The kukri knife (also spelled khukuri) can be reliably traced back to the 17th century, when the Gorkhas used it for cutting meat and vegetables, digging holes, hacking branches and other odd jobs. Some historians insist it dates back further — perhaps as much as 1,000 years, according to one temple drawing in India — but there’s a lot of disagreement.
What isn’t disputed is the existence of an early kukri knife that belonged to Drabya Shah, the king of Gorkha, in 1627. Why isn’t it disputed? Because that kukri knife lives in the collection of the Arsenal Museum in Katmandu, Nepal.
In 1742 Prithvi Narayan Shan became king of Gorkha. Although his army was small, he was ambitious, and in 1768 he became the first king of Nepal. His victory is attributed, in part, to the fact that his troops were armed with kukri.
From that point on, members of the Nepalese military carried the feared fighting blades. In 1948, Padma Shamsher Janga Bahadur Rana, prime minister and supreme commander of Nepal, wrote: “The kukri is the national as well as religious weapon of the Gorkhas. It is incumbent on a Gorkha to carry it while awake and to place it under the pillow when retiring.”
Construction of the Kukri Knife
The kukri knife strategically balances weight, size and shape to complement the movement of the user. During the 19th century, Nepalese models of the kukri knife were made with a notch cut into the blade just in front of the handle. It’s been suggested that it was used to intercept enemy blades or to keep blood from flowing onto the handle, thus making it less slippery.
Other theories refer to Hindu depictions of sex organs and representations of the cow’s hoof.
Because they were intended to be used hard, most historical kukri blades weren’t decorated, except possibly with some simple floral engravings along the spine or symbols from the armory where they originated. Better blades were hollow ground with one, two or three fullers (grooves).
The kukri knife comes in a variety of lengths, with the average being from 14 inches to 16 inches. The kukri knife can be up to 30 inches long, but such models are more ceremonial than combative.
Example: At the Hindu festival of Dashain, large kukri knives are used to execute bulls. A one-stroke decapitation means good luck and well-being for the people in attendance.
The blades come in two varieties with respect to tangs. The rattail tang runs to the end of the handle, narrowing as it goes. The end is peened over to secure the handle in place. The other type has a full flat tang that extends to the tip of the weapon and is as wide as the handle, thus making it the stronger of the two designs. It uses steel rivets to attach the handgrip. A pommel plate or butt cap is usually fitted over the end.
Kukri knife handles are made of local wood — walnut, chandan or sisnal — or sometimes water-buffalo horn. Fancier models are made of brass, ivory or even rhino horn. In the distant past, handles were curved, but modern versions are usually straight.
The scabbard is made of two pieces of wood that are covered with leather derived from a goat, water buffalo or elephant. In olden days, the scabbard didn’t have any features that allowed it to be attached to a belt, which meant the kukri knife was usually carried stuck in its owner’s sash. Later, hardware was added so the weapon could be attached to a belt.
Located near the throat of the scabbard are two pockets that hold smaller knives, called karda and chakmak. The karda is a utility knife, and the chakmak is a blunt tool that’s used to sharpen the kukri blade and make sparks from a flint. Early scabbards also had a leather pouch for carrying a small survival kit.
How the Kukri Knife Is Used
The kukri knife can be used to smash, slash or stab. For smashing, the butt of the handle, the flat side of the blade or the spine is used. For slashing, the edge of the blade is used, and for stabbing ... well, duh. Because of the weight of the kukri knife, a moderate smack to the skull can cause dizziness or unconsciousness.
The curvature and weight of the blade facilitate slashing to such an extent that even a weak stroke will slice the skin. A stronger stroke can cut muscle and bone. A moderate-power stab can puncture the skin and sever blood vessels, while a more committed attack can easily cause death.
Kukri Knife in Battle
The design of the kukri knife screams close-quarters combat, which is why the Gorkhas became enamored with it. Records from 1824 tell how a fierce hand-to-hand battle took place between a Gorkha unit under Frederick Shore and Capt. Frederick Young and a band of armed robbers who’d seized a fort at Koonja.
The Gorkhas destroyed their enemies with their kukri knives. When Gorkhas were given leave to visit their families, they naturally packed their kukri because of the dangers — both two-legged and four-legged — they inevitably faced on the way home.
In one account, a man named Ajamlal Rai was on his way to Darjeeling when he was attacked by a leopard. The animal mangled his left hand, but he managed to kill it.
When asked how he escaped, he told an official he didn’t have time to unsheathe his kukri knife, but he gave the animal such a hard blow that the scabbard split open. Despite his injury, Ajamlal skinned the leopard and brought back the head, which he gave to the officer. He was financially rewarded for his bravery.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: The kukri knife is still used as a backup weapon for soldiers in war zones. It’s also carried by civilians concerned with protecting themselves on the streets. Even though much more advanced weaponry is available, the people of Nepal are still comfortable and confident carrying their kukri knife.
About the Author: Shuny Bee is a freelance writer and martial artist who comes from Nepal. He now lives in Portland, Oregon. For more information, visit beemartialarts.com.