The reader will probably notice that whatever may be their form, there is a nameless something which designates the country in which they were produced. No matter whether the weapon has belonged to a rich or a poor man, whether it be plain wood and iron, or studded with jewels and inlaid with gold, the form remains the same, and there is about that form a graceful elegance which is peculiar to India. Take, for example, that simplest weapon, the kookery, and see how beautiful are the curves of the blade and handle, and how completely they satisfy the eye.
J. G. Wood. 1876. The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Vol. II. Hartford: the J. B. Burr Publishing Co. p. 1400 (Originally published in 1868.)
It may surprise regular readers of Kung Fu Tea to learn that some of the most popular articles I have ever posted have been those dealing with the identification, history and collecting of kukris. For some prior examples see here, here or here. These unique knives are not only popular among Nepalese soldiers, farmers and hikers, but they have become something of a national symbol.
Nor is their symbolic value confined to Nepal. Within the Western imagination these iconic knives have also come to be closely associated with the Nepalese people. They have seen combat with Gurkha troops fighting alongside the British army in World Wars One and Two as well as more recent conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Great acts of heroism have been carried out by soldiers armed with these knives. Indeed, following the usage of Barthes in his classic 1957 work of cultural criticism, Mythologies, the visual image of a loyal Gurkha soldier, armed with his trusty Kukri, has become one of the great “mythologies,” or symbolically laden popular images, of the modern UK.
Yet when, and how, did these images emerge? WWI was a watershed moment in popularization of the modern image of the Gurkha and his kukri. Yet the current post suggests that the roots of this powerful mythology extends much further back in time, all of the way to the middle of the 19th century.
It also suggests some of the ways in which the practice of assembling and displaying great collections of ethnographic arms became a powerful medium by which individuals in the West came to understand their world, and laid the foundation for the creation of the modern cultural complex which Sylvia Shin Huey Chong has referred to as the “Oriental obscene.” While her research looked specifically at the aftermath of the West’s post-WWII conflicts in Asia, the history of the kukri suggest that the roots of what she observed reach far deeper into the popular psyche.
To explore these questions we will once again be returning to the pages of The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries, by the Rev. J. G. Wood. I dealt with Wood’s background and literary career in a previous post, and do not wish to repeat all of that material here. It may be sufficient to remind readers that while he was trained for the ministry Wood actually found his greatest success in life as a lecturer and writer on natural history.
He is not remembered for his research. Rather, his great contribution was to become a highly successful author capable of popularizing this new scientific approach and bringing its findings into the public sphere. To use the modern parlance, Wood was more of a “scientific communicator” than a “scientist.”
Few of the subjects that he wrote about were totally his own. Yet in the current case this lack of originality is precisely what makes Wood of interest. In this essay we are concerned not so much with actual “discovery” of the kukri by Western explorers, but with the construction, dissemination and popularization of its mythos.
It may seem odd to some readers that Wood, whose great interest was the varieties of biological life, would be writing what amounted to an early ethnographic guide book. Readers may wish to consider two facts in mind as they go forward. First, during the second half of the 19th century travelogues became one of the most popular and, best selling, genres of literature. It is understandable that Wood, who sometimes worked as a professional lecturer, would want to get in on the act.
Yet this transition was complicated by the fact that Wood was not an accomplished world traveler. Though he did visit North America on a number of occasions, he never observed most of the people or places on which he passed judgement in Uncivilized Races. Like so many other 19th century ethnographers, his research was confined to the library and the display halls of England’s great private and public collections.
This last location is of particular importance when weighing Wood’s writings on the kukri. Like other gentlemen of his day, Wood maintained an extensive private collection of natural and ethnographic artifacts. Follow the fashion of the times, various weapons collected from the far reaches of the UK’s newly acquired “Oriental empire” were prominently displayed throughout. In an era before the widespread adoption of large public museums, such private collections were an important window that both looked onto, and framed, the world.
I have discussed this subject as it relates to Chinese arms and armor in other posts. It suffices to say that some of these arms were acquired as the spoils of war while others were brought back as souvenirs by soldiers and merchants. Still others were swept up in a growing antiquities market and were auctioned off in cities like London and NY. All of them functioned as powerful witnesses to the essential nature of the colonial system.
While the average reader in 1868 would not have had a chance to collect, or even see, such treasures, Wood’s publication drew them into these discussions. Notice the way in which he frames the account of the kukri’s characteristics and uses. Any thought that the kukri might be a versatile tool as well as a weapon (found in farmhouses across the country) is dismissed out of hand.
Instead he begins by recounting the skill of kukri wielding troops in the 1815-1816 Anglo-Nepali War. At the time of his writing these events were already 50 years old, but it was still a puzzle to him that individuals of such small size, and wielding rather primitive arms, could perform so well against the forces of the East India Company. The kukri itself, described in almost mystical terms, gets much of the credit.
