The Prince and the unicorn

The Timurid prince was amazed by the wonders of India. Crossing the river Indus, he was to recall, you entered not only another country but “another world”. Customs and languages, winds and rains and even plants and animals were all very different from what he and his fellow horse-borne warriors had known earlier.

Among those sights were the great one-horned beasts in the land of the Indus. “There are many of them in the forests around Peshawar and Hashnagar and in the forests between the Indus river and Bhera” he wrote, “In Hindustan, many of them are found along the banks of the Gogra river”.
The hunts were not without collateral damage for the rhinos had huge horns and knew how to use them. The warrior Maqsud had his horse thrown the length of a spear and got the nick name “rhinoceros Maqsud”.
Good naturalist that he was Babur estimated the size of the animal as akin to that of three horses. Like another large creature he encountered the first time, the wild buffalo, it was a “dangerous, ferocious animal”. Even if an archer drew his string back a lot, the arrow rarely penetrated more than four fingers deep. It was only via trial and error, the hunters discovered its weak spots and learnt not only to pursue but also to despatch it.
The rhino was only one of many animals the young Timurid prince encountered in the vastness of north India (or Hindustan) in the 1520s.
These included two kinds of monkeys, the langur with its black face and the bandar, the latter tamed and taught to do tricks. For such creatures Babur could not use words in his native Chagthay Turki and took on local Hindavi words. There were also animals familiar to us in plains India: the nilgai and the kala hiran, the latter the black buck antelope.
For other animals, Babur and his successors used Turki or Persian words. This was the case with the lion, sher in Persian or babri or the tiger. Each of the two big cats was pretty familiar to those from Central Asia: there was no confusion at all.
Some animals they met were integral to older hunting cultures: falcons like the great shahin or the cats used in the hunt, the cheetah and the siyaghosh (or caracal) the latter, to this day has no Hindi name.
But it is the rhinos and where they were found that should concern us.
Nearly half a millennium has passed by and the range of the greater one-horned rhinoceros has shrunk.
Its Latin name, Rhinoceros unicorns betrays the centuries-long European obsession with that mythical creature. Its real-life counterpart, the great one-horned rhino had an extensive range across the flood plains of the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Indus.
Four millennia ago, the artefacts of the Harappan culture clearly depict the animal, indicating possibly a range in parts of present-day Sindh. This extensive distribution may well have been mostly intact in Babur’s time for Peshawar had no rhinos at least on record in the British imperial period.
But what is clear is that in the 16th century, a far larger part of the land mass was covered with forest or grassland than we might find easily conceivable today. Estimates of the number of humans and the acreage under the plough vary.
A decade ago, Sumit Guha drew on new and fresh evidence to argue that the number of people in India under the Mughals was about 114 million (far less than that of the Uttar Pradesh of 2001, which was placed at 166 million).
More central to our own story of the living space for rhinos, and other hoofed or feathered creatures, the area under permanent tillage may have been only one in four acres.
Babur recalled large areas of the plains were covered with thorny trees, offering refuge to inhabitants who sought refuge from a creature more dreaded than beasts of the forest: the tax collector.
Babur was doing more than conquering north India and setting up a lineage that would run all the way to 1857-78 when Bahadur Shah Zafar was dethroned. He was part of a world of the Safavids (in Iran) the Ottomans (of Turkey) and the Qing (in China) all of whom fuelled a great global economic expansion.
More trade, more wealth and many more people than earth had ever known before. The doyen of historians of the era, the late John Richards estimated how the number of people on earth doubled in three centuries following upon 1500. No wonder Professor Richards called his book, The Unending Frontier.
Yet, it is still amazing to come across the Friar Manrique’s account of a journey through Ayodhya — Faizabad where he spoke of “an abundance of asse horne (rhino horn) that they make here of bucklers and dives sorts of drinking cups”. Much of the valley had been or was being cleared but the farm-forest line or the border of cultivation and jungle was an ever shifting one. Rhinos and their products were very much around in the Ganga valley.
The mega herbivore now occupies less than one-fiftieth of its historic range, with the hunger for its horn for medicine or adornment and the expansion of rice paddies having taken a toll. And yes, they long, long since have vanished form Peshawar or Ayodhya.
The Baburnama gives a glimpse of another land and time, when the wild and sown were in close combat, and an immense horned animal could unseat a prince’s companion from his horse.
Its hoof print may now be smaller than ever but face it, in his writings, the prince gave our very own unicorn more than its due.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian and co-editor of The Environmental History of India (Permanent Black, In Press).

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