ORIGINS OF THE KUKRI.
ARTICLE BY V.K. KUNWOR, 2007.
“The kukri is at the very heart of the tradition and culture of Nepal, and, as a very good friend or deadly foe, it mirrors the duality of human nature and nature of mankind.” -Bob Crew
Since the 19th century the kukri has been a symbol and object of our collective imagination. The origins of the kukri has been a matter of discussion and several theories exist as to its exact origin. Where does it come from and what is its origins?
The kukri is the national weapon of Nepal, the symbol of the Gurkhas/Gorkhas and a world famous knife growing in popularity with a rich history that has shaped the world to what it is today. From the unification of Nepal in the late 18th century, the Anglo-Nepal war in 1814-1816, the wars of the British Raj, in both the World Wars the kukri at the hand of the Gurkha soldier played a crucial role in shaping our world as we see it today.
There is little knowledge as to the kukri´s origin, very little reserch done about this knife, in Nepal or elsewhere. History seems to be less important then economical development at the moment which is understandable in Nepal due to the circumstances. Yet I find it strange that a knife so important, a national symbol, there is so little known about the kukri. On my last journey to Nepal in 2007 I meet a handful of people very intressted in kukri and talked to many people about the origins of this amazing knife. I was told that it had been given to the forefathers of the Royal family of Nepal as gift from the gods but also that there does exist some old records about the arrival of the kukri into the foothills of the Himalayas where Nepal is located. Kukris come in many different sizes and styles but follow a basic design making it a kukri. I use the term kukri intentionally as its is the most common spelling of what should properly be spellt khukuri. With this article I want to share my knowledge in tracing the kukris origins from ancient times to present. Note, this is not a academic exercise but an attempt freely to cast some ideas out for further discussion, thus there is little if any reference directlyto the sources i have used, for several reasons. Im working on a more complete academic and professional version.
Kukri is a knife found throughout the Himalayas, it is made in various sizes and styles dependig on its intention of use. It is always forward curved, with a angle of about 20 degrees, the blade is often ca.30-35 cm long, and has a single sharp edge, a thick spine up to 1 cm, the handle is often ca.10-13 cm long and often made of wood, horn or metal. The blade is fastend to the handle using tree sap (himalayan epoxy), riveted through the tang or tail, and/or through a butt cap at the end of the handle, many varieites do exist. Most kukris have a notch at the end of the blade, near the handle, for practical and ceremonial reasons. Practically it allows the blood to drip off, ceremonialy it is a symbol of the Hindu faith, belived to be a symbol of the god shivas trident to the mark of a cow. Many military kukris carry makers and inspection marks but not all. Kukris have been made in many parts of the world, originally from Nepal the making spread during colonial times throughout the British Raj, in modern days even in China and the USA.
History is a tool to understand our present through unfolding the past to gain more knowledge, we should look at all available material to gain a broader understanding, keeping a open but critical mind. I have tried to the best of my capability to do this, what is writen is my own thoughts and ideas based largely on western accounts; from books, articles, internet, interviews and discussions. I have also accepted some non-western accounts in various parts to gain a better understanding largely based on interviews and public thought in Nepal and India. I object to following only the classical western method of historical research as it is narrow. Often in history we base our knowledge on past European writers which certainly is of value yet it should also be questioned. Much of history is writen based upon a hierarchical view, we need to keep in mind the people who made history to what it is not just the rulers and the wars that were fought. That we can learn from stories and living oral traditions, not only from books and monuments. What was called the Indian Mutiny is now by many called the first Indian War of Independence, history is forever changing meaning. History is about the past but also about our reality right now, it is about most likely possibilities not always certainities, its a matter that should be discussed and debatted with a open mind where we continously learn, many times how ignorant we are in the search of a greater understanding
One aspect that that suprises me the most in history is how global and inter-connected yet self focused it is at the same time, a intressting correlation though not to be debatted here but something I want all readers to keep in mind.
Tracing the kukris development is a study in mankinds movements through exploration, trade, and invasion. Looking at the movements of people we learn who came from where. The cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds helps us form a clearer understanding of what each group was like, what they brought with them to where they came and how these aspects came out in their artwork, in their life. Let us keep in mind that a weapon is a form of artwork that reflects a makers or the intended groups culture, ethnicity, religion but also the purpose of use.
THE FORWARD CURVE.
