Chinggis Khan and the Talking Rhinoceros of India

(Synopsis of Professor Igor de Rachewiltz's article in Austrina, 1982)


In the winter of 1221-1222 an unusual encounter between man and beast took place in the Punjab region of India. Chinggis Khan's imperial guard while probing southwards in India were held in awe by the sight of an extraordinary creature. The Mongol imperial guard reported seeing, "A one horned animal with a body like a deer's, but with a horse's tail and green in color which addressed the imperial bodyguard in human speech saying, " Your master should return home as soon as possible![1]


  This passage is quoted from the biography of Yeh-l Ch'u-ts'ai's biography in the Yan-shih, a Chinese account of the period of Mongol rule. Yeh-l Ch'u-ts'ai, an important advisor to Chinggis Khan reported this incident to the Emperor who raised questions about the meaning of this episode. Yeh-l Ch'u-ts'ai explained it thus, "This is an auspicious animal called cheh-tua. It is capable of speaking all the world's languages, it loves life and abhors bloodshed. This is a happy omen sent down by Heaven to warn your Majesty. You are Heaven's eldest son, and all the men under Heaven are your children. Pray accept the will of Heaven and preserve the people's lives. That very day the Emperor withdrew the army.


Professor Igor de Rachewiltz, an eminent scholar of Mongol history, states in his article published in the journal Austrina in 1982, "For my part, I am inclined to believe that a real incident occurred which gave origin to it, which was later distorted and magnified. It is indeed not only possible, but likely that some Mongol soldiers saw a rhinoceros. This explanation was suggested long ago by Hung Chn (1840-1893) [2] , but it seems to have escaped notice of both Chinese and Western historians. Such a sighting may well have taken place during the Mongol raid in the winter of 1221-1222. Although on its way to extinction, the one-horned rhinoceros of India was still to be found in the Punjab and Sind in the fourteenth century. The report of such a sighting could easily have been distorted and exaggerated by the witnesses themselves, to whom the animal was quite unfamiliar. If so, Yeh-l Ch'u-ts'ai's subsequent interpretation of the incident, as related by his grandson Liu-chi', is perfectly plausible, even if the location and date in the latter's account are not to be relied upon. We must not forget that one of Ch'u-ts' ai's main functions at court at the time was that of soothsayer, as evident from his biographies and from his own writings. [3] He no doubt belonged to the category of non-shamanic soothsayers called in Mongolia tlegecin or "diviners', which included specialists in divinatory arts from different countries.


Man and beast are seldom involved in the realm of diplomacy, but in this case the fate of a nation might well have rested on the horn of a rhinoceros from India.





[1] Yuan-shih (Po-na ed) al c.146 2a-b Cf. Etani, pg. 49; Yen, pp.590-1

[2] Yuan shih I-wen cheng-pu bo (Kuo-hseh chi-pen ts'ung-shu ed.) c.22A, p.278

[3]  See Sung Tzu-chen, op. cit., 11a-b; Munkuev, op cit., pp. 70-1; Chan-jan ch-shih, wen-chi (Ssu-pu ts'ung-k'an ed.) bp c.8. 15b4. Cf. also ibid c.4.10b3 and c.10 3b3.. On Ch'u-ts'ai's activity as bicēci (scribe secretary) see de Rachewiltz, "Yeh-l Ch'u-ts'ai, pp.195-8