Beginning of the end of the Gorkha Empire

Kangra Fort in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India, as seen from Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum. The battle for this fortress in 1815 was a decisive turning point in the history of Gorkha expansion. Kangra was the westernmost reach of the Gorkha Empire. Photo: WIKIMEDIA

Nepali Times reporter Alisha Sijapati spent a month retracing the Gorkha expansion beyond the Mahakali River more than 200 years ago. The goal was to extend up to Kashmir a new unified Himalayan nation by annexing Kumaon, Garhwal, and Punjab. 

The Gorkha Empire was on a warpath, and the British East India Company saw it as a threat to its own expansionist ambitions. This five-part series looks at the bravery of the Gorkhali troops under its legendary generals to defend the newly-conquered territory, but also the historical memory of an oppressive rule.

On 30 January 2015, Colonel M N Rai was killed in a firefight along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. When his body was brought to Delhi Cantonment for his cremation, his daughter Alka joined the crowd of mourners in crying out: “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali”

This ancient battle cry is now heard wherever soldiers from Nepal serve and fight: in India, Britain, Singapore, Brunei, Oman, and in their own country. It harks back to the forces under the command of the descendants of Nepal’s founding king Prithvi Narayan Shah crossing the Mahakali River in their westward conquests. 

Bahadur Shah was the prince regent in Kathmandu when his troops were on a blitzkrieg, moving rapidly across what is now the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh to the Sutlej River on the border with Punjab. The Gorkhalis held the territory for less than 25 years before finally being defeated in the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16.

The legacy of that occupation is still strong here: in Nepali soldiers still fighting and dying for India, in the collective memory of Gorkhali rule remembered mostly for its pillage and plunder, and in migrant workers from western Nepal who can be seen waiting for day jobs in hill stations today.

Nepal lost one-third of its territory to the East India Company after signing the Sugauli Treaty in 1816, but even before that, Nepali soldiers (mainly conscripts from Kumaon and Garhwal) started defecting to the British side after the fall of the Malaun Fort. And after the war, more Nepali soldiers were recruited into the Nusseeree Battalion, the first of many subsequent Gurkha brigades in the British Army, and later the Indian Army.

In the 1915 Gurkhas: Handbooks for the Indian Army by Lieutenant-Colonel Eden Vansittart, 2nd/10th Gurkha Rifles and revised by Major B.U. Nicolay of 1st/4th Gurkha Rifles, the authors note: 'After the war of 1816, Sir D. Ochterlony expressed an opinion confidentially to Lord Francis Hastings that the company's soldiers then Hindustanis could never be brought to resist the stock of these energetic mountaineers on the ground.'

In fact, it was because David Ochterlony of the East India Company was so impressed by the fighting spirit of his enemy during the Anglo-Nepal war that he formed the first Nusseeree Battalion on 24 April 1815, which is now the 1st/1st Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army, also called the Malaun Regiment. The Battalion was named after Ochterlony who was also known as Naseer Sahib, the title of 'Naseer-ud-daulah' conferred by Shah Alam II, the 17th Mughal emperor. 

“For us of non-Nepali origins, to be a part of the Gorkha regiment was a badge of honour, particularly, holding the khukri. That’s how the world knows that we are Gorkhas,” retired Indian Army Major Vijay Singh Mankotia told Nepali Times in an interview in his comfortable home in Dharamshala. Mankotia was also a former union minister of Himachal Pradesh and recalls his fondness for the soldiers from Nepal.

Here in the mountains that were the farthest west that the Nepali forces had reached, the Gorkha connection is still so strong that till today even families who are not descendants of the soldiers celebrate Dasain, Tihar and other Nepali festivals. Mankotia himself keeps his connection with his army colleagues, and speaks affectionately about their camaraderie and friendship. 

“I had always wanted to be part of the Gorkha regiment. From all the others, it was the 1/1 Gurkha Rifles that I was eager to enlist in because of its historic significance, and I was fortunate to have been selected. You don’t embrace the Gorkha, they embrace you,” says Mankotia.