The earliest records of a forward curved sword can be traced back to the 3rd millenium BCE Sumer Civilization in Mesopotamia, being the earliest civilization in the ancinet Near East. The word for this sword is a Egyptian word for the Caananite sickle sword, Kopesh, it had a hilt of about 18 cm, circa 40 cm long blade and then curving into a cresent shape for another 15-30 cm, the edge located on the outer side. This forward curved sword is regarded as the forefather of all forward curving blades. The Egyptians came into contact with the Kopesh through warfare, they adopted the forward curving sword which gained popularity during the New Kingdom (16th-11th century BCE) and was used by Ramses II (ca.1303 BCE-1213 BCE) the first pharaoh to use in warfare. There are some records which indicate that in the 19th century the ancient Egyptians had contact with the Indian sub-continent, under pharaoh Sesostris, perhaps even invaded certain parts, though this is dismissed by most scholars nowadays. There is very little scholarly work that suggests a relationship between the Sumer, Egyptians and the Indian sub-continent. What is clear is that the Indo-Aryan migration took place between 2000-1500 BCE bringing a new ethnic group to the Indian sub-continent, with a new culture and religion.
The Indo-Aryans hailed from the Fertaile Cresent and had of course been in contact or influenced by the Sumer and Egyptian civilizations. Their arrival to the Indian sub-continent is often marked by the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 BCE-1500 BCE) which is attributed to have been founded by the Proto-Dravidian groups later forced east and south by the Indo-Aryan invasion. It is possible that the Indo-Aryans brought with them the Kopesh or a similar weapon with a forward curve to the new land. They did certainly bring with them a new religion and culture.
Ancient culture is to a large part based on religion and the religious texts that dominated the Indian sub continent during ancient time that we have record of is the Rig Veda, Ramayana and Mahabharat, all of great importance in modern Hinduism aswell. The Rig-Veda is belived to be from 1700-1100 BCE and formed the basis of the Indo-Aryans religion and culture. It does mention the use of weapons but is in no way a comprehensive study or even close to being a collection of what weapons were used during this time. It is only in the Ramayana and Mahabharat (500-100 BCE) being the earliest Indian reference to the sub-continents native arms that we gain a wider perspective of the use of weapons and the martial customs of the region. This epic is belived to have been written down by the poet Valmiki following a oral tradition that existed for centuries before being recorded by him. None of these records do mention Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians but is of intresst to us as they are of importance in understanding that weapons were of a religious use and value and they still are today. The kukri and other weapons are often keept in each family´s temple and used for religious ceremonies, certain ceremonies would not be complete without these weapons being worshiped and used.
King Solomon of the Old Testament lived during the 10th century BCE, obtained many precious items, such as gold, silver, ivory, peacocks, among other things from the land of Ophir, suggested to be in South India, hence the relationship between the ancient Near East and India is a very old relationship based on trade and exploration first and foremostly. That trade and exploration existed before invasions is a certainity by reason. Before an area is invaded there needs to be something that the invading group wants in the area of invasion, from land to goods, something valuable or useful. War and invasion comes only after we know there is something to conquer and gain. Trade brought new goods but also new knowledge. It is clear that the Kopesh existed in the area of Canaan, first under the Sumer and later the Egyptian empires influence, and was used through both civilizations.
In the 9th century BCE the civilization of D´mt had been established in present Ethiopia and included the area we call for the Horn of Africa. The ancient Egyptians called this area for Punt / Pwenent / Ta netjer, the land of the god. This civilization used a sematic originated language and was also a important place for trade where many presious items was found. From the Horn of Africa to the Indian coastline it is not far, it is very possible that there was some contact between these locations and that Kopesh could have been brought to the Indian coastline through trade as well as from prior migrations and invasions, further promoting its usefulness.
Early records indicate that the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (ca. 800 BCE) invaded India, fighting against Stabrobates (also known as Shama, the wife of Mahadeva) of the Indian hills and plains. When two civilization or cultures come into contact they exchange information and certain Assyrian influences must have been left on the Indian sub-continent and the other way around. The Assyrian Empire at this time included Egypt and Mesopotamia aswell. A sword called Sappara similar to the Kopesh was frequently used by the Assyrians that had a forward curve and is of intresst in our study of the development of the kukri. The Sappara developed from the axe and was a great chopping weapon, similarly to the kukri that is famous for its powerful strike. The difference being that the kukri has a overarching curve while the sappara curved forward yet had a down curved cresent. It should be mentioned though in the development of the kukri as any sword or knife that has a forward curve is of some intresst.
