Information on early Indian swords is not readily available, but there are rock carvings, drawings, paintings, writings and a very few archaeological finds. None show a forward-angled blade until about 400 A.D. After that, the shape appeared quite frequently and, indeed, seemed to proliferate, supplanting many older, straight-bladed pieces.
It’s generally acknowledged that there was a lot of contact between Rome and the Deccan area of India, and it seems logical that the Romans introduced the blade shape there. Once it was introduced to the subcontinent, the Indians adopted the shape as their own, and did so with a great deal of imagination. The forward angle was tried for many sword blades, a large number of which weren’t practical fighting tools—but they sure did look mean! The shape made its way throughout India as one warlike tribe after another adopted it, and, through conquest, spread it farther and farther.
The early history of Nepal is largely unknown, as are the weapons the Nepalese used. Early art plus a few finds indicate that the Nepalese used the leaf-shaped short sword a great deal, as well as the Chinese straight sword. There’s no evidence that the Nepalese used the curved sword.
The KoraSometime well after the 10th century A.D., the forward-angled blade appeared. The primary weapon of the early Gurkhas and other warlike tribes in the area was the kora. The sword ranged in length from 18-28 inches, with the blade sharpened on the inside edge. The tip curved forward and flared out and down. Though the shape was completely useless for a thrust, the power in the cut was awesome.
Along the way, technology intervened and the firearm assumed the place of principal weapon. The kukri, which had many uses, was kept and the kora was discarded.
The kukri has since become the national weapon of Nepal, particularly the Gurkhas. However, the Indians were the first to use the kukri. In fact, in the Royal Nepali Museum, almost all the old kukris are of Indian workmanship. Actually, there are very few old kukris in the museum, and the oldest dates to only about 1750 A.D.
One of the more interesting—and amusing—aspects of the kukri is the notch at the base of the blade. It’s amusing because even the Gurkhas don’t know its exact meaning.
The notch is of two cut-out semi-circles side by side, leaving a small projection. It’s been described as intended to catch the opponent’s blade—a sure way to lose a hand if attempted; a symbol of the female sex organ designed to give the blade power; a representation of a cow’s udder (Gorkha—the old spelling—means “protector of cows”); and the Trident of Shiva the Destroyer, a local war god. No one really knows, so feel free to choose whichever you like.
Sweetest Of SpotsAll warriors and soldiers need to be familiar with their weapons before they can be effective with them. The same is true with the kukri. In the mountains of Nepal, the Gurkha grows up using the kukri, and he also grows up with a warrior tradition. His weapon becomes part of him.
What makes the Gurkha’s kukri so effective? All chopping weapons have an optimal striking point, the area where the greatest force is generated with the least amount of vibration. This point is the sweet spot on a baseball bat, tennis racket or a sword.
The sweet spot on a kukri is extremely large—in fact, just about the entire blade is the sweet spot. The same depth of cut will result if the blade hits close to the front of the knife or close to the back. Only at the extreme front is there a noticeable difference. The forward-angled blade helps dampen the vibration so that there’s no energy lost in the blow, but the blade also arrives quicker so that you get the effect of cutting through without much effort. With a wrist snap just as the blade hits, much more force can be generated than most realize—enough to lop off the limb of a small tree.
Old StylesThe old kukris were handmade and several styles were popular. The Limbu tribe favored the Sirupate kukri, which has a blade somewhat long in relation to its width. The Rais tribe preferred the Bhujpore style, which has a wider blade, while the Gurungs, Thapas and Magars opted for what could be called the standard kukri.
No two old kukris are alike. (The only kukris that are identical are/were those issued by the various countries that employ or employed Gurkhas: Great Britain, India and Nepal.) Original kukris are as individual as the kami—the village kukri maker/blacksmith—who forges them, and many of the knives are works of art. They were frequently presented as gifts to officers and high-ranking people who happened to please one of the ruling classes of Gurkhas. These presentation pieces were very elaborate, with ivory or silver grips and mounts, and beautiful, highly polished blades.
One of the more interesting tales about the kukri is the trouble the British ran into once they had established a presence, and then a railroad, in Nepal. All too frequently the track was stolen. The English couldn’t figure out why until it was learned that the track was an excellent source of steel, and the kami didn’t have to worry about purifying the iron in it.
ConclusionThe history of the kukri is very rich, and in this short article I could only cover the basics. I wish it were possible to go back in time and see the kukri’s development. Since that’s not possible, I’ll have to be content with speculation.
I’ve been playing with the kukri for over 30 years, and I’m still fascinated by it. It remains my knife of choice on a lengthy trip to the wilds.
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