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|Even the spelling has been disputed or butchered since someone first tried to describe this kukri knife: khookree, kookerie, khukri, kukery or even Cookerie. What we see is an Anglicized version of a word first heard by English ears back in the early 18th century. The spoken word is actually 3 syllables: kook-er-ee and has finally come down to today’s accepted spelling of kukri or khukuri |
The kukri has been one weapon of choice for the Gurkhas of Nepal since at least the 1600s, and used for everything from a tool for building, digging a furrow or cutting up meat and vegetables, to the unique and effective fighting knife that has made its reputation. The actual origins are lost to time, but it is pretty certain that it is of Indian origin and before that a similar blade was carried by the early Egyptians called a kopesh. The Greeks copied that design and called it a kopis and then the Macedonians continued using the unique forward curved blade shape and referred to it as a machiara or later as the Roman falcatta.
Two Rare Hanshee Kothimora Kukris with silver mout Scabbards --- John Powell Collection
It could have found its way to India with Alexander the Great or via the extensive trade routes from the Arabian peninsula into the sub-continent. The first visual representation of a kukri occurs in India in a temple drawing from around 600 AD and the earliest known Nepalese style kukri is in the Arsenal Museum in Kathmandu and belonged to Raja Drabya Shah who was King of Gorkha in 1627. This particular kukri has a large, deep-bellied blade, carved wooden grip and a step at the ricasso rather than the more common cho.
|Prior to the use of firearms in the early 18th century Gurkha warriors were armed with the kora (also referred to in old texts as a konra or khura). This is a short sword with a blade of varying length and width and sharpened on the inside edge. The blade does not have a point, but usually ends in two shallow curves. It comes in a few variations depending on its origin as it was also manufactured in Tibet, Bhutan and India. Many anthropologists and some historians believe this to be the true native weapon of Nepal since it wasn’t influenced by India or other surrounding ethnographic groups as was the tulwar (tarwar in Nepali) or katar which was prevalent in the Nepalese weapons inventory. It comes in a variety of scabbards and grip treatments and was worn across the back, or on the left side with the sling draped across the chest or over the left shoulder. The kukri was used as a backup weapon and was stuck in the owners sash (patuka) directly in front of his body. Today the kora is only used as a ceremonial execution weapon of bullocks at the festival of Dasain (referred to as Dashera in India and by the original British Regiments). There is also a kukri with a length of up to 30” for this purpose and in ancient times a weapon known as a ram dao was also used. || |
Historical Budhume Kukris --- John Powell Collection
|In early Nepal most villages would have a metal smith (or lohar of the kami clan) who forged kukris, koras and any other metal implements for the local populace. The early steel was either locally produced and forged using a sophisticated layering process, or with steel traded from India or Tibet. After the English were allowed into Nepal in the early 19th century the kamis found discarded carriage springs to be ideal to re-forge as blades. This practice continued throughout India with railway carriage springs and sections of track and is still in use today. The early blades can be of the poorest locally made steel up to the most sophisticated “watered” steel, but will vary widely depending for whom the knife was being made. Kukris were being made in India, Assam and one is known to have been ordered by the Prime Minister of Nepal from Italy in the late 19thc. There are some of the ultra rare varieties that were made in London and one regiment produced a very unique and large kukri during the third Afghani War in 1878 replete with the local armourer’s mark. As with all kukris, variations abound and it is very difficult to speak of absolutes when referring to these knives. || |
Historical Hanshee (above) and Budhume Kukris with Karda and Chakmak made of barking dear horn
---John Powell & Mark McMorrow Collection
|Nepalese kukris after 1800 will always have a notch or kauri commonly referred to as a cho cut into the blade directly in front of the grip and bolster. The kauri is greatly disputed as to its necessity: Is it a practical design to catch and neutralize and enemy’s blade or a Hindu religious symbol representing male or female organs, or does it represent the sacred cow’s hoof? Many Indian and very early Nepalese versions will not have this notch nor will some later military kukris. Kamis would display their skill by forming this small part of the blade into designs and even fleur de lys or other floriate shapes. || |
Three Military examples --- Mark McMorrow Collection
|The scabbards are 2 piece wood frames covered with the leather of goat, water buffalo or elephant and may have a brass or metal chape though early pieces will have no point protection. In many cases the leather is dyed black or dark brown. There will also be two small knives called a karda and chakmak attached to small scabbards directly behind the scabbard’s throat: the former used as a small utility knife and the later used to hone the blade or strike a small piece of flint that was carried in a pouch (khalti or goji) that was attached to these small scabbards. Most military knives of mass production from WW I and WW II will not have these knives or pouch, but the kukris now issued have returned to having the small knives with an eye towards tradition. |
Blades are rarely decorated as they are made for toughness and hard work. They are found with one or two fullers running along the spine or with a simple floral engraving in the same area that can be referred to as the pwankh or the rato karang.
Two Historical Hanshees Kukris & handles
--- Joohn Powell collection
Some of the better blades will be hollow ground in one (ek), two (dui) and sometimes three (tin) fullers. Older Nepalese blades may have one or more half moon symbols on them indicating armoury manufacture and Nepalese Army issue. There may also be symbols of the sun (surya) the moon (chandra) or one of their many deities. Then again the crescent symbol was also added by individual kamis to give their blades a bit more cache.
|The grips were usually of the local walnut (pat-pate) wood, chandan or sisnal and were fitted as one piece with a tapered tang either fitted in part way or all the way to the pommel and peened over on a metal pommel plate. This plate may also have an additional keeper in the shape of a diamond (hira jornu) which is a traditional Nepalese detail. Both these plates and the bolsters are found in steel if the kukri was made before 1910 and brass or German silver thereafter. Except for the chape, military pieces didn’t start using brass furniture on the knife itself until post WW I. To help secure these one piece grips a mixture of pitch, honey and tree or plant saps is heated and poured into the carved out grip prior to sliding in the tang. This material also helps hold the bolster and the pommel plate and is known as laha and is as strong as today’s epoxies. The other style of attachment is scales of wood, bone, and horn or ivory that are riveted to a wider tang and known as pana butta. || |
Two more example of Historical Hanshee Kukris
--- Mark Mcmorrow Collection
|Grips vary from the materials mentioned to highly engraved or repousseed silver or gold sheets over a wood base and after 1900 solid white metal or aluminum was used. Kukris have been found with both mammal and marine ivory, other exotic woods than previously mentioned, plus giraffe and rhinoceros horn. Today’s issued kukri has a handle made of cured water buffalo horn and is usually in one piece with a brass pommel cap and bolster. |
To close this chapter I would like to dispel two of the common myths associated with the kukri:
This is a very unusual old Military Kukri, presented in a box-type mount --- Mark McMorrow Collection
The knife does not have to taste blood every time it is drawn from its scabbard. Were this so, no Nepalese would survive a week with the loss of so much blood and his hands would be unable to function from multiple cuts.
The kauri/cho is not a sighting device to be used to find and attack prey, human or animal and tossed like a boomerang to come back to its owner after dispatching the target.
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|More Unusual old Military Kukri, presented in a box-type mount --- Mark McMorrow Collection |
"Photos courtesy of John Powell and mark McMorrow"