The Persians during the 6th and 5th century BCE expanded the boudaries of their empire under Cyrus and Darius making their eastern empire all the way to the Indus river. Several accounts exist of cultural exchange between the various regions of the Persian empire. Trade flourished from one side to another of the empire, it was one of the pillars of the Persian empire. They were known for being able to incorporate and use new military techniques and weapons that they came into contact with as the empire expanded into new lands. The Persians are known to have used a sword with a forward curve similar to the kopesh, called the kopis. It is thought that the kopis originated from piror existing forward curved blades, such as the kopesh and other forward curved blades. Archelogical evidence shows that at this time several variations of the forward curving blade did exist, not only the kopis, though perhaps it was the most popular. By the time Alexander the Great invaded India several variations of the forward curved blade was frequently used around the Medeterranian and the ancient Near East.
The most famous invasion of Indian sub-continent is that of Alexander the Great in 326 BCE from which clear influences are found as to the design of the kukri and commonly attributed that India came into direct contact with the classical world. From here onwards the historical basis that there was a relationship between the two continents are clear. Archelogical findings from coins, statues to the record of great thinkers have mentioned and shown that this was the case. Several Greek writers, Aristotle and Herodotus to mention a few, mentions India in their writings, lets keep in mind that Aristotle was also one of Alexanders tutors.
The cavalry of Alexanders military is mentioned of carring a short sword called Machaira which follwos the pattern of being forward curved. The machaira does not have Greek origins itself but is thought to be derived from earlier times, from the Illyrian sword from which there are archelogical finds going back to about 6th century BCE as well as other similar designed, forward curved blades as the Iberian falcata which could very possibly been developed by the Celts who were known for their blacksmithing and iron work techniques. Of intresst is also a statue from the 3rd century BCE of Greek origins depicting a Scythian prisoner of war laying down his arms, holding a sword with a forward curved blade. The forward curved blade was a common type of design around the Medetaranian and Near East before the Greek invasion of India. It is easy to see the relationship between the kukri and these ancient forward curved blades, the resemblance is striking, see pictures below.
Falcata 4th century BCE
Alexanders military was formed of many ethninc groups who brought their own military traditions and weapons into the front line, a strict organization and formation was keept of course to ensure maximum effectiveness. Atleast two short swords called machaira and kopis was used by Alexander´s military which had a similar design as the kukri. It had a heavy forward curving single-edged blade, a shape that had been in the Greek world for some centuries before reaching the Indian continent, possibly originating from the Egyptian Khopesh. Unfortunatelly very little is known about the use and spread of the Khopesh in ancient Egypt, if it was brought into the Greek military via Egypt or somewhere else is unkown. Several civilizations and empires before the Greeks had contact with Egypt and could have brought the shape of the Kopesh into use in their weaponry that was later subdued by the Greeks and taken into use by the Greeks. Due to the historical records that are avilable it is commonly attributed that it was through Alexanders invasion of India that the forward curved blade came to India.
Following the Greek Empires adventure to India the Roman Empire had several trading posts along the Indian coast and a highly developed trade relation existed. The Romans are known to have used a short sword though not usually curved. It is logical to conclude that the previous existing variations of the forward curved blades did exist and was used in the Roman empire too. As a simple rule the Romans took the best things of the Greek Empire and developed them become better, the forward curve also perhaps.
I have shown that several Ancient civilizations and cultures have been in contact with India for various reasons throughout time, from trade to war. I want to establish that India has not been a world by itself but always in contact with other worlds, cultures and civilizations continuesly influenced and influencing others. As with all relationships its a give and take issue at hand.
Who brought the science of the forward curved blade firstly to the Indian sub-continent is up to some speculations as there is no certainity. It could have been brought by several groups in waves and also the influences of trade could have promoted its use. What is clear though is that from Alexanders invasion of India the forward curved blade found a home on the Indian sub-continent, a home it has stayed in since then. What we know is that from Alexanders invasion the record is clear that the forward curved blade like the Machaira and Kopis came into the Indian world, earlier possibilities do exist though the records are not as clear. That the Persians, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Canannites and others used forward curving blades is already shown, groups who had some form of contact with the Indian sub-continent, mainly thruogh trade but in some cases also invasions, and could have brought the shape with them as well.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA.
To change the cards slightly we should also consider the idea that the forward curve could have existed in the Indian sub-continent before any of these groups mentioned even came into contact with India, this line of thinking follows the Out of India theory that was popular in the 19th century which held that the Indo-Aryans originated in the Indian heartland and migrated outwards towards the Near East. This would in some ways mean that the forward curve existed in India and was brought with them outwards, to the Near East and towards Europe. I say this as most of the groups that came into India as time passed were groups that had emerged from the Indo-Aryan groups migration, so the knowledge of the forward curve was knowledge that existed in this greater group wheter originally from India or comming into India from the Fertaile Cresent. Each wave and group leaveing thier imprints of the India and/or taking with them.
