Sanju has just joined our project as a volunteer but he already knows plenty, as he’s a former Gurkha and War Studies graduate. This is an abridged version of a piece he wrote for his own blog about who the Gurkhas are and how concepts of martial race have affected the lives of Nepalese people:

“When we think of the physical appearance of the Gurkhas, we think most of them as tough and an oriental looking smiling men with an average height of 5’5”, possibly armed with a khukuri either on his hand or on his beret; precisely speaking, this is the general view of the British or the Western people in regards to the Gurkhas’ physical appearance, and most importantly of the Nepalese people. In addition, this view has been supplemented by the continuous world media coverage of the Sherpas focusing on the Mount Everest stories.

This is a mainstream perspective of the Western people (especially European) that I came across both during, and after the military service while studying at a university. I think this is rather a naive view which mostly came from the people who were more or less unaware about the demographic of Nepal.

I had a friend of mine who belonged to a Chhetri caste of Nepal who is sadly no more with us. His physical appearance was different than that of a majority of the Gurkha soldiers in the British Army. Others asked, ‘‘why is he different looking than the rest of the Gurkhas?’’

Most of my international friends classify the Nepalese people into two groups based on their physical appearance. It was simple and straight forward – ‘‘Chinese looking and Indian looking’’, according to those friends. Most of my non-Nepalese friends view the ‘Janajati’ as ‘oriental looking’ and ‘Indo-Aryan’ as ‘Indian looking’. Many of us found this classification rather insulting, because that Nepalese people recognise themselves as being unique from  Chinese and Indian. Geographically Nepal is situated between China in the north and India in the south. According to the statistics provided by the Nepalese government, the population of Janajati comes close to 25% of the entire Nepalese population, and the Indo-Aryan population come to around 30%.

The majority of the Nepalese people residing in the UK are from the ‘Janajati’ ethnic group. Why? As a result of the historical connection to the Gurkhas. Around 33% of the total Nepalese population is recruitable to the British Army as a Gurkha soldier, and the rest are not. Why do the Janajati ‘oriental looking’ Nepalese people have a dominant place in the Gurkhas?

To understand the reason behind it, we have to go back no further than the 19th century – or more precisely, we have to follow the British imperial venture especially in the Indian continent. Being a small nation with little manpower to rule and maintain the law and order of the ruled people, Britain needed to generate a large scale of manpower from its empire. Seeking soldiers, the British identified some ethnic and tribal groups as being more warlike than others, and identified them as ‘martial races’.

As ‘martial races’ these men were believed to possess a biological or cultural disposition to the racial and masculine qualities necessary for the arts of war. As such, Nepal was divided into tribal or ethnic units and a particular set of characteristics attributed to the whole unit on the strength of often very causal personal observations when recruiting. The first recognised martial races were the Gurung and Magar from the central part of Nepal, and later, Limbu and Rai castes were recruited from the eastern part of Nepal. In addition, Thakurs and Chhetris were considered martial race to a certain extent.

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Panchhbir Mall was in 1st Bn 9th Gurkha Rifles and fought at Festubert and Kut  – was he from the Thakur or Chhetri caste?

Today, we can still see the influence of the caste system in the British regimental system, although it is slowly being eliminated. However, during the First World War, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Gurkha Rifles consisted of Gurung and Magar castes, the 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles recruited were the Limbu and Rai castes and the 9th Gurkha Rifles was from the Thakur and Chhetri caste.

From this historical standpoint, we can find the answer of why the oriental looking Nepalese people have a dominant numbers not only in the British Gurkhas but also in the recent Nepalese diasporas, despite the fact that the ‘Janajati’ or oriental looking people only consist of one third of the total Nepalese population. It is certainly; as the Gurkha itself is the product of the British empire, the dominant place of oriental looking Gurkhas in the British army is also the result of the imperial tradition of recruiting the people only from the ‘martial races’ of Nepal.”

You can read the full-length original article on Sanju’s blog.

Images courtesy of the British Library Girdwood Collection and the National Army Museum (1959-05-45).