Even when Britain’s military is shrinking, a regiment of fierce and loyal soldiers from Nepal still makes up 3 percent of its fighting force. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas’ service to Britain, a tradition that started after the East India Company first recruited them in 1815, impressed with their bravery on the battlefield.
When the East India Company attacked the Himalayan foothills that year and faced the soldiers from Gorkha, a hilly kingdom in western Nepal, it suffered heavy casualties. It then decided to sign a hasty peace deal, under which it was allowed to recruit from the former enemy.
For almost two centuries, the Gurkhas have held pride of place as some of the world’s fiercest and most loyal warriors. They have fought for the British in almost every war since 1815. More than 200,000 Gurkhas are said to have fought in the two world wars. Since then, they have served in Malaysia, Borneo, Hong Kong, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and Iraq. Most recently, the Gurkhas fought in Afghanistan, where they have a storied past, fighting the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars.
In Nepal, it is considered a great honor for a Nepali youth to become a Gurkha. Outside the British forces, there are as many as 40,000 Gurkhas serving in the Indian army, nearly 2,500 in the Singapore police and 2,000 in Brunei’s Gurkha Reserve Unit. Hundreds of retired Gurkhas work in conflict zones as private bodyguards.
Perhaps the most discussed detail about the Gurkhas is the unique knife they carry. The Khukuri, an 18-inch curved steel knife, is native to Nepal and something the Gurkhas have been carrying in every battle. If you ask a Gurkha why he carries the knife, he will tell you, without any hesitation, “To chop the enemy.” That said, khukuris also are often used to chop other things.
Austrian photographer Alex Schlacher spent much of the past three years with the Gurkhas to document their story — from their roots in Nepal, to their work in the British army, to their life after they retire.
We asked Schlacher to share her experience following the Gurkhas and tell us what she learned about the group.
In Sight: Why the Gurkhas? What made you interested in this unit?
Alex Schlacher: I was embedded with the U.S. Marine Corps in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2011. I met the Gurkhas at my base camp, and they spontaneously invited me to run with them, leading me to spend the rest of my embed time going on patrols and to police checkpoints with Gurkhas. They welcomed me like a long-lost sister and told me many stories about Nepal, recruitment, their families and what it’s like to fight for another country. I was completely fascinated and decided pretty quickly that I wanted to do a project on them. Upon researching Gurkha-related literature, I found that most of it was battle play-by-play and military history, usually written by British officers, nothing a civilian with no connections to the military would be inclined to read. I thought the human side of who the Gurkhas are was missing, so half my book consists of portraits and personal stories. I wanted the British public, in particular, to get to know these legendary soldiers, who are fighting and dying for them.
In Sight: Is there a particular story from during the recruitment that you think explains the drive and determination of these people?
Schlacher: There are so many, it’s difficult to choose, but one that immediately comes to mind is the story of Bhagat Gurung. I was taking pictures during Central Gurkha Selection in Pokhara, west Nepal, and it was the day of the feared Doko race — a grueling three-mile endurance run over almost vertical, uneven paths and gravelly roads, mercilessly uphill, carrying a basket, the Doko, containing a 55-pound bag of sand, to be completed in 48 minutes or less. The track is so steep, slippery and full of boulders that it’s even uncomfortable to walk. Bhagat was doing well, but a little over half a mile before the finish line, he went over on his ankle, hard. Desperate to complete the race and not fail the selection, he ignored the exploding pain in his foot, kept running and still finished in 45 minutes, ahead of a large number of his peers. He was accepted into the Gurkhas not only for his exam results but also for the toughness and tenacity he displayed despite a debilitating injury.
In Sight: You spent time with the Gurkhas training in Brunei, who are later deployed to serve the sultan. What was the most difficult challenge as a photographer following a group like this for three full years?
Schlacher: The most difficult times I had during this project were never Gurkha-related. They were usually administrative and financial. The project was self-financed, some of it through crowdfunding, quite a bit from sponsors and the rest of the three years “Arc of the Gurkha” took to make with money I was able to borrow from very generous friends, as well as my own after I had sold everything I had. I was staring financial ruin in the face several times and often didn’t know whether I could continue at all. My main sponsor, CrossFit, who showed up halfway through, was a lifesaver there — it’s also the sport I started doing at the beginning of this project in order to get fit enough to run with Gurkhas on deployments and on extensive exercises in Kenya, Australia, the Brunei jungle and all over the U.K.
In Sight: Part of documenting looks at those who retired. You have several portraits of these men, some who live in the U.K. and others who live in Nepal. What is their life like after fighting these wars — from WWII to Kosovo to Afghanistan — in the U.K. as well as back home in Nepal?
Schlacher: The life of Gurkhas retiring today is very different from times past, due to changes in U.K. law governing pension and settlement rights. Retired Gurkhas didn’t have a right to settle in the U.K. at all, and after they finished their service, they went back to Nepal and to farming or other menial jobs, subsisting on a shockingly tiny pension that often wasn’t even enough for them to sustain their families. Gradually. over the years, their pensions were raised to a level that today is the same as that of their British colleagues, and in 2004, Gurkhas who had retired after 1997 were granted the right to settle in the U.K. permanently. This right was extended in 2009 to ex-Gurkhas who had retired before 1997, and so some of the elderly veterans from Nepal moved to the U.K. Gurkhas retiring today have a different life — they tend to have a very good education, some of them gaining advanced degrees during their service. Their children were mostly born in the U.K., so they are very rooted in the country they serve. A few return to Nepal with their families by choice, usually out of a desire to contribute something to the country that is their home, but most stay in the U.K., to see their kids through university.
In Sight: There is a lot of curiosity in the Gurkha community as well as Nepal after the British government slashed the number of recruits it would enlist in the military. How do the Gurkhas feel about their future? What sort of conversations do they have?
Schlacher: I have heard discussions about whether the Gurkhas will prevail, but in reality, because the global security situation and, subsequently, warfare itself, changes regularly and quickly, it’s extremely hard to predict what any given country will do with its defense spending, and I am certainly the last person to be able to give reliable information on that subject. It’s true that the number of Gurkha recruits was slashed in the past few years, but this year, 230 were recruited after only 126 each in 2013 and 2014. If they weren’t a huge asset to the British army, Britain wouldn’t go to great financial and logistical lengths every year to recruit them in Nepal and train them in the U.K. They are irreplaceable. As I have observed it, the Gurkhas themselves tend to be sanguine about their future. It’s partly their mentality. They will deal with the problem when they are faced with it, and most of them don’t seem to think it’s worth worrying about something nobody can predict.