On Indian continent there are rock paintings, drawings, writtings and other archelogical finds that suggest that around the 5th century CE, for example in Ajanta, knifes and swords similar to the machaira and kopis are seen depicted and similar varieties became more commonly used as time passed. From about the 10th century CE the forward angled blade seems to become a more commonly used design all over the continent appearing in Orissa, Malabar, Punjab among other place in India. From the south to the north, the east to the west, the use was widespread. The forward curved blade became popular for various reasons, we should keep in mind is that all knifes have a purpose when made, before fire arms gained popularity knifes and swords were commonly used for protection and dominion. The very shape of the forward curved blade (combined with its weight) made the weapon very useful for chopping as the optimal striking point, the area of greatest force is generated with least amount of vibration, is over a maximum length of the blade.The forward angle of the blade lessens the vibration so that there is less energy lost in the strike allowing the blade to quicker reach the target and causing maximum damage. Many variations did and do exist of the forward curved blade, showing a great adaptation, imagination and skillfulness of the blacksmiths of the Indian sub-continent.
From the 11th century different groups of Islamic invasions of the Indian sub-continent took place, the most powerful and dominant was to became the Moghul Empire, in the 16th century. During the reign of Akbar (ca.1542-1605) the Ain-i-Akbari, a detailed record of his administration which also includes a very detailed list of Indian arms appeared, forward curving blades are included in this document. The turkish sword, Yataghan, ca 60-90 cm, found throughout the Near East is very similar to the kukri though longer and slimmer. It is belived to have been developed latest by the 16th century and was used throughout the Near East and in Mughal empire. The Mughal court was highly elaborate and powerful, the title Shah, meaning king, is belived to have been given by the Mughal emperor to the hill king that unified Nepal in the 18th century, Prithivi Narayan Shah.
IN THE HIMALAYAS
In the Himalayas the forward curved blade found a permanent home and developed to become the Kukri as we know of today by the 17th century CE. The earliest recorded use of the kukri in the Himalayas is in by the Rajah (king) of Gorkha Drabya Shah. In Nepali folklore it said that the kukri was presented to the king as a gift from the gods, so that he could make a country, the country we today know as Nepal. The kukri is found throughout the Himalayan ridge.
The Rajah along with other Indo-Aryan groups had fleed to the hills of the Himalays from the Muslim invasion from Rajahstan in India, and could have brought the design with them into the hills. If it was not so that they found it there among the martial hill tribes. The hill tribes keept very much for themselfs, naturally protected by a dense malaria filled jungle in the south and the mighty Himalayan mountains in the north, natural barriers of pretection. Kathmandu and some other towns had minimal contact with the outside world, as the Tibetan-Indian trade route went through which could have brought the influence of the design to the hills prior to the arrival of the Rajputs. The Khoda, a weapon typical for Nepal, has also the forward curve, its broader and longer and is belived to have been used in the hills before the kukri though loosing much of its importance as a weapon, similarly as the tulwar. The tulwar has remained as a sign of power and is seen worn in military ceremonies nowadays, the khoda is still used though mostly only for sacrifices. The kukri dominates and is still commonly used and seen in both the remote villages and in the Parliament.
We must also remember that the principal deity of the region of Gorkha is Gorakhnath, a 11-12th century CE yogi who plays a important role in the religious life of northern India, in the Royal palace of Gorkha there is a temple for him. His origins have also been a matter of speculation, several articels and books point towards Punjab and the North West Frontier though a schollar on the matter has brought to my attention that Gorkahnath had origins or at least also went to Mesopotamia before reaching the hills. Could he be the forefather of the kukri, having seen forward curved blades in his travells before reaching the hills of Nepal? The shape of Nepal is similar to a kukri, thin and long, along the footsteps of the Himalayan mountains. A Proffesor attached to the Royal Nepal Army mentions documents he has found that indicate the use of the kukri prior to the official known version of Drabya Shah. These documents were found among a small ethninc group in eastern Nepal. It is a intressting note as it casts some relevant information regarding the use of the kukri being older then expected in the hills and that the kukri could be a native Himalayan invention also to some degree with little if any influence from the Indo-Aryan groups that entered the hills in the 14th century onwards.
