, toughest, and fiercest in the world. For over 200 years, they have taken the battlefield. They have served in both World Wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and The Falklands, just to name a few. Gurkhas, sometimes referred to as Gorkhali, been the source of breathtaking acts of heroism and an almost mythical ability to survive on the battlefield.
That tenacity may be due to their origins. The name "Gurkha" comes from the hill town of Gorkha, from which Nepal and its many tribes spread. Men from the Gorkhali Kingdom were collectively known as Gurkhas, and they seemed born to endure harsh climates, tough terrain, and just about anything thrown at them.
The stories of the prowess of Gurkha fighters are filled with details that are nearly unbelievable had they not been witnessed by survivors. These acts of bravery committed by the fearless and amazing Gurkhas truly live up to their motto: "Better to die than be a coward."
Every year, thousands of youths compete to join the ranks of the Gurkhas. The process is grueling, and typically only 126 people are selected as new members each round. Applicants must be young men between 17 and 21, and are tested on their strength, endurance, stamina, determination, speed, and mental acuity.
Prospects are put through a series of grueling exercises. They must do 12 rapid pull-ups. They must do 70 rapid sit ups. There’s rope climbing, swimming, constant running, camp set-up, and many other tasks and challenges. And then there's the infamous doko race, in which aspiring soldiers run uphill with a wicker basket (doko) filled with 25 kg (about 55 pounds) of sand on their backs.
Why would anyone willingly go through this? For one, becoming a Gurkha is a point of immense pride. But a place among the elite group's ranks also means a Western salary, a pension, and the right to settle in Britain.
It's tough, but the selection process is designed to be as fair as possible. Lt. Col. Elton Davis, deputy commander of the British Gurkhas in Nepal, explains, "Our ethos is to be free, fair and transparent. Here, nobody really expects people to be free, fair or transparent. We hammer it home when we go out into the hills during the selection process. We are not selecting based on geography or caste."
The environment and economic conditions in Nepal can make life there tough. For Gurkhas, austerity and strength are not choices. "Their bodies are simply on a different plane to our own," Johnny Fenn, who served with the Gurkhas from 1998 to 2012, wrote for The Telegraph.
Many parents began training their children for the Gurkha selection process from a young age. Mughdan and Krishna Rai raised all five of their sons to prepare for their service. Rai’s late husband was a Gurkha. "My husband believed that when you are a man, you should either go to war or to go the jungle to meditate," Rai said.
Rai described her husband’s daily regiment for his boys. "The boys all ate fresh food, dahl, milk, butter and cheese, and - most importantly - they ate four raw eggs each day. Mughdhan would wake them up at 4am and load 30kg of rocks into doka which they would have to go and run with." He even built a gym for his sons.
All five of the Rai sons became Gurkhas and have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor.
For centuries, Gurkha soldiers have awed the men they fought and fought alongside. They were so impressive to the British, that, though they were initially the enemy, Gurkhas were eventually enlisted into the British Indian Army.
A soldier wrote in his memoirs, "I never saw more steadiness or bravery exhibited in my life. Run they would not, and of death they seemed to have no fear, though their comrades were falling thick around them."
Gurkhas carry kukris, curved knives that are commonly found in Nepal. According to legend, the kukri must shed blood every time it is drawn.
Modern soldiers don't abide by that rule, but occasionally kukris are used for surprising purposes. One time Gurkha Johnny Fenn described how his comrades used their knives to perform an animal sacrifice.