Second, we are told of the manner in which (then contemporary) Nepalese individuals use their kukri in tiger hunts. If the prior account was overly romantic, this one takes on the characteristics of pure fantasy. While tiger hunts were real events, they did not consist of lone individuals armed only with a knife heading out into the wilderness. Nor are tigers so obligingly predictable in their means of attack. As you read Wood’s account it becomes clear that not only has he never seen a big cat attack, but it is rather doubtful he has ever seen a tiger in action at all.
Yet as Barthes, or Paul Bowman, would remind us, the mythologies of popular culture do not derive from careful ethnographic observation. They are a multi-layer affair, one in which the animal nature of the tiger is juxtaposed with the animal nature of his hunter (“brave as a lion” and “active as a monkey.”) The heroics of a Gurkha dispatching a tiger reinforce his heroics in the service of the Crown. Surely the empire must be seen as legitimate and a force for good if it can command the loyalty of men such as these?
Yet each of these symbols has its own dark side. Lions are not only brave, they are also dangerous. Monkeys are “active,” but are generally not seen as very intelligent or placed on the same level of civilization as men. And what uses would these razor sharp kukris be put to if not for British intervention in India?
While the UK’s various wars in India are brushed off as events of the past, in truth they hang heavily on Wood’s account. Ironically the kukri, now residing safely in the collections of gentlemen across Great Britain, has become a master symbol not only of the Nepalese people, but of the UK’s growing “Oriental empire.”
One of the hill tribes, called the Ghoorka tribe, is worthy of notice, if only for the remarkable weapon which they use in preference to any other. It is called the “kookery,” and is of a very peculiar shape. One of the knives, drawn from a specimen in my collection, is given in illustration No. 2, on page 1403. As may be seen by reference to the drawing, both the blade and hilt are curved. The blade is very thick at the back, my own specimen, which is rather a small one, measuring a little more than a quarter of an inch in thickness. From the back it is thinned off gradually to the edge, which has a curve of its own, quite different to that of the back, so that the blade is widest as well as thickest in the middle, and tappers at one end towards the hilt and at the other towards the point.
The steel of which the blade is formed is of admirable temper, as is shown by the fact that my specimen, which, to my knowledge, has not been cleaned for thirty years, but has been hung upon the wall among other weapons, is scarcely touched with rust, and for the greater part of its surface is burnished like a mirror. Indeed, on turning it about I can see reflected upon its polished surface the various objects of the room. The handle is made after a very remarkable fashion, and the portion which forms the hilt is so small that it shows the size of the hand for which it was intended. This smallness of hilt is common to all Indian swords, which cannot be grasped by an ordinary English soldier. My own hand is a small one, but is too large, even for the heavy sabre or “tulwar,” while the handle of the kookery looks as if the weapon were intended for a boy of six or seven years old. Indeed, the Ghoorkas are so small, that their hands, like those of all Indian races, are very delicate, about the size of those of an English boy of seven.
The point of the kookery is as sharp as a needle, so that the weapon answers equally well for cutting or stabbing. In consequence of the great thickness of the metal, the blade is exceedingly heavy, and it is a matter of much wonder how such tiny hands as those of the Ghoorkas can manage so weighty a weapon, which seems almost as much beyond their strength as does the Andamaner’s gigantic bow to the dwarfish man who wields it. It may be imagined that a blow from such a weapon as this must be a very terrible one. The very weight of the blade would drive it half through a man’s arm, if it were only allowed to fall from a little height. But the Ghoorkas have a mode of striking which resembles the “drawing” cut of the broadsword, and which urges the sharp edge through flesh and bone alike.
Before passing to the mode in which the kookery is used, I may mention that it is not employed for domestic purposes, being too highly valued by the owner. For such purposes two smaller knives are used, of very similar form, but apparently of inferior metal. These are kept in little cases attached to the side of the Kookery-sheath, just as is the case with knives attached to a Highlander’s dirk, or the arrangement of the Dyak sword, which has already been described in the article upon Borneo. There is also a little flat leather purse, with a double flap. This is pointed like a knife-sheath, and is kept in a pocket of its own fastened upon the larger sheath.
In the illustration the kookery is shown with all of its parts. Fig. 1 shows the kookery in its scabbard, the top of the purse and the handles of the supplementary knives being just visible as they project from the sheaths. At Fig. 2 the kookery itself is drawn, so as to show the peculiar curve of the blade and the very small handle. Fig. 3 represents the purse as it appears when closed, and figs. 4 and 5 are the supplementary knives.
My own specimen, which as I have already mentioned, is a small one, measures fifteen inches from hilt to point in a straight line, and twenty-one inches if measured along the curve of the back. The knife is a very plain one, no ornament of any kind being used, and the maker has evidentially contended himself with expending all his care upon the blade, which is forged from the celebrated “wootz” steel.
