The Indian Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) is a rare beast, in life as well as legends. Once found across the riparian grasslands and forests of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, its numbers plummeted sharply until only two thousand individuals survived by the 1990s. Alarmed governments in India and Nepal woke up to the tragedy and implemented measures to conserve the magnificent animal. They have doubled in numbers to around four thousand but there is a long way to go before conservationists and the general public can rest easy.
The rhino is mentioned far less frequently in South Asian folklore compared to other megafauna (Asian Elephants, Asian Buffalo, Bengal Tigers), despite the fact that there were not one but three species of rhinos in South Asia – the Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and the Sumatran (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) along with the much larger Indian. This might be on account of its numbers (smaller compared to other megafauna), habitat preferences (swampy and malarial riparian tracts) and nature (solitary and crepuscular). Here is one of the few folktakes I have come across involving the rhino. It is taken from Cecil Henry Bompas’ ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’.
The Boy Who Found His Father
There was once a boy who used always to cheat when playing Kati (pitch and toss) and for this the village boys with whom he played used to quarrel with him, saying “Fatherless orphan, why do you cheat?” So one day he asked his mother why they called him that name and whether his father was really dead. “He is alive” said she “but a long time ago a rhinoceros carried him off on its horn.” Then the boy vowed that he would go in search of his father and made his mother put him up provisions for the journey; and he started off taking with him an iron bow and a big bundle of arrows.
He journeyed on all day and at nightfall he came to a village; there he went up to the house of an old woman to ask for a bed. He stood at the threshhold and called out to her “Grannie, grannie, open the door.” “I have no son, and no grandchildren to call me grannie,” grumbled the old woman and went to open the door to see who was there, and when she opened the door and saw him, she said “Ho, you are my grandson.” “Yes,” answered he, “I am your grandchild.” So she called him inside and gave him a bed to sleep on. The old woman was called Hutibudi; and she and the boy sat up late talking together and then they lay down to sleep; but in the middle of the night he heard the old woman crunching away trying to bite his bow to pieces.
He asked her what she was eating: “Some pulse I got from the village headman,” “Give me a little to try” he begged. “I am sorry my child, I have finished it all.” But really she had none to give, however she only hurt her jaws biting so that she began to groan with pain: “What are you groaning for, Grannie?” said the boy; “Because I have toothache” she answered: and in truth her cheeks were badly swollen. Then he told her that a good cure for toothache was to bite on a white stone and she believed him and the next morning got a piece of white quartz and began to bite on it; but this only broke her teeth and made her mouth bleed so that the pain was worse than before: then the boy jeered at her and said. “Did you think, Grannie, that you could bite my iron bow and arrows?”
So saying he left her and continued the search for his father and his road led him to a dense jungle which seemed to have no end, and in the middle of the jungle he came to a lake and he sat down by it to eat what was left of the provisions he had brought: as he sat, he suddenly saw some cow-bison coming down to the lake: at this he caught up his bow and arrows in a hurry and climbed up a tall sal tree: from the tree he watched the bison go down to the water to drink and then go back into the jungle. And after them tigers and bears came down to the water: the sight of them frightened him and he sang:
“Drink your fill, tiger,
I shall not shoot you.
I shall shoot the giant rhinceros.”
and they drank and went away. Then various kinds of birds came and after them a great herd of rhinceroses and among them was one which had the dried up body of the boy’s father stuck on its horn. The boy was rather frightened and sang:
“Drink your fill, rhinoceroses,
I shall not shoot you
I shall shoot the giant rhinoceros.”
and when the giant rhinoceros with the body of his father stooped its head to drink from the lake, he put an arrow through it and it turned a somersault and fell over dead: while all the other rhinoceroses turned tail and ran away. Then the boy climbed down from the tree and pulled the dead body of his father off the horn of the dead animal and laid it down at the foot of a tree and began to weep over it.
As he wept a man suddenly stood before him and asked what was the matter, and when he heard, said “Cry no more: take a cloth and wet it in the lake and cover your father’s body with it: and then whip the body with a meral twig and he will come to life.” So saying the stranger suddenly disappeared; and the boy obeyed his instructions and behold his father sat up alive and rubbing his eyes said “I must have been asleep a very long time.” Then his son explained to him all that had happened and gave him some food and took him home.
Image Attribution: The image sourced from Wikimedia Commons shows a Mughal painting – ‘Babur and His Party Hunting for Rhinoceros in Swat’ (16th century CE). Preserved in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (Maryland, USA), it shows a Mughal hunting party skinning a rhinoceros they brought down in the Swat Valley (named after a river that flows from the Hindukush Mountains into the the Kabul River, which is a tributary of the mighty Indus). The rhino’s severed head is lying on the ground. The Mughals were avid hunters and their adventures were recorded by the artists they patronized.