Gurkhas, Khampas, and the Region of Kham

The history of Nepal is a proud one; while the whole sub continent was being ravaged; conquered, and colonized by foreign invaders, Nepal continued to retain its sovereignty. One could say that Nepal has always been ruled by one of its own throughout recorded history. It is not that the country was not invaded at one time or the other; it is a tribute to the magnificent courage of the Nepalis that all such invasions were thwarted effectively.
One of the best known legends of the bravery of the Nepalis concerns the British invasion in 1814 from neighboring India, which they had colonized and were sitting pretty ruling the vast country of millions. In this invasion, a battalion of superiorly armed and trained troops of the vaunted British Army was made to bite the dust by a motley band of some 600 Gurkhas during the battle of Nalapani. When the smoke of battle had cleared, the Nepali commander, Bal Bahadur Thapa, and his men (and women) had slain 750 of their foes, including 31 of their officers. Another epic battle took place in 1815 when Ranjit Singh Thapa and 200 Gurkhas attacked and defeated 2000 soldiers under British commander Lieutenant Young.

Such bravery and courage was duly recognized by the British and they settled on a treaty, one of the conditions of which was that they would be allowed to recruit Gurkhas into their own army. No greater accolade than that! The Gurkhas, on their part, went on to win basketfuls of medals for their courage under fire in many wars, including the first and second great world wars, and it became a matter of great honor for any British officer to command a Gurkha battalion.

Funnily enough, Gurkhas didn’t have to defend their own country, at least in recent times; guess nobody wants to fool around with them! However, they did go around attacking Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim in the old days. Anyway, as far as Nepal itself was concerned, the Gurkhas didn’t really have to do much except during the 10-year Maoist insurgency. And yes, once in 1974-75, when they had to deal with the Khampa insurgency. While in the first case, they reached a sort of stalemate with the Maoists (most of whom were Gurkhas themselves), in the other case, the Khampa insurgency was quelled in double quick time. Not much of a bother at all.

Now, while most people now know that the Maoists eventually came into the national stream and in fact won elections and ran the government for some time, not many people might be aware of the Khampas and their uprising. Well, to cut a long story short, the Khampas are known as fierce warriors of Tibet. Strong in build and almost all of towering heights, the Khampas are inhabitants of Kham in Tibet (a Tibetan ‘wild west’ of sorts) which is located just outside the boundaries of the Autonomous Region of Tibet. It used to consist of many different fiefdoms, constantly at odds with each other. Even today, one will notice fortress-like houses and tall stone watch towers in the area. It is interesting to know that Kham was at no time under Lhasa’s rule. The region was eventually absorbed into China in the 1950s, meshing with a large expanse of western Sichuan and smaller parts of northern Yunan and, in the south, Quinghai. The region is blessed with adequate water supply thanks to the headwaters of Yarlung, Mekong, Yangtze, and Salween rivers originating here in the Tibetan plateau.

Once upon a time, travelers deliberately skirted the area because the Khampas were notorious brigands. Expert horsemen, they had a particular appetite for attacking well-laden caravans. True to their love for independence, they were the first to rise against the Chinese when they invaded Tibet. Nowadays, however, they have turned their attention to peaceful activities like horse breeding, farming, and trading. By now, your curiosity could have been aroused and you would probably like to visit this place called Kham, right? Well, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a good starting point, although you could also go overland from Lhasa, to reach Kham. If you are going from Chengdu, you’ll be going west, and on the way, you’ll face a steep climb up the Eriang Shan, and ride through rugged mountain terrain before reaching a huge tunnel. This tunnel makes your trip less arduous and, of course, much shorter. You will also have the opportunity to see on the horizon, Gongga Shan, a majestic snow-covered peak that’s 7.556 meters tall. By and by you’ll reach Kanding (Dartsendo to the Tibetans; 2,500 m)), a fast developing valley town with a gushing river flowing through its center.

Spend some time in this town for acclimatization; you’ll be crossing passes located over 4,000 m later on. However, Kham is not too far off from Kanding. Once through a pass at 5,000 m, you will have arrived at the grasslands. Make it a point to go to Kham during the summer months when the snow is melting and the meadows turn a lush deep green. The wildflowers also are a sight for sore eyes then. But, aside from this natural beauty, there are some other things that will grab your attention: the exotic jewelry of silver, amber, turquoise, and corals worn by the women, and their fur-trimmed robes and silk-trimmed blouses. The men are not to be outdone either; their thick unruly locks braided around their heads, long dangling earrings; and large silver rings adorned with turquoise, coral, and ivory. Living up to their reputation as Tibetan cowboys, they were leather cowboy boots and dress up in robes trimmed with tiger and leopard skin. They carry long silver daggers, and woe befall anyone who crosses the path of these glamorous swashbucklers.

Well, coming now to their uprising in Nepal’s mountainous region of Mustang, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, many of them fled to Nepal. One fine day, for reasons best known to them, they thought of stirring up an armed insurgency, probably with the aim of fighting Chinese rule in Tibet. A Gurkha battalion was sent up promptly by the Nepal government to crush it before it could gain any kind of momentum at all. The Gurkhas, as mentioned before, were quick on the draw and before one could say, let’s go, had rounded up the group and captured the leader—all in a day’s work for the efficient troops of the Nepal Army. One more feather in its cap, one more legend in the annals of Gurkha history.