2001  Chinggis khaan and Nehru,  Chinggis Khaan Sudlal. (Journal of Genghis Khan Studies)  Chinggis Khaan College: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 3, pages 12 -16.



Jack Weatherford

DeWitt Wallace Professor of Anthropology

Macalester College



  Chinggis Khan and Nehru



            Chinggis Khan, who was the father of the Mongol Nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the father of modern India, occupy positions in history that are 800 years apart.  One lived in a cold northern country where people herded animals, and the other lived in a tropical southern land of farmers.  Yet, despite the differences, the two leaders faced common problems of how to unite their own people and to protect them against others. 

As an Asian leader, Nehru brought a new perspective to the history of Chinggis Khan.  For many centuries, Western scholars portrayed Chinggis Khan in a largely negative way.   Through his own study of history, however, Nehru discovered that the life of Chinggis Khan offered many important lessons for modern people, including for India in its long and difficult struggle for independence from Britain.

On New Year's Day, 1931 Jawaharlal Nehru sat in the Central Prison in Naini where the police held him for advocating Indian independence from Great Britain.  On this day, he received word that his wife had also been arrested and taken to another prison for incarceration.  The newspapers soon reported that his wife had been mistreated.  Their daughter Indira had just turned thirteen in October, and the father knew that she would be quite afraid and depressed at these reports, particularly since she could see her parents only once every two weeks.  As a New Year's gift for her, he began writing a series of long letters about history.  As he wrote to her, since they could not be physically together, he would write and you will silently come near me and we shall talk of many things. [page 5]

He sought to engage her mind and to give her another perspective on history beside the one that she received from the colonial school system.  Over the next three years, he wrote these letters of four or five pages almost daily.  In reading them one can see that they were as much a part of his effort to keep up his own spirits and to give himself a sense of purpose in prison as it was to entertain his young daughter.

He described the letters himself as a rambling account of history for young people, but it seemed to be much more than this.  It showed his own attempt, as a western educated man, to understand the place of his country of India and his continent of Asia in world history.  It was his way to dream of the past, and find our way to make the future greater than the past. [page 5] As he wrote to her in the first letter It would be foolish not to recognize the greatness of Europe.  But it would be equally foolish to forget the greatness of Asia.[page 10]

The letters from prison were later collected and published under the title “Glimpses of World History: Being Further letters to his daughter written in prison, and containing a rambling account of history for young people, “by Jawaharlal Nehru. [1]   His comments show that as an Asian man and scholar, he was struggling to understand the historical role of Chinggis Khan. He sees Chinggis Khan as a part of the struggle of Asian people against European domination.



June 25, 1932


            In letter Letter 67 of June 25, 1932, Nehru first discussed the Mongols under the title Chinggis Khan shakes up Asia and Europe.  In regard to the Mongol conquests, he wrote that, One can well imagine what the amazement of the Eurasian world must have been at this volcanic eruption.  It almost seemed like a great natural calamity, like an earthquake, before which man can do little. 

Strong men and women they were, these nomads from Mongolia, used to hardship and living in tents on the wide steppes of northern Asia.  But their strength and hard training might not have availed them much if they had not produced a chief who was a most remarkable man.  This was the person who is known as Chinggis Khan. Nehru then described the great Mongol leader.  He was a cautious and careful middle-aged man, and every big thing he did was preceded by thought and preparation.  He also explained that the Urdu word bahatur comes from Mongolian baatar.

Nehru realized that even though they did not live in cities, the Mongols had a great civilization of their own.  The Mongols were nomads, hating cities and the ways of cities.  Many people think that because they were nomads they must have been barbarians.  But this is a mistaken idea.  They did not know, of course, many of the city arts, but they had developed a way of life of their own and had an intricate organization.  If they won great victories on the field of battle, it was not because of their numbers, but because of their discipline and organization.  And above all it was due to the brilliant captain-ship of Chinggis.  For Chinggis is, without doubt, the greatest military genius and leader in history.  Alexander and Caesar seem petty before him.  Chinggis was not only himself a great commander, but he trained many of his generals and made them brilliant leaders.  Thousands of miles away from their homelands, surrounded by enemies and a hostile population, they carried on victorious warfare against superior numbers.   [page 216] 

Nehru recognized that Chinggis Khan did not seek to go to war but that war was thrust upon him by the hostile neighbors surrounding Mongolia.    Chinggis Khan seemed to have had no desire to invade the West.  He wanted friendly relations with the Shah or King of Khwarazm. [page 218]   Chinggis Khan had a more peaceful intent and purpose.  His idea was to combine civilization with nomadic life.  But this was not, and is not, possible.[page 219]  The Mongol Khan believed in Òthe unchangeable law for ever and ever, and no one could disobey it.  Even the emperor was subject to it. [page 220]

Nehru then offered his own personal insight into the great Khan.  ÒI have given you more details and information about Chinggis Khan than was perhaps necessary.  But the man fascinates me.  Strange, is it not, that this fierce and cruel and violent feudal chief of a nomadic tribe should fascinate a peaceful and non-violent and mild person like me, who am a dweller of cities and a hater of everything feudal! [page 220]


June 26, 1932


           Nehru continued his writing on the Mongols in Letter 68  The Mongols Dominate the World.   He began by pointing out that men of all religions raced to Karakorum in order to convert the Mongols to their religion.  [page 222]  But the Mongols continued to patronize all religions without converting to any single one.