As the formation of the kingdom of Nepal came into begining in the late 18th century, the kukri became a principal weapon of use and soon became a symbol of the State. The kukri functioned as both a agricultural tool and as a weapon used by both poor farmers in the villages and wealthy kings in the cities. The kukri is traditionally carried by all men in the hills who use it for all kinds of purposes, cutting fruits to protection from animals and in times of war. It was a weapon that each man grew up with and knew how to use, in many ways it served as a extension of his arm yet lethal when needed. In hand to hand combat the kukri was a exellent companion. Kukris can be very simple or highly decorated with inlyas of precious stones and gold. The National Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu has many kukris on display illustrating variations of styles, time periods and purpose of the kukri. Since a few years a Military Musuem has also opened in the vincity displaying some kukris. Several Museums all over the world have kukris in their collections as show pieces.
The army of Prithiwi Narayan Shah was called Gorkhalis, meaning from Gorkha, and consisted of several ethnic groups, the traditional peasantry had been turned into soldiers. Non Aryan groups as Gurung, Magar including several other ethnic groups fought side by side with Indo-Aryan originated Chettris (warrior caste of Rajput stock) and could rise in military rank gaining both power and wealth. Disregarding the traditional caste rules has been attributed to one of the factors of his success and so has the use of the kukri as it was difficult to parry the strike of a kukri by a sword, sabre or rapier. The Gorkhalis used traditional weapons of the time period, single and doubble edged swords, spears, daggers, bow and arrow, axes, and other native arms including the kukri and to a lesser extent cannons and muskets.
The conquests of the many hill kingdoms by the Shah rulers of Gorkha, eventually lead into problems with the British East India Company in the southern border. The Anglo-Nepali war of 1814-1816 was fought ending in a peace treaty. It was from this time onwards that the kukri began to enter into the western mind and imagination, now being popular throughout the world. To the amazement of the British was both the man and his oddly curved dagger which was to become the creme de la creme of the colonial military forces. The kukri set out to conquer to modern world following the Gurkhas in every battle they fought.
The peacetreaty between the British East India Company and Gorkhalis included the recruitment of Gorkhali soldiers into the British East India Company´s Military, the kukri was a weapon that the Gorkhali did not seperate from, taking the kukri with him where ever he went was natural. A tradition of recruitment and use of the kukri has followed since the early 19th century till presently. It is belived that a tradition of recruitment existed prior to the British in the Sikh Military as the Nepali name Lahore is most likely from the city of Lahore, the captial of the Sikh kings in the Punjab. Of course the British military has influenced the official pattern issue kukris over the last 100 years, it would be strange if they didn´t. Over all the kukri has changed very little since its early days, the shape is very much the same and its more bound to be different depending on what region it comes from or what style it is made according too yet a kukri is a kukri unmistakenly. Time of course has its marks also, diffrences do exist in kukris from different time periods. For the development of British Military Pattern Gurkha Issue Kukri please see the artcile available at www.ikrhs.com
, by Spiral JRS Feb 2006, which beautifully illustrates the devlopment of five standard models of kukris in the 20th century.
The Gurkhas have been a tremendous advertisment for the kukri, since the days of early recruitment they have fought many of the battles under British and Indian flags and still do. In both world wars they fought gallantly and now being deployed in the Gulf and Afganhistan several kukri bussiness in Nepal are surving on sales to allied forces serving alongside the Gurkhas.
Please feel free to use any material, ideas, thoughts for your use in the study of kukris. If you use any part of this article, then please be as kind as to make reference to this article when you use it, it is your karma that decides. References and other info will be given if nessecary but as I mentioned in the introduction this is not a profeesional academic exercise, more to create a disscusion and shed some light on the development of kukris throughout time. If i have upset someone I apologize, history is for discussion, many times to show how ignorant we are. Each collector and enthusiast has his own ideas and very little is written in stone, I might realize something completley different tomorrow and throw this away or I might keep it and continue finding out more. Any ideas, thoughts, opions, etc, can be emailed to me at email@example.com
or posted on the forum. Everything will help the study and keep us enlightened.
History is not only whats written but more so what is not written, that which is left in the dark for us to explore.
© Viking Krishna Kunwor, 2007.
Hanshee, 1800´s to early 1900´s, long sirupate, fitted to wooden handle.
Mystery 1927 marked, Gurkha issue, ful tang, riveted handle, no kaudi.
2nd WW Officers, full tang, riveted ivory handle, buttcap fitting.
2nd WW Sirupate, metal handle, rat tail, buttcap fitted.
2nd WW maker marked, full tang, riveted wooden handle, no notch.
Early 1900´s Dui chirra, horn handle, buttcap fitted.
Left: Late 1800´s-Early 1900´s Sirupate, fitted to horn handle with mother of peral inlay.
Right: British made Pre WW 1, Blued blade, full tang, riveted wood handle.
There exists several models or styles of the kukri, both traditional and military issue, above examples are just a few of many styles.