Indeed, the continued presence of Nepali nationals in the Indian Army, the atrocities committed by the occupying Nepali forces in this part of India, the presence of so many migrant workers from Nepal here, right up to the current border dispute over Kalapani -- all feed into the love-hate relationship between India and Nepal and complicate bilateral relations to this day. 

After India’s independence in 1947 and under a Tripartite Agreement between Britain, Nepal and India, the original ten British Gurkha regiments consisting of 20 battalions before World War II were split between the British Army and the Indian Army. 

Six Gurkha regiments were transferred to the post-independence Indian Army, while four remained with the British. It was decided that 1/1 Gurkha Rifles (the Malaun Regiment) would go to India and the first British officers had to transfer or make a choice to join the Gurkha regiments, the 2nd, 6th, 7th, or 10th Gurkha Rifles. 

The Indian Army prefers to call its regiments with Nepali soldiers ‘Gorkha’, while the British have always referred to them as ‘Gurkha’. The term is derived from the historic town in central Nepal ruled by the Shah kings, and does not denote an ethnic group. The Gorkha/Gurkha regiments used to consist mainly of Gurung, Magar, Rai, or Limbu recruits from Nepal, although that has now changed. 

During the brief Gorkha occupation of Kumaon and Gharwal, Nepal was not yet called ‘Nepal’. Which is the reason why descendants of Nepali soldiers and even Indian Nepalis here usually refer to themselves as ‘Gorkhalis’, and those agitating for greater autonomy in Darjeeling called their territory 'Gorkhaland'.

It was only after 1947 that Indian citizens were also allowed to join the Gorkha regiments. To this day, chiefs of the Nepal Army are honorary generals in the Indian Army, and vice versa. In 1953, King Tribhuvan was appointed the Honorary Colonel of the 1st Gurkha Rifles.

Jyoti Thapa Mani is herself a descendant of a warrior in the Gorkha army in 1790, and whose sons later served in the Malaun Regiment. Her great-great-grandfather was in the ‘66th Ghoorkhas’ and her great-grandfather Kaluram Thapa belonged to the 1st Gurkha Rifles. 

Thapa Mani is the author of The Khukri Braves that recounts extensively the history of the Gorkha conquests of which her ancestors were a part. She retraces their steps, and describes the battles of Nalapani, Khalanga, Jythuck and Kangra –- names that have been etched in modern Nepal’s history for the bravery of the soldiers who defended them against the East Indian Company. 

“The Gorkhalis who stayed back after the Anglo-Nepal war like my forefathers associate themselves more with Gorkha, rather than being called Nepali, since ‘Nepal’ was not even a country’s name when the Gorkhalis crossed the Mahakali River to annex the hill states, which are now part of India,” says Thapa Mani, who is a graphic designer and lives in New Delhi.  

She took more than seven years to complete The Khukri Braves, and says it was part of her personal quest to retrace the history of her forebears. “At one point, people called me mad for my obsessive passion,” she laughs. “I have climbed places where only goats could go, but I was compelled by the need to find my family’s roots which are so intertwined with the history of Nepal and India.” 

She travelled from one Gorkha fort to another in the Indian Himalaya north of Delhi. From the Mahakali River to Pithoragarh, Almora, Nainital, Haridwar, Khalanga, Dehradun, Mussoorie, Nahan along roads and trails that the Gorkha conquerors walked on – 1,000km away from Kathmandu across rugged mountains.

Following the same trails this monsoon, there are still many vivid reminders of the Gorkhali presence here. We start in Kangra Fort, and travel eastwards to Dharamshala, Shimla, Subathu, Nalapani, Dehradun, Nainital, and Almora, and every step of the way, we meet the descendants of Gorkha soldiers who are proud of their Nepali heritage, many still speak Nepali, and observe the festivals of their ancestors.