Nehru discusses the impact of the Mongols on the Muslim religion.  ÒThe destruction of Baghdad in 1258 put an end finally to what remained of the Abbaside Empire.  This was the end of the distinctive Arab civilization in western Asia.  Far away in southern Spain, Granada still carried on the Arab tradition.

Although the great Mongol Empire was split up, each one of these five divisions of it was a mighty empire. [page 224]


June 27, 1932


     Nehru continued the discussion of the Mongol Empire in Letter 69, Marco Polo, the Great Traveler.  Nehru described the Mongols of Marco Polo's time. “They were a strange people, these Mongols; highly efficient in some ways, and almost childish in other matters.  Even their ferocity and cruelty, shocking as it was, has a childish element in it.  It is this childishness in them, I think, that makes these fierce warriors rather attractive. [page 225]

The Mongols encouraged scholars from other places because they had very open minds and wanted to learn from others. [page 225]


July 9, 1932


          In Letter 74, The Break-up of the Mongol Empires, Nehru begins his direction comparison of the Mongols and the Europeans, and he shows that in many regards the Mongols had a much more sophisticated civilization than Europe.  He writes that with the end of the Middle Ages, Europe seems to be bustling with activity and creative effort.  Her people, after being cooped up in their little countries for centuries, burst out and cross the wide oceans and go to the uttermost corners of the world. But what were the kings and emperors of Europe compared to even a general of the Great Khan? [page 244]

The Mongols did not bother to take Europe.  They went back of their own accord to elect a new Khan and they did not come back.  Western Europe was too far away from their homelands in Mongolia.  Perhaps also it did not attract them because it was woody country and they were used to the wide open plains and steppes.  In any event Western Europe saved itself from the Mongols not by any valour of its own, but by the indifference and the preoccupations of the Mongols. [page 245]  The conquest of Constantinople marked the beginning of the Renaissance for Europe. [page 245]

In the course of our wanderings through past ages we have seen many invasions of Europe by Asia.  There were some invasions of Asia by Europe, but they were of little moment.  Alexander went across Asia to India without any great result.  The Romans never went beyond Mesopotamia.  Europe, on the other hand, was repeatedly overrun by Asiatic tribes from the earliest times.  Of these Asiatic invasions the Ottoman invasion of Europe was the last. [page 245]

It is well to remember this, as some people, ignorant of history, imagine that Europe has always bossed it over Asia. [page 246]

Chinggis Khan and his Mongols were cruel and destructive, but they were like others of their time.  But Timur was much worse.  He stands apart for wanton and fiendish cruelty.  In one place, it is said, he erected a tower of 2000 live men and covered them up with brick and mortar! [page 247]


July 12, 1932


             In letter 75, India begins to tackle a difficult problem, Nehru discusses the topic that interested so many of the Western scholars: the destruction of life and property by the Mongol army.  He very clearly shows the reader that the destruction of the Mongols wars was very small when viewed on the global scale. The destruction of life and property caused by Chinggis Khan or Timur, great as it was, pales almost into insignificance before the destruction of the Great War of 1914-18.  And every Mongol cruelty can be rivaled by modern instances of frightfulness.    [page 249]


September 15, 1932


Nehru concludes his consideration of the Mongols in Letter 93, A Great Manchu ruler in China.   The rapid weakening and decay of the Mongols in Asia is one of the strange facts of history.  These people, who thundered across Asia and Europe, and conquered the greater part of the known world under Chinggis and his descendants, sink into oblivion.  Under Timur they rose again for a while, but his empire died with him..... The Mongol race, right across Asia from Russia to its homeland in Mongolia, decayed and lost all importance.  Why it did so, no one seems to know.  Some suggest that changes in climate has something to do with it; others are of a different opinion.

After the break-up of the Mongol Empire the overland routes across Asia were closed up for nearly 200 years. [page 330]






[1] Nehru, Jawaharlal.  Glimpses of World History: Being Further letters to his daughter written in prison, and containing a rambling account of history for young people.  New York: John Day Company, 1942.