Gurkhas shot into international prominence after the first and second world wars, but few people outside of Nepal are aware that their alliance with the British Army started a century earlier, during conflicts over the central tarai in 1814-16. The fighting turned out to be a great deal harder than the British had expected, and it gave them a taste of Gurkha fighting skills and bravery. After a particularly fierce engagement in which General Amar Singh Thapa was defeated, the British commanders offered Amar Singh's men service in their company. Since then the Gurkhas have fought alongside the British Army in most of the major conflicts of the last century in which Britain was involved. The Gurkhas have won 13 Victoria Crosses, the highest decoration for gallantry given by the British (another 13 have been awarded to British officers in the Gurkhas).
It is a legacy to be proud of and it was rightly so that many current and former Gurkhas felt it was time to begin preserving their heritage. On 5 February 1995, during a reception at Kathmandu's Royal Nepal Academy for seven Gurkha VC awardees-of whom only four are alive today-talk turned to this new reality and it was decided to set up the Gurkha Memorial Trust. "As this is a national asset, the government helped set up the museum by providing Rs 1 million," recalls Captain Yeknarain Gurung, chairman of the museum. The Indian Embassy, the Nepali Army, British Gurkhas Nepal, Grindlays Bank and Lt Col John Cross also donated funds.
The museum got started all right, but today it remains hidden behind the national table tennis hall in Lainchaur. "We have not been allocated any government land. Since 1995, we've been renting this second floor flat," says Major Yam Bahadur Gurung, vice chairman of the museum committee. A low budget and little publicity mean that few people visit or even know about the museum, which now struggles to stay open. "The annual grant from the government ranges from Rs 100,000 to Rs 400,000, which doesn't cover even basic expenses. So we have to hold fund-raising events," says Captain Yeknarain Gurung. The 2000/2001 budget did not even include the usual grant. If nothing comes through in the next month, it's back to the Birendra International Convention Centre for the third fund-raiser in five years.
The museum has two small display rooms with memorabilia like medals, uniforms, hats, cap badges and badges from different regiments, all donated by Gurkhas from the British Army, the Singapore Police, the Indian Army, the Assam Rifles and the Royal Nepal Army. The items are in simple display cabinets, with the medals occupying centrestage. There are old journals and diaries written by Gurkhas from all over the world, and the museum even has a small library with regimental magazines and books. Much of the collection provides a sense of the history of the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles regiments (disbanded in 1994 to form the Royal Gurkha Rifles), which provided the impetus for the museum. The museum has received three loads of contributions from the Gurkha Museum in the UK. The curator of that museum, Brigadier Christopher Bullock, is an Honorary Adviser to Nepal's Gurkha Museum, and officials here hope he can help them solicit donations from the Imperial War Museum in Britain.
Nurturing the collection is a long-term effort, but there really won't be space to display or store new contributions appropriately, not in the flat it occupies at present. The museum committee is on the lookout for a better location-they want to start again, in a way, and build their own space. "We haven't had any success finding a site in Kathmandu, and now we're looking at Pokhara instead," says Major Yambahadur Gurung. "Pokhara is better-there are fewer tourist sites there, so the Gurkha Museum would be a good addition, and could perhaps generate much-needed income."
Dharan is another possibility. That might be a good move given that there is a better chance of getting government land in Dharan or Pokhara than in over-crowded Kathmandu. For now, Pokhara would make more sense because of the number of tourists visiting. The chairman of the Pokhara Town Development Committee has already applied for permission to allow the project to proceed, and has even allocated land.
The museum hasn't been designed yet; the consensus seems to be that it should be a simple and tasteful construction in the Nepali style. The museum has been budgeted to cost ?500,000 for the first four years, and gradually become sustainable on entrance fees and gift-shop merchandising after that. There is a possibility that the Gurkha memorabilia could be housed in the existing Pokhara Museum, but it is falling apart and is badly maintained. It may not be a bad idea to upgrade the existing facilities instead of building a new museum from scratch. New parking space, two museum galleries, a souvenir shop, a presentation room, a restaurant, offices and toilets could be added. The plans are heartening, but they're a long way from fruition, given the financial situation of the project. In addition to the fund-raiser in the capital, the organisers plan to stage a Gurkha cultural show in Pokhara mid-year, and also raise funds overseas.
"We'd welcome serving and retired officers and soldiers to visit the museum, but visits by plenty of tourists would spread the word about the Gurkhas. If we can find a suitable site, we could generate enough income from entry fees to pay for the running of the museum. Government grants can't be relied upon."
These plans will probably work out, but it's best to go and check out the museum while it's still in Lainchaur. And if you like it, go to a fundraising event. It can only get better.