Large earthquakes are thought to release strain on previously locked faults. However, the details of how earthquakes are initiated, grow and terminate in relation to pre-seismically locked and creeping patches is unclear1, 2, 3, 4. The 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha, Nepal earthquake occurred close to Kathmandu in a region where the prior pattern of fault locking is well documented5. Here we analyse this event using seismological records measured at teleseismic distances and Synthetic Aperture Radar imagery. We show that the earthquake originated northwest of Kathmandu within a cluster of background seismicity that fringes the bottom of the locked portion of the Main Himalayan Thrust fault (MHT). The rupture propagated eastwards for about 140 km, unzipping the lower edge of the locked portion of the fault. High-frequency seismic waves radiated continuously as the slip pulse propagated at about 2.8 km s−1 along this zone of presumably high and heterogeneous pre-seismic stress at the seismic–aseismic transition. Eastward unzipping of the fault resumed during the Mw 7.3 aftershock on 12 May. The transfer of stress to neighbouring regions during the Gorkha earthquake should facilitate future rupture of the areas of the MHT adjacent and updip of the Gorkha earthquake rupture.