Nepal's warriors from the hills
Imperial holdover: Gurkhas flock to British army, but only one in 75 succeeds
POKHARA, Nepal (AP) - Two centuries later, young men are still being drawn from their poverty-stricken Himalayan hills by the thousands to fight -- and die -- with legendary valour for another man's country far away.
In an era when the world's armies are hard pressed to fill their ranks, the Gurkhas are a recruiter's dream: Last year 17,349 applied to join the British military, and after grueling physical, medical and mental tests 230 were accepted — just one in 75.
These warriors could be regarded as Britain's mercenaries: good money and adventure are major attractions. But ask almost any Gurkha soldier, and he is also likely to talk of history and upholding a tradition of being among the world's finest infantrymen.
|A retired Gurkha, guarding a museum and memorial for Gurkhas, greets fellow Gurkha soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan, in front of a photograph depicting Gurkhas during the Malayan emergency. AP
This reputation was first acquired in the 19th century, after the British thought it wiser to recruit rather than fight foes who bloodied them badly when they moved northward out of colonial India into Nepal.
From those days, through the two world wars, to today's Afghanistan, the spine-chilling cry of "Ayo Gurkhali!" - "The Gurkhas are coming!" -- has sent enemies quaking. Some have even surrendered rather than face a relentless charge by the rugged soldiers wielding their trademark kukri knives.
"Afghanistan was a test for the modern Gurkha, to show our forefathers that we are still meeting the standards they set. It was our chance to show that we are continuing the tradition. So far, so good," said Sgt. Belbahadur Gurung, a third-generation British Army Gurkha back home after a widely lauded combat tour.
Leaning against his new motorcycle and sporting designer sunglasses, the handsome 31-year-old platoon sergeant cut a dashing figure as did comrades from the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, savouring leave with family, friends and envious hopefuls in this western Nepal city.
In recent years, the long-acquiescent Gurkhas have agitated for higher pensions and the right to live in Britain after retirement, even handing in some medals in protest.
They have had some success, and the desire of young men to join their 3,500 compatriots now serving Queen Elizabeth II is on display daily at Pokhara's sports stadium, as the sun's first rays softly brush the snows of the towering Annapurna range.
Although this year's recruits will not be selected until December, already hundreds of aspirants reel off endless laps, push-ups, sit-ups and even yoga positions at one of the dozen private "academies" that have sprung up to prepare the applicants.
Pema Lama, a strict disciplinarian and ex-soldier who heads the Task Force prep school, said he regularly marshals his students in the hills to train for the toughest test of all -- the doko race. It's a hurtle up a steep hillside with 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of sand in a doko, the traditional cone-shaped basket carried on the back with a strap around the forehead. The lung-busting five-kilometre (three-mile) course must be covered in under 48 minutes.
Women -- to be recruited for the first time by 2010 -- will be loaded down with 15 kilometres (33 pounds).
In some years, as many as 60,000 seek to join. But most don't even get to the application stage while others are filtered out in regional screening because they fail to meet basic qualifications ranging from English and math skills having no more than two teeth fillings.
"Getting into the British army is like winning a lottery," said Capt. Rupert Anderson, operations officer at British Gurkhas Pokhara camp, the main recruiting centre in Nepal.
And some will do anything to win. Last year, 515 false application documents were detected while a number of candidates -- required to be 17 1/2 to 21 years old -- lied about their age, the captain said. Some in their late 20s, and beginning to show gray hairs, were found out when rain washed out makeshift dyes.
"Those who fail are totally downcast. Many don't go home for days. Everyone cries," said Mansing Gurung, senior area recruiting officer and a retired Gurkha officer. Suicides occur, he said, since some failed aspirants feel they've brought shame on their families.
The successful swear loyalty to the queen and are whisked away into an alien world -- the moors of Yorkshire, England -- for 37 weeks of intensive training including a course on the British way of life."We have no such opportunities in Nepal. Once you get selected it's the solution to everything. That's why we are so crazy about it," said 20-year-old Bibek Thapa, preparing under trainer Lama for December's test -- his third and final chance.
|An aspiring Gurkha trains at a stadium in Pokhara, Nepal. AP
Studying for a business management degree, Thapa said he could expect about 6,000 rupees (US$90; euro60) a month in his first job. British Army pay, by contrast, would start at 1,000 British pounds (US$2,000; euro1,300), plus free room and board -- enough for most soldiers to contribute handsomely to their families' welfare and Nepal's foreign exchange earnings.
Making a career even more attractive, the British government last year approved pensions equal to those of British soldiers for Gurkhas who retired after 1997, and also gave them automatic right to remain in Britain. "Never has a nation had such loyal and good soldiers for so long at so cheap a price," said J.P. Cross, a retired lieutenant colonel who served with Gurkha troops for his entire 38-year career and now lives among them in Pokhara.
He describes the bonds between Gurkhas and British officers like himself as "a chemistry of camaraderie that has stood the test of time."
"Since 1815, these people have regarded the British as kindly fathers who liberated them from a caste system and replaced it with meritocracy, who looked upon them as individuals and matchless soldiers," he said. The author of several books on the Gurkhas, Cross said there was "something about these people that allows them to give something extra for a longer period at a higher level than any other soldiers I have ever met."
That something, he says, springs from struggle with their harsh environment, the need to act decisively when frequent natural disasters strike, an innate discipline and loyalty to one's own. Thirteen Gurkhas have won the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery, three of them posthumously.
Is the modern Gurkha still matchless? Cross isn't sure whether as many would be ready to sacrifice their lives. But he says the new breed is smarter than its forefathers, and still in great demand: 120,000 serve in the Indian army, the sultan of Brunei keeps his own Gurkha guard and Singapore incorporates them into its police force.
Anderson, the officer at the Pokhara camp, said fewer Gurkhas are now recruited directly from the hills because they come down to first study in towns. But they haven't lost their prized qualities."You want the robust hill boy but you also want soldiers who are more urban-savvy and technologically aware," he said. "So the situation is now perfect for the British army."
Will the sun ever set on this relic of the British Empire?
"That question has been asked again and again," said Maj. Rick Beven, commander of British Gurkhas Pokhara. "After World War II, the partition of India, the handover of Hong Kong. But they're still here. As long as there are operations and they do well, there will be a future for them in the British army.
Glance at Gurkha history
From the pages of the martial history of Gurkhas:
British in 1815 begin recruiting soldiers among Gurkhas, people from several ethnic groups in Nepal's hills with a warlike past.
As much of India rebels against British rule, Gurkhas stay loyal and help crush the Great Mutiny of 1857.
Gurkhas take part in Britain's colonial wars during the Victorian era.
Some 200,000 - virtually an entire male population - enlist to fight in World War I. About 250,000 fight in World War II. In the two wars, 30,000 Gurkha troops are killed, and Gurkhas win nearly 5,000 medals for gallantry.
In more recent times, Gurkhas see action in Malaya, Borneo, Falkland Islands, Bosnia, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.