Glorious (and not-so-glorious) historyNepali history-writing has erased the contribution of Kumaonis and Garhwalis in building the brave Gurkha myth
Yet another Prithvi Jayanti has gone by and the annual theatrics around whether the birth anniversary of the unifier of Nepal or ruthless conqueror of the central Himalaya—depending on how one views the king—merits a public holiday or not has been deferred once again. Those calling for state celebrations are a diverse group, ranging from ultra-nationalist rightists to ultra-nationalist communists, and includes an amorphous group that revels in talk about a ‘Greater Nepal’.
The fantasy of the latter is to restore Nepal to its widest extent before the war with the British in the early years of the 19th century. That encompasses the territory known in popular parlance as ‘Teesta to Killa Kangra’, ie, the entire Himalayan foothills from West Bengal to Himachal Pradesh in India. Even without the might of India standing in the way of such a pipe dream, it assumes that the residents of those areas that had fallen under Nepali authority for the briefest of periods more than 200 years ago hanker for their one-time rulers. Given the record, nothing could be farther from the truth.
As the historian Mahesh Chandra Regmi writes in Imperial Gorkha: An Account of Gorkhali Rule in Kumaun (1791-1815), during the quarter century of Gorkhali rule, the lowliest Gorkhali soldier had a higher status than the local notables. No wonder that Gorkhalis did not find anything amiss in forcing themselves on married women, a problem so serious that in 1804, the chief Gorkhali administrator, Amar Singh Thapa, was ordered by the rulers in Kathmandu to punish the errant soldiers.
The economic burden was worse. In order to feed the troops during the expansionary campaign, the Gorkhalis indulged in extortion from the locals and used them as forced labour. The problem was so acute that it led to large-scale depopulation of the villages in Kumaon, and Kathmandu had to issue orders against such practices while the locals were also repeatedly provided assurances. But, as Regmi notes, ‘These exhortations remained limited to paper, for the Gorkhalis on the spot were a more tangible force than the central authorities in far-off Kathmandu.’
Garhwal was spared the full brunt of Gorkhali excesses since Nepal’s rule over that part of what is today’s Uttarakhand lasted only about a decade. But the common discourse about Gorkhali rule in the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal is one of suffering, from which the British takeover provided relief.
The Kumaonis and Garhwalis
Despite this history, Nepal owes a debt to Kumaon and Garhwal for their role in cementing its ties with Britain. For it was Kumaonis and Garhwalis who provided the bulk of men that later became the Gurkha Regiments, the single most important link in Nepal-Britain relations, from which both countries have benefitted immensely.
The apocryphal story of Gurkha recruitment has it that during the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-16, one Lieutenant Frederick Young was captured by the Gorkhalis following the flight of the force he was commanding. Being asked why he had stayed his ground, Young is said to have replied, ‘I have not come so far in order to run away.’ That impressed the Gorkhalis so much that they said, ‘We could serve under men like you.’
The truth is obviously far from that romantic. As the former Gurkha officer, AP Coleman’s important contribution to the literature on the Gurkhas, A Special Corps: The Beginnings of Gorkha Service with the British, makes clear, the expanding Gorkha proto-empire had run out of Gorkhali men by the time its army reached Kangra in 1806: ‘Whereas until the invasion of Kumaon its regular companies were composed almost entirely of Gorkhas, once they had moved into and beyond Garhwal the distance from Nepal made it difficult to obtain reinforcements and replacement. The Kaji [Amar Singh Thapa] therefore began to conscript and train suitable young recruits from within the conquered hill territories, especially Kumaon and Garhwal.’
It was in January 1815, barely a few months after the beginning of the War, that the British commander, David Ochterlony, made a deal with ‘Jeykishen, a Brahmin Subah [Subba] of Kumaon’ that each Gorkhali soldier joining the British with his musket would receive 10 rupees in addition to his regular pay. Jeykishen himself would receive a fixed rate of commission for each man or body of troops he was able to entice from the Gorkhali force.
The first men who had thus switched sides, and later formed the 1st Gurkha Regiment, then went to war against their former comrades-in-arms and were instrumental in the defeat of the troops under the famous commander, Bhakti Thapa, in Deothal in April 1815. The next month saw the defeat of Amar Singh Thapa in Malaun and an agreement was signed between the defeated Nepali commander and the victorious Ochterlony, which allowed ‘[a]ll the troops in the service of Nepaul…[to] be at liberty to enter into the service of the British Government’, marking the first formal agreement on Gurkha recruitment.
By the time, the Nepali army had retreated west of the Mahakali River following the above agreement, some 4,700 soldiers had stayed behind to join the British. Commanded by Jeykishen (the Kumaoni mentioned above) and Lal Sahi and Mani Raj Rana (whom Coleman describes as ‘a Chhetri from Piuthan’ and ‘a Magar Chhetri from the southern foothills of central Nepal’ respectively), that contingent consisted of around 1,500 Gorkhalis, ‘that is to say Chhetris, Magars, and Gurungs from western Nepal whom Prithvi Narayan Shah would have recognised as Gorkhalis in the tradition of his army’. The rest would have been Kumaonis and Garhwalis.
Nepali history-writing has erased the contribution of our immediate neighbours to the west in building the myth of the brave Gurkha. In the school texts extolling the bravery of Bal Bhadra Kunwar, perhaps the epitome of Nepal’s courage according to official texts, it is nowhere mentioned that the soldiers under his command consisted of Garhwalis as well since, as historian Pratyoush Onta has noted, it does not quite fit the narrative of the brave Gorkhali.
Over the years, the Garhwalis and Kumaonis disappeared from the Gurkha regiments and the preference of the British became limited to those hailing from within the territory of what is today’s Nepal. Coleman writes: ‘Ochterlony had a special admiration for the Gorkhalis and it is likely that there was a strong nucleus of Gorkhali soldiers...led by Lal Sahi and Moani Raj Rana’ among the 4,700 who opted to fight for the British. That perhaps explains why for the first few decades after 1815, only Magars, Gurungs and Chhetris were recruited by the British. By quickly-formed tradition, these groups must have represented the ‘true Gurkha’ for the British officers.