This steel is made by the natives in a very simple but effectual manner. After smelting the iron out of magnetic ore, the Indian smith puts small pieces of wood with them. He then covers the crucible with green leaves and plenty of clay, and puts it in his simple furnace. The furnace being lighted, a constant blast of air is driven through it for about three hours, at the expiration of which time the iron, now converted into cast-steel, is found in the form of a small cake at the bottom of the crucible. Wootz steel was at one time much used in England, and great numbers of these cakes were imported.
In the hands of an experienced wielder this knife is about as formidable a weapon as can be conceived. Like all really good weapons, its efficiency depends much more upon the skill than the strength of the wielder, and thus it happens that the little Ghoorka, a mere boy in point of stature, will cut to pieces a gigantic adversary who does not understand his mode of onset. The Ghoorka generally strikes upward with the Kookery, possibly in order to avoid wounding himself should his blow fail, and possibly because an upward cut is just the one that can be least guarded against.
Years ago, when we were engaged in the many Indian wars which led at last to our Oriental empire, the Ghoorkas proved themselves most formidable enemies, as since they have proved themselves most invaluable allies. Brave as lions, active as monkeys, and fierce as tigers, the lithe, wiry little men came leaping over the ground to the attack, moving so quickly, and keeping so far apart from each other, that musketry was no use against them. When they came near the soldiers, they suddenly crouched to the ground, dived under their bayonets, struck upward at the men with their kookeries, ripping them open with a single blow, and then, after having done all the mischief in their power, darting off as rapidly as they had come. Until our men learned this mode of attack, they were greatly discomfited by their little opponents, who got under their weapons, cutting or slashing with knives as sharp as razors, and often escaping unhurt from the midst of the bayonets. They would dash under the bellies of the officers’ horses, rip them open with one blow of the kookery, and aim another at the leg of the officer as he and his horse fell together.
Perhaps not better proof can be given of the power of the weapon, and the dexterity of the user, than the fact that a Ghoorka will not hesitate to meet a tiger, himself being armed with nothing but his Kookery. He stands in front of the animal (see the next page), and as it springs he leaps to the left, delivering as he does so a blow toward the tiger. As the reader is aware, all animals of the cat tribe attack by means of the paw; and so the tiger, in passing the Ghoorka, mechanically strikes at him.
The man is well out of reach of the tiger’s paw, but it comes within the sweep of the kookery, and, what with the blow delivered by the man, the paw is always disabled, and often fairly severed from the limb. Furious with pain and rage, the tiger leaps round, and makes another spring at his little enemy. But the Ghoorka is as active as the tiger, and has sprung round as soon as he delivered his blow, so as to be on the side of the disabled paw. Again the tiger attacks, but this time his blow is useless, and the Ghoorka steps in and delivers at the neck or throat of the tiger a stroke which generally proves fatal.
The favorite blow is one upon the back of the neck, because it severs the spine, and the tiger rolls on the ground a lifeless mass. For so fierce is the tiger’s fury, that, unless the animal is rendered absolutely powerless, rage supplies for a few moments the place of the ebbing life, and enables it to make a last expiring effort. All experienced hunters know and dread the expiring charge of a wounded lion or tiger, and, if possible, hide themselves as soon as they inflict the death wound. If they can do so, the animal looks round for its adversary, cannot see him and at once succumbs; whereas, if it can espy its enemy, it flings all its strength into one effort, the result of which is frequently that the man and the tiger are found lying dead together.
Many of these little hunters are decorated with necklaces made from the teeth and claws of the animals which they kill. One of these necklaces is in my collection, and is figured in illustration No. 1, on page 1403. It is made of the spoils of various animals, arranged in the following way. The central and most prominent object is one of the upper canine teeth of a tiger. The man may well be proud of this, for it is a very fine specimen, measuring five inches and a half in length, and more than three inches in circumference. This tooth is shown at Fig. 5. At Fig. 1 is a claw from a fore-foot of a tiger, evidentially the same animal; and at Fig. 9 is a claw of the hind-foot. Figs. 2, 3, 7, 8 are differently sized teeth of the crocodile; and Fgs. 4 and 6 represent claws from the foot of a sloth-bear. The reader may remember that in all uncivilized countries such spoils are of the highest value, and play the same part with regard to them that titles and decorations do among more civilized nations. Consequentially, it is almost impossible to procure such ornaments, the natives having as strong objection to part with them as a holder of the Victoria Cross would have to resign at the same time his badge and the right to wear it….
J. G. Wood. 1876. The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Vol. II. Hartford: the J. B. Burr Publishing Co. pp. 1394-1399 (Originally published in 1868.) pp. 1394-1399. [Additional paragraph breaks have been added to ease reading in an electronic format].
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (28): Three Visions of the Kukri