Kukri / Khurkuri

See also: Nomenclature - Kukri

The following history is quoted and adapted from the Ghurka’s official army website.

The Origin of the Kukri

Kukri is the now accepted spelling; “Khukuri” is the strict translation of the Nepali word.  Either way the thing itself is the renowned national weapon of Nepal and the Gurkhas.

A Nepali boy is likely to have his own kukri at the age of five or so and necessarily becomes skilfull in its use long before his manhood.  By the time a Gurkha joins the army, the kukri has become a chopping extension of his dominant arm.  This is important, because it is not the weight and edge of the weapon that make it so terrible at close quarters so much as the skilled technique of the stroke; it can claim to be almost impossible to parry.  

It is important to remember that the kukri is a tool of all work, at home in the hills and on active service it will be used for cutting wood, hunting and skinning, opening tins, clearing undergrowth and any other chore.  From this it is plain there can be no truth in the belief that a Gurkha must draw blood every time before he may return the kukri to its sheath.

The oldest known Kukri appears to be one in the arsenal museum in Kathmandu, which belonged to Raja Drabya Shah, King of Gorkha, in 1627.  It is interesting to note that it is a broad, heavy blade.  However it is certain that the origins of the kukri go far further back.  There is one tenable story that Alexander’s horsemen carried the “Machaira”, the cavalry sword of the ancient Macedonians, in the fourth century BC on his invasion of north-west India.  Its relationship with the kukri is plain.  A third century sculpture, of which only a much later Greek copy exists, shows what is probably a Scythian prisoner of war lying down his arms.  The weapon looks amazingly like a modern kukri.

In 1767 Prithwi Naraayan Shah, King of Gorkha, invaded the Nepal valley: In September 1768 Kathmandu surrendered and Prithwi Narayan became the first King of Nepal.  That his troops defeated much larger forces must be credited at least in part to their unusual weapon, the kukri.  It is reasonable to suppose that this was the beginning of the universal custom of Nepalese troops carrying the kukri, a custom that spread in time to Gurkhas serving in the British and Indian Armies. It was carried also by many other hill units, regular and irregular: Assam Rifle Regiments, Burma Military Police, the Garhwal and Kumaon Regiments.  In the Burma campaign of World War those British troops who did not carry a machete carried a kukri, and nowadays the Singapore Police Force also carry them.

Most hill villages in earlier days would have a Smith (or Lohar of the Kami clan) who forged kukris for the people: now there is a good deal of mass production, though the best are still made by skilled craftsmen.  In World War II Gurkha recruits were issued with mass-produced government kukris but nearly all brought back their own from their first leave.  Weight, balance and fit are crucially important.

The blades of ordinary kukris vary much in quality.  Many are made perforce from inferior steel and cannot hold a sharp edge: Good ones are forged from railway track and old motor vehicle springs.  The best are forged from the finest continental steel and can be of the highest quality, fluted and damascened.  The scabbards are made of wood covered in leather with a protective metal cap over the point. Two pockets on the back holding a blunt steel for sharpening the blade or striking sparks from flint (the chakmak) and a little knife (the karda) used for skinning small game or as a penknife, some also have a little purse for the flint.

Most handles are made of wood, often walnut or pat-pate (talauma hodgsoni).  They are secured to the handle either by rivets through a two-piece hilt or by the tang inserted through a one-piece grip and riveted over the cap.  In a good example the scabbard (dap) may be adorned with cloth-work or engraving and the hilt made of bone, ivory, horn or metal probably decorated. 

Village working kukris are much coarser affairs, often with heavy wooden scabbards and comparatively clumsy blades.

Piuthan in the west and Bhojpur in the east are well known centers of kukri manufacture: Choosing examples from east to west and from the 18th Century onwards, we can see many styles and several types.  The long, slender blade is characteristic of early work and of eastern Nepal; the shorter, round-bellied weapons are common later and in western districts: but there are exceptions to this rule.

There is no specific set of dimensions, but the standard length of service and general use kukris is twelve or thirteen inches.  A Kothimora kukri may be any reasonable size though many of the best are service length.

