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Who was Genghis Khan, the Man?

full cover of Genghis Khan

By Sutapa Basu

When Genghis Khan was born, it is known that the baby’s right fist held a large blood clot. This unusual occurrence was instantly interpreted as the child’s sign of strength. Before he took on the title, Genghis Khan, the boy had been named Temujin, incidentally a Tartar name, ‘temu’ meaning iron in Mongolian. Even his extraordinary title, ‘Genghis’ is derived from an old Turkish word, chingis, that denotes ‘fierce, hard, tough’. And they say the meaning of a person’s name often gives direction to his/her life. Genghis Khan is certainly an example of that saying. He was indomitable, ruthless and no genocide in history compares with the savagery of his assaults. But there is much more to the man, Genghis Khan, than being only a bloodthirsty nomad.

The first sixteen years of Genghis Khan’s life was one of sheer survival against awesome odds. His father was murdered, his mother and family isolated and impoverished. With no roof over his head and hardly a meal a day, the boy had been constantly exposed to the natural dangers of the formidable steppes and tribal rivalry. From the lowest obscurity, Genghis Khan rose with sheer grit and clever strategy to lead Mongolia and eventually become a world conqueror like no other. At the zenith of its power in 1300 CE, Genghis Khan’s Empire was one-sixth of the world’s total land area.

Won’t it be interesting to delve into which facets of Genghis Khan’s personality and intellectual power gave impetus to this phenomenal ascent? Here are some…

Staunch belief in the divinity of his purpose

It is commonplace in history for rulers to claim divine support, but that is usually limited to their own country or people. Of course, there have been megalomaniacs dreaming of world rule, but it is not known that any of them claimed divine backing for their ambition. Yet Genghis Khan himself probably believed, and certainly his heirs did, that Heaven really had given the world to them, and it was their job to make everyone acknowledge this astonishing fact. No doubt, today it seems a crazy theory but in the 12th century, nobody, let alone a Mongol, had any idea what the world was like. The vision that he was supported by Divinity was a vital element in Genghis Khan’s supreme confidence in the righteousness of his dominance. 

Social reformer

High status and advancement conferred with noble birth was the social structure not only in Mongolia but in all countries across the world. Genghis Khan overturned this system by giving opportunities to everyone based solely on merit. People from the lower rungs perceived this policy as a chance, hope and aspiration of ascending the social ladder by offering loyal service. In fact, many of the plebian families rose to significant ranks in Genghis Khan’s Empire exactly by this process. He also demanded efficiency and full loyalty from his commanders with the risk of losing their jobs and lives always hanging over their heads if they defaulted.

According to traditions of the herding community, Mongolian women had always been as hardy and self-reliant as men. However, it was Genghis Khan who brought about the extraordinary changes to their position in society. We must not forget that during the 12th century, the status of women in the rest of the so-called civilized world, such as Europe, was no better than chattels owned by men.

In his lands, Genghis Khan ensured that women had equal rights as the men. Matriarchs of families owned family property and widows had right to their dead husband’s property, He even shared the plunder his forces won with the families of men who had died in winning it. He trained women in warfare and his army had female administrators. It has been recorded that it was actually one of Genghis’ daughters who had led the assault on Nishapur during the conquest of Khwarezm. This perception filtered down through generations. In fact, the Mongolian Empire owed a lot to the remarkable women of Genghis Khan’s own family. The contributions of his mother, Hoelun, his wife Börte and later his daughter-in-law, Sorkaktani are immeasurable. Sorkaktani was a Keriat and a Christian. After the death of her husband, Tolui, she took over the administration of his region. She was astute and liberal as a ruler and became advisor to Genghis’s successor, Emperor Ogedei. Eventually, she was the mother of Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson and the most powerful and capable among all the Emperors of Mongolia. 

Religious tolerance

Even as a child, Genghis had been aware of the rivalry between the Shamanism of the Mongols and the Nestorian Christianity of the Turkish groups. Later, as his conquests took him to other lands, his experience widened. He came to know that the Chinese Emperor ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, that the Burkhan of Xi Xia was considered the Living Buddha. Everywhere he saw monuments that stated religious belief. He saw the grand mosques of Samarkand and Bukhara, learnt of the Christian cathedrals of Georgia. It seemed to him that all these faiths –shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity were groping towards the same obscure Truth. This deduction is evident from his edicts, in which he ordered all religions to be granted equal respect in his Empire, a law that underlay one of the remarkable qualities of Mongol emperors from the time of Genghis onwards: religious tolerance.

In a natural fallout to this, we read about his daughter-in-law, Sorkaktani, a Christian Kerait, building a beautiful mosque in Bukhara and being much venerated for it as it was unprecedented for a Christian to build a mosque during those times.

Strange claim of belonging to Genghis Khan’s family

In March 2003, geneticists studying DNA discovered a specific genetic pattern shared across population groups scattered from the Caspian to the Pacific. Research pinpointed to a common ancestor who could be none other than Genghis Khan, living in Mongolia in the 12th century. It is the strangest fact that his genetic signature has spread over half of Eurasia and made one in every 200 men, living today, owner of Genghis Khan’s genes. You never know, one of those humans might even be you! Stranger than fiction?! 

I can go on and on about Genghis Khan the man, revealing astonishing layer after layer of the persona, who has been unduly vilified by historians of his times and later. He has been made out to be a despot, tyrant and a barbarian slaughterer of innocents. The truth is that he stands taller than many historical figures and if we don’t know much about him it is a lacking we should regret. Today, other than Mongolia, two powerful countries, Russia and China worship Genghis Khan as no less than a demi-god. Don’t you think we, too, should make an effort to know more about this charismatic enigma?

Sutapa Basu is the best-selling author of Padmavati, The Queen Tells Her Own Story (2017, pub Readomania), a historical fiction. She has authored a psychological thriller, Dangle (Readomania, 2016) and her second historical fiction, The Legend of Genghis Khan is being released on 20th September this year. A poet, author, publishing consultant, she is the 2016 First Prize winner of the Times of India’s Write India Campaign for Amish Tripathi. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies, Crossed & Knotted, Defiant Dreams, When They Spoke and Write India Stories. Her poems have appeared in Kaafiyana and The Dawn Beyond Waste. Read her works on her website & Twitter: @sutapabsu20


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.

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