Dispelling Some Myths: About the Kukri
The Nepalese Kukri is instantly recognisable to anyone who has served alongside the men of the Brigade of Gurkhas or has a passing familiarity with bladed weapons. Its distinctive forward curving blade makes it useful as both a melee weapon and as a regular cutting tool.
History Originating from the Indian subcontinent, but used throughout most of South Asia, the kukri probably developed from a domestic sickle or agricultural tool. Similar implements have existed in several forms throughout the Indian subcontinent being used both as weapons and as tools. Its very utility has seen the kukri serve as the traditional knife for the Nepali-speaking Gurkhas for many decades. Consequently, it has become the defining weapon of the Nepali Army and of Nepal in general. The kukri came to be known to the Western world when the East India Company came into conflict with the growing Gorkha Kingdom, culminating in the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814–1816.
Use The weight and shape of the kukri blade makes it an effective chopping and slashing weapon. Most famed from its military use, the kukri is actually the most commonly used multipurpose tool in the fields and homes of Nepal. Its use has varied from building, clearing, chopping firewood, digging, slaughtering animals for food, cutting meat and vegetables, skinning animals, and opening cans. The narrower part of the blade, closest to the handle, means the kukri can be used as a small knife, while the heavier and wider end of the blade, towards the tip, functions well as an axe or a small shovel.
As a weapon, the forward curving blade shape enables the user to cut effectively, inflict deep wounds and, on occasion, even to penetrate bone. From practical experience, because the blade arcs towards an opponent, the kukri user does not need to angle the wrist while executing a chopping motion thus delivering a more forceful strike. The blade’s mass combined with its curvature also allows the kukri to slice as it chops.
Myths There have been, and still are, a couple of myths surrounding the kukri since its earliest recorded use in the 7th century. Most notable amongst these is the custom that, owing to its sole purpose as a fighting weapon, the blade ‘must draw blood’ before being sheathed. This notion is easily dispelled as a myth by the rather simple and undeniable fact that most kukris are more commonly used as general farm and household utility tools. Under what set of circumstances would anyone believe it would be useful to ‘draw blood’ every time they used a tool.
A second popular ‘myth’ derives from the shape of the kukri blade being stylistically akin to that of the ancient Greek kopis (Κόπις); both weapons having a pronounced forward curving blade. It has been suggested that when Alexander the Great’s Macedonian army invaded India in the 4th century BC, their kopis was introduced to the region and that, over time, this gave birth to the kukri. There are, however, a couple of reasons why this may not be so. Firstly, Alexander’s military ventures where largely confined to the Indus Valley which lies in modern day Pakistan. As the crow flies, Nepal lies several hundred kilometres West meaning there is no direct connection to Alexander or his army. That is not to say the distinctive kopis blade shape could not have been copied or examples traded westward, it just makes it far less likely. It is rather more plausible that, like the Iberian falcata, a contemporary of the kopis, the blade shape was developed independently.
Kopis For Greek speakers, however, the term ‘kopis’ could describe a heavy, forward-curving knife primarily used as a tool for cutting meat or for sacrificing animals in religious rituals, or it could refer to a one-handed, single-edged, ‘cut and thrust’ sword with a similarly shaped blade. Early examples of kopis had blade lengths up to 65 cm (25.6 inches), making it almost equal in size to the Roman ‘spatha’ . Later examples of Macedonian kopis tend to be shorter with a blade length of about 48 cm (18.9 inches). Like the kukri, the typical kopis had a single-edged blade that curved forward towards the point, the edge being concave on the part nearest the hilt but swelling to convexity towards the point. This shape, often termed ‘recurved’, distributes the blade’s weight such that the kopis is highly capable of delivering a blow with the momentum of an axe while maintaining the long cutting edge of a sword, and some facility to execute a thrust.
Use The Ancient Greeks often used single-edged blades in warfare, as attested by art (right) and literature, yet it is the straighter, double-edged, leaf-shaped blade of the more versatile xiphos that is more widely represented. Greek heavy infantry (hoplites) seemingly favoured the xiphos, while the curving kopis made it especially suited to mounted warfare. The general and writer Xenophon recommended the kopis (which he did not distinguish from a similar sword known as the ‘makhaira’) for cavalry use in his treatise ‘On Horsemanship’:
’I recommend a kopis rather than a xiphos, because from the height of a horse’s back the cut of a machaira will serve you better than the thrust of a xiphos’.
The precise wording of Xenophon's description suggests the possibility that the kopis was regarded as a specific variant within a more general class, with the term makhaira denoting any single-edged cutting sword. That said, any notable difference between kopis and makhaira (μάχαιρα), which translates as ‘chopper’ or ‘short sword/dagger’, is not entirely clear from the ancient texts. Modern specialists tend to discriminate between single-edged cutting swords as those with forward curve being ‘kopides’ and those without as ‘makhairai’.
Returning to the kukri, apart from similarities with the blade shape there is little evidence to support the Alexandrian theory. Yet, given the resemblance between kopis and kukri, it is hard to shake this popular notion. Even so, it is more likely that the kukri’s design is evidence of parallel innovation, in a similar vein to the building of pyramids by separate cultures across the world. That different people in different parts of the globe could build similar structures speaks more to the universality of human thinking than the need for ‘alien’ explanations. Faced with similar engineering problems, ancient Egyptians and Meso-Americans, separated by time and thousands of miles, produced similar engineering solutions. In its simplest form the pyramid shape is a natural evolution from a mound or pile to a structure that is relatively easy to design and build. In relation to the present discussion, the development of the kukri did not need alien or foreign (that is to say Macedonian) influence to come to fruition.
1. A longer bladed sword, presumably derived from ‘Celtic’ designs, used by Roman auxiliary troops but mostly by cavalry.