There are an estimated 60,000 members of Gorkha families in Himachal Pradesh alone, with another 70,000 in Kumaon and Gharwal. But there are 3 million Nepali-speaking Indians, who live here and in Darjeeling, Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya and the northeastern states. 

The contribution of many descendants of Gorkhalis continues to go unnoticed, and is not appreciated. This includes Ram Chand Thakur from the 1st Gorkha Rifles from Kangra in Himachal, a bandmaster who composed many martial songs, including the famous Kadam Kadam Badaye Ja which is sung in the Indian military. 

Ravinder Rana, the chair of the Himachal Gorkhali Association in Dharamshala says modern Indian descendants of Gorkhalis may not call themselves Nepali, but are proud of their heritage.

“The Gorkhalis in these regions speak Nepali, they breathe Nepali, they take pride in the fact that their ancestors were war heroes, that they were the Gorkhas,” explains Rana. “But there is also a sense that they belong to India now.”

The territorial dispute over the Kalapani region in Kumaon between India and Nepal flared up in 2020 after India built a road in what Nepal considers its land. The government of Prime Minister K P Oli stoked nationalist fervour in Kathmandu and retaliated by publishing a new official map of Nepal that included Lipulekh, Limpyadhura, and Kalapani within its borders. 

As bilateral relations soured, and the Indian media turned hostile, and Indians of Nepali descent bore the brunt of the fallout, suddenly being seen by other Indians as ‘foreigners’.  

“In all the years that our ancestors have lived here, we have never faced any discrimination. Now, due to the border dispute and all the Nepali migrant workers flocking in for work, we have had to face prejudice from government officers in our own country,” says Rana. “This is especially disheartening for families who have lost their sons in the Indian Army defending India today.” 

Rana says the animosity between Nepal and India on the border dispute has now become personal, and the governments of both countries should be mindful not to rock the boat. “We may be Gorkhalis, but we are Indians now. It is unfortunate that we still have to wait for our governments to validate us and our existence,” he adds.

There has always been an undercurrent of hostility towards people of Nepali descent here, and that has its roots in the historical memory of the atrocities of the Gorkha conquest more than 200 years ago. But it has been accentuated lately after the Kalapani dispute

It surfaces unexpectedly in a chance conversation when a reporter mentions to an Indian Air Force pilot in a cafe in McLeodganj that she is from Nepal. The pilot’s previously affable demeanour changes abruptly, and he warns: “You Nepalis should not act too big for your boots and cross the border into our territory. You have become Chinese puppets.”

There are currently 28,000 Nepali nationals in the seven Gurkha regiments of the Indian Army. These regiments have 39 battalions with a 50-60% representation from Nepal. Every year, some 2,000 Nepali youth are selected to join the Indian Army. 

The Indian Army’s Gorkha troops are held in high regard, and tales of their bravery in battle either on the Pakistan or China border resonate with often-quoted remarks like this one by the former chief of the Indian Army Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he’s a Gurkha.”

But with the border dispute, Nepalis and Gorkhalis here feel like they are regarded with new suspicion. When this reporter reached Almora to visit the oldest Gorkha fort in Kumaon which is now a part of the 13th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment, she was denied entry solely on grounds that she was a Nepali. 

Although descendants of Gorkhalis here prefer not to be called ‘Nepali’, that is not the case in Darjeeling and Sikkim. The reason for that could be because those regions have more recent Nepali migrants, and were not militarily conquered by the Gorkha Empire. 

“The threat of the Anglo-Nepal war never reached Darjeeling and Sikkim, which is why Nepalis there have a slightly different self-identity,” explains historian Dinesh Raj Panta in Kathmandu. 

The demand for ‘Gorkhaland’ has dominated the politics of Darjeeling and Kalimpong for decades, and is an expression of a hankering for autonomy from the rule of West Bengal in faraway Kolkata. In fact, the name Gorkhaland appears more appropriate for Kumaon and Garwhal on the other side of Nepal, since that is where the real descendants of the Gorkhalis live.

