The khukuri is made by a hereditary case of smiths known as “Kami” and “Bishwakarma” – these master craftsmen are literally born to this art - they have inherited the art of making the khukuri from their forefathers.
Most khukukri feature handles with metal bolsters and butt plates which are generally made of brass or steel, and a handle of either water buffalo horn or tough Indian Rosewood (Rhododendron wood), but some examples feature grips of ivory, bone, silver, or other exotic materials.
There are basically two distinct types of khukuri - the traditional type is the “rat –tail” or “stick-tang” model; seen on most antique khukuri; in which a narrow finger of metal, is driven all the way through the handle and riveted into place. Ancient khukuri handles were similar, but gracefully downward-curved rather than straight, with steel or iron bolsters and pommel, and the tang did not go all the way through the handle.
The other type is a full-tang or “panawal handle” model, featuring slab handles and pommel attached to the blade by means of rivets. Although the exact origin of the panawal handle is not known, it is likely that it began in the early 1900s, when kamis were influenced by seeing British knives, admired their strength and functionality, and adapted this useful feature to their own use.
The Khukuri is typically carried in a wooden, hide-covered sheath. The sheath carries with it a small utility knife, called a “karda” – for skinning small game and other utility functions, and a “chakmak” which serves as a sharpening steel. Because of its curved blade, the khukuri must be carefully drawn and sheathed, with the left hand at the back of the sheath, so that the edge does not slip between the wooden halves, and injure the hand.
The sheath is actually made by a separate clan of “Saarki” who specialize in this craft – so both the Bishwakarma (Kami) clan and the Saarki clan are necessary to craft each khukuri.
The typical, general purpose khukuri is commonly 16 to 18 inches (around 40-45cm) in overall length and weighs 1 to 2 pounds. Typically, khukuri blades usually feature an unusual, enigmatic notch at the base of the blade, called a “kauda” or “cho.” Various functions, both practical and ceremonial – and even spiritual – are served by this unusual feature:
It delineates the end of the blade when sharpening; and it acts as an effective drain for blood or sap, so that the handle will not become slippery with use. It is also used as a means of locking and disarming an enemy’s weapon… and it is a sacred symbol representing the mantra, “Om,” or alternatively a cow’s foot, or the trident of Shiva.
It is claimed that a kukri has never been broken in battle and there is real truth to this claim – the khukuri is crafted of pure, high-carbon steel, deferentially heat-treated for both strength and sharpness, and can be 10 millimeters thick close to the hilt. This makes the khukri extremely strong, and virtually unbreakable.
Blades usually taper distally to about 5mm, toward the point for lightness, balance, and enhanced penetration – and of course feature an increasingly narrower bevel as they descend toward the wickedly-sharp, convex ground, reverse-curved cutting edge.
There is actually a great deal of variation in the dimensions and blade thicknesses of khukuri – this depends a great deal on the task that they were constructed for, and the particular “style” and regional variations, as well as the personal tastes of the kami who make them. Lengths can vary, but 26-38 cm (about 10 to 15 inches) is about average for general use.
Another factor that affects a khukuri’s weight and balance is variables in the construction of the blade itself – these variations are many, and are both artistic and practical aspects of the smith’s art – a blade can be hollow-forged for lightness, double or triple fullered ( “duichira,” and “tin chira,” respectively) for exceptional strength, single-fullered (“angkhola”), or even heavy and non-tapered, with a large, beveled edge.
Basic designs, shapes and sizes of khukuri, from ancient to modern, have varied extensively, depending on regional styles, requirements of the owner, tastes and traditional cultural styles of the smiths who made them, etc. For example khukuris made in the eastern village of Bhojpur, have heavy, thick blades, whereas the sirupate style blade is slim and thin. Khukuri from Salyan are long and slender, with a deep deeper belly; and the khukuris of Dhankuta , a village in east, are the simple, standard army-type blade, but created with elaborate fullers and ornate decorative features.
Since all khukuri are completely handmade, there is some variation even in the same type of blade. The individual craftsman always has his own, unique, highly-individualized vision of what a khukuri should look like.
Khukuri can, however, be broadly classified into two styles, “Eastern” and “Western”. Western blades are broader, and are occasionally referred to as a “budhuna” pattern (a “budhuna” is a Nepalese fresh-water fish with a large head). Another term for the Western pattern is “Baspate” (“Bamboo leaf”) which refers to blades a bit wider than the narrow “Sirupate” blade.
Modern khukuri crafted here are made of near-indestructible 5160 high-carbon steel, salvaged from truck suspension springs. The tough spring steel is forged to shape and differentially heat treated – a complex process that leaves the back and sides of the blade tough and springy, but the edge hard enough to take and hold a razor edge.
Making a kukri is a difficult and exacting task that takes four skilled, strong, men an entire day. There is almost no machinery used in this process – the work is done by hand, one at a time, and because of this, each khukuri is as unique as a fingerprint – no two khukuri are exactly alike.
So as you can see, anyone who obtains a khukuri from is getting more than “just a knife”: they hold in their hands a small, but extremely significant piece of Nepal itself.