Some time ago, Madhu Gurung wrote about her grandmother who was the best storyteller in the world. Once ‘Bajai’ as she was called, told a different kind of a story – a real story of how the Gorkha warriors of Nepal came to settle down in Dehradun. Among them was Bajai’s grandfather, the chieftain of a clan.
Bajai told us that more than 200 years ago, when the British East India Company ruled parts of India, they attacked Nepal. Bajai’s grandfather was the chieftain of a Gurung village called Gandrung. It lies at the foot of the fishtail mountain called Machapuchara. He and other chieftains from different parts of Nepal, joined under the command of General Amar Jung Thapa. They drove the British back. The British fled and the Nepalese army followed, conquering the whole of Kumaon and Garhwal hills.
Unlike the well equipped British who had rifles and cannons, the Gorkhas fought with their traditional weapon, the khukuri. It is a knife with a short blade. But, unknown to most people, there is a cow hoof made at the base of the blade. One explanation for this could be that the Gorkhas are known as Gorakshaks or protectors of the cow. But the cow hoof at the bottom of the khukuri has another use as well. Because of it no blood ever falls or comes on to the handle of the weapon. The Gorkha’s grip remains strong as ever.
It was with this weapon that the Gorkha army faced its opponents. The army consisted not just of men but women and children too. The whole family fought together.
Having won Kumaon and the Garhwal hills, in northern India, the Gorkhas came to the valley of Dehra Dun (It now comes in the northern state of Uttaranchal). It was here, close to the natural springs of Sahastradhara (hundreds of natural springs) that they built a fort called Kalinga and ruled with an iron hand.
The British still remembered their shameful defeat at the hands of the Gorkhas. They increased their numbers and surrounded the fort. But even then they could not find any way of causing harm to the Gorkha army.
Finally, they found a way. They bribed a money lender with offers of land and income. He led them to the place from where the Gorkha army got its water.
The British cut off all water supplies to the fort and starved the Gorkhas. On the fourth day, with not a drop of water to drink, the Gorkhas opened the gates of the fort and waited for the British troops. The first man, a British Major — was mowed down with a khukuri by a Gorkha woman carrying her baby in a sling on her back. By nightfall that day, not a single Gorkha adult survived. There were only a handful of children.
The raw courage and fierce determination of the Gorkhas to fight in the face of all odds impressed the British. They were used to the easy submission of Indian kings. But for the Gorkhas, the traditional adage was “Kayar bhanda marnu ramro”- it’s better to die than to be a coward. They were determined to die than face capture.
It was after this battle that the Treaty of Sagauli was signed, in 1816. The Gorkhas were recruited into the Army. The tales of valour was passed on from one generation to another.
Bajai’s grandfather and grandmother did not survive the attack on the Kalinga fort. Bajai’s father was a young five-year old who grew up and joined the Army. He married a woman from the Kumaon hills. Bajai married when she was barely 15. Grandfather wasn’t rich but he loved the land of Johri. Every month, he put a little away and bought land with these savings. By the time he was a prisoner of war (POW) in Italy during the Second World War, in 1939, he owned nearly a hundred acres of forest, cultivated rice fields and gentle meadows with banana, mango and litchi trees.
Bajai and Baaje (grandfather) had 13 children. Eight survived. They were determined to give their children the best. Baaje built a sloping tin-roofed house with his own hands. It had brown mud walls and floors, which Bajai loving washed with cow dung and mud every morning. Even in her bleakest hour when Baaje was a POW, Bajai insisted that the children go to school. She always insisted that we should pass at least 20 classes, which meant BA, MA everything. I do suspect she couldn’t count more than that…
Baaje returned home alive, but with severe asthma. He died soon. Bajai never remarried, nor did she let her maternal relatives help a young widow and her seven children survive. Instead, she started tilling her land and growing her own foodgrains and vegetables. It was the same old Gorkha spirit at work.