|Alison Locke examines our fascination with the Gurkhas, their distinct Nepalese culture and their unique position in one of the most rigid and traditional of institutions, the British Army
At a time when the British army struggles to find sufficient numbers for recruitment, each year Nepali boys from villages in the foothills of the world's highest mountain range willingly travel days to compete for the annual selection. A Gurkha recruit told me there is a Nepalese saying that wanting to join up is like trying to touch the stars; a British Army Officer told me that being offered a place in the Gurkhas is like winning the lottery.
The process is extremely pressurized and competitive; a boy has an average success chance of 50 to 1 - a figure that is rising each year. If unsuccessful, a boy may re-try as many times as he wishes between the ages of 17 and 21. There are three stages that a boy has to compete in before he is able to enrol in the British Army.
The first stage is called Galla Selection. This is carried out by retired ex-Gurkhas who take on the role of recruiter for local districts and are known as Gallawallah's. It is their job to find boys who will be suitable as soldiers.
On arrival in the UK, during the first twelve weeks until 'Passing Off the Square', a Gurkha recruit receives his basic training and is taught everything that a British recruit is taught; fitness and weapon training, boot polishing and drill, as well as supplementary lessons to adapt them to life in the UK. After that time they are allowed outside the camp to sample British life in local towns.
Before 1994, recruits would have been sent for training at the brigade of Gurkhas HQ in Hong Kong. Since the run-up to the British handover to the Chinese, recruits have been trained in Church Crookham, Hants until last year, when they relocated to the army's infantry training centre in Catterick, N. Yorks. The move to the UK has had an impact on men in the brigade - at one time, a Gurkha may have passed his entire service without ever visiting the country he is serving.
As Nepalese hill boys are selected for the British Army, they are given an army number, which identifies them individually and as part of a particular year's intake. These Gurkhas who join together will call each other 'Numberi', an affectionate term which expresses the enduring bond that forms between these men. After many years of service, regardless of army rank, a Gurkha will not forget those of his Numberi. There is a saying that men of the same Numberi will be closer to each other than to their wives.
Those who are accepted have a secure future ahead with an income far exceeding those who are left behind. There is the added incentive that for many, joining the British Army is part of a family tradition; many boys have a relative, a father, grandfather or uncle who was formerly in the Gurkhas. Frequently these relatives will have seen active service during World War II and have inspired the boys to join up with their tales of action. This may account for some of the pressure on the recruits to do well - their whole family will be anxiously watching their progress.
However for many of these Nepalese boys, joining the British Army is no different from their British counterparts, a chance to travel, learn a trade and enjoy secure employment away from the monotony of small town life. Employment options in the hills of Nepal are very limited and it is normal for most men to leave their homes at some stage in their lives to seek work abroad. The chance of serving in the British Army is seen as a superior option to the types of work offered elsewhere.
There are many myths surrounding the Gurkhas, some of which have sprung from the mystique that the British public whom they serve project on them. These photographs reflect on the reality of the day to day lives of young Nepalese men recruited and trained to become part of the Gurkha tradition, as they 'cross the Black Water', the ancient Hindu tradition of transformation that takes place upon leaving the Indian Sub-continent to seek new worlds.