While author Jyoti Thapa Mani and other Gorkhalis take pride in their ancestry, many in Kumaon, Garhwal, and Himachal do not acknowledge the conquest of their land by the invading Gorkha army. 

Historian Shekhar Pathak in Nainital says that the very word ‘Gorkhali’ has become synonymous with oppression and cruelty in the local Garhwali and Kumaoni dialects. 

Gorkhyo jaise banna hai?” (You want to become like a Gorkhali?) is often used as a warning not to be too aggressive. Gorkhalis are referred to as Gorkhyani, Gorkhyo, or Gorakhchayani.

The brutality of the Gorkha conquerors is not as well known in Nepal, where it is glossed over in history books. But here it is a part of historic lore and legend, passed down over the generations in Garhwal and Kumaon.

However, Garhwali historian Shiva Dabrawal in his book, Gorkhyani I and II, says that even official Indian history books do not delve into the cruelty of Gorkha rule, and it has only been passed down orally.

In Kathmandu, Dinesh Raj Panta says: “Enough time has passed, we must revisit our past, our common history between India and Nepal, and discuss both the good and the bad sides of the conquest. As a general rule, nobody likes conquerors.”

Accidents of history

The ultimate downfall of the Gorkha Empire was a given. The supply lines and communication with faraway Kathmandu were stretched to the limit, and it would take a month for even the fastest military units to reach Kangra from Kathmandu on horseback.

But the history of the Gorkha conquest could have taken a dramatically different turn if the Nepali general (Bada Kaji) Amar Singh Thapa had not fallen into Katoch ruler Sansar Chand II’s trap and avoided the battle for Kangra Fort. This and other accidents of battle contributed to the eventual Gorkhali retreat despite early gains against the forces of the East India Company in 1815.

Sansar Chand II’s ploy did not just alert the powerful Khalsa Maharaja of Punjab Ranjit Singh and his troops, but also tipped the war in favour of the East India Company after the Gorkha army had reached its farthest point to the west.

Similarly, had Amar Singh Thapa not been weakened by infighting and rivalries within the court back in Kathmandu that interfered with his battle plans, the Anglo-Nepal War and the Kangra siege may have seen a different outcome. 

After the death of Prithvi Narayan Shah, there was intense power struggle between members of the royal family, increasing the influence of courtiers from the Thapa, Pande and Basnet clans, who themselves were also in competition for power. The differences stretched over the next few decades, weakening the kingdom, ultimately leading to the rise of Jung Bahadur Rana in 1847, and 104 years of the Rana rule in Nepal

After Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha army was so encouraged by its rapid and relatively easy westward advance that it had become ambitious enough to see the possibility of the conquest of Kashmir. But the Sutlej was a river too far.

The Gorkhali generals were first outsmarted by Sansar Chand II of Kangra, then Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, and eventually the East India Company which saw the expansionist Gorkha Empire as a threat to its own colonial project against the Mughal rule in India. The Company also needed control of the high Himalayan passes for access to Tibet, and its riches. 

The Anglo-Nepal war of 1814 was actually the second time Gorkhali troops had clashed with the East India Company. After the Malla king of Kathmandu sent an urgent message to Kolkata to ask for help to repel a Gorkha invasion of the Valley, the Company sent an expeditionary force in 1795. The British forces were repelled after the battle of Sindhuli Garhi, east of Kathmandu. 

In 1804, when Amar Singh Thapa (father of Commander-General Bhimsen Thapa) took over Palpa, he expected rent from Butwal, which is near Gorakhpur. But by then the Nawab of Oudh had handed over Gorakhpur to the East India Company. 

The generals of the East India Company warned the Gorkha kingdom to keep out of their land, which did not sit well with the rulers in Kathmandu. This eventually led Governor General Francis Hastings, also known as Lord Moira, to declare war against the Gorkha Empire which led to the beginning of the end of the Gorkha rule over territorial conquests in the west.

This is the first of the five-part series. The next installment about the siege of Kangra Fort will appear in this space on 2 October 2021.

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