The most impressive are the ceremonial and sacrificial blades.  They must be capable of cutting cleaning through the powerful neck of a water buffalo.  They tend to be twice the length and weight of a soldier’s kukri with the hilt to fit a two-handed grip. 

One interesting curiosity is the ‘kukri-bayonet’ for the old tower musket.  There is a drawing in Perceval London’s book “Nepal”, Volume 1 page 96, of a Nepalese Guard of Honour (of between 1813 & 1837) at the present, muskets complete with kukri-bayonets: But each soldier had his own fighting kukri in his belt.  So clumsy a weapon must have been for ceremonial purposes only.

The notch (kaura) in the blade near the hilt arouses much interest.  Although it may certainly act as a check to excessive blood on the hilt, and be used to catch and neutralise an enemy blade, it is essentially a Hindu religious and phallic symbol.  There is a strong analogy with the hand-guard of the crusader sword, which protected the sword-hand but equally represented the Christian cross and was commonly used as the guarantee of an oath- the right hand being placed on the cross with such words as “by these hilts”.  Reference will later be made to myths but it is suitable to say here that the “Kaura” or notch is not an ingenious sight with which to aim an about to be thrown kukri. Except in desperation, as a man might hurl his empty rifles in a last defiance at the enemy; a kukri is never thrown: the Gurkha prefers to keep it in his hand.

The religious significance of the kukri must not be forgotten.  In 1948 Maharaja Padma Shamser Jangbahadur Rana, Prime Minister and Supreme Commander of Nepal, wrote, “The Khukri is the national as well as the religious weapon of the Gurkhas.  It is incumbent on a Gurkha to carry it while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring.  As a religious weapon it is worshipped during the Dasain (the most important Hindu festival) and other times whenever any sacrifice is to be made.

In the Army Dasain is of the greatest importance: During it the regiment’s arms are blessed, and goats and buffaloes are sacrificed in the process – not now in this country.  At home in Nepal goats dedicated to various causes are despatched and then proved and chosen experts ceremonially sacrifice a male buffalo in the name of the regiment.  The large kukri  “Konra” (in the village) is used because the head must be cleanly severed with one blow.  When that is achieved, which is nearly always, the blessing of the gods lies on the people for the ensuing year.  If the stroke fails, leaving even so little as an inch of the dewlap uncut, bad luck will follow.  It is custom the custom to honour the successful headsman with a “Pheta” (white turban) bound round his forehead, an honour much valued.   

Associated Myths and Legends

 The kukri has somehow produced a fertile crop of myths and legends in the western world; and the most impossibly wild amongst them are the most tenaciously believed.  Two already mentioned are that a kukri once drawn in whatever circumstances must taste blood before it is resheathed.  Also that a Gurkha, if he possibly can, will take careful aim through the symbolic “kaura” or notch and then hurl the weapon like a boomerang, snick off the enemy’s head and casually snatch the kukri out of the air as it returns.  If the first of these were true no Gurkha would survive to adulthood: He would lose pints of blood every day as he chopped wood, sharpened a wooden peg, opened a tin of beans and slashed down encroaching undergrowth.  After each task he would have to shed some of his own blood.  The second fails to stand the test of a little thought.  Much as anyone would hate to be in the path of a flung kukri, one would hate much more to oppose one in the hand of an angry Gurkha.

Not very different is the story (set variously in China, Italy, Burma and the North West Frontier) of the Gurkha coming suddenly on the enemy soldier.  Naturally he struck first – the decapitating blow.  “Yah, missed!” said the enemy.  “Try shaking your head,” came the reply.

A true story told by General Sir (later Field Marshal Viscount) W J Slim.

 “Early in his command of 14th Army he encouraged constant patrolling by all forward units.  One Gurkha patrol on return presented themselves before their General, proudly opened a large basket, lifted from it three gory Japanese heads, and laid them on his table.  They then politely offered him for his dinner the freshly caught fish which filled the rest of the basket.”

 Nepal, the Gurkha, and the Kukri: The three of them are inseparable in reputation, and the Gurkha Soldier keeps his kukri as he keeps his honour – bright and keen.