The King’s Rhinoceros

While researching calçada portuguesa (Portuguese paving), I came across a source that claimed it to have started because of an Indian white rhino named “Ganga”. The story goes that the rhino, a gift from Afonso de Albuquerque to Dom Manuel I, was to be paraded through the streets of Lisbon. To prevent the magnificent beast as well spectators, nobles and plebs alike, from being splattered with Lisbon’s infamous mud, the king ordered that the route be paved – the start of the calçada.

Corroborating this bit of fanciful logic proved to be mission impossible. All I got was a load of unrelated information, on Ganga and on paving. That said the story of Ganga tickled my fancy. Calçada Portuguesa has, for the time being, taken a backseat.

The British Museum owns a rare 1515 print of the rhinoceros woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Although inaccurate, Dürer’s depiction is a striking piece of art and became the standard throughout Europe of what rhinos looked like.

Albrecht Dürer’s print of a rhinoceros


Dürer never saw a real live rhino.  He and another artist, Hans Burgkmair from Augsburg, created their rhino images purely from written descriptions sent back to Nuremberg and other parts of Europe by German merchants in Lisbon. Burgkmair’s rhino is far less impressive than that of Dürer’s, although more realistic. The Albertina Gallery in Vienna has the only surviving print of Burgkmair’s rhino.

Ganga (“rhinoceros” in the native language to the Indian state of Gujarat) was the first rhino seen in Europe since Roman times.

Although Afonso de Albuquerque, the founder of the Portuguese Empire in India, failed in his bid to gain permission from Sultan Muzafar II to build a fortress in Diu, he was gifted a rhino by the Sultan. De Albuquerque accepted the animal on behalf of his king and had it shipped to Portugal. Chained fast on board and living only on dried straw, hay and cooked rice for 4 months, Ganga and his Indian handler Ocem, disembarked where Torre de Belém was being built in May 1515, much to the delight of Dom Manuel I and the population who had come to see the strange monster. The king kept Ganga in his private menagerie.

The belief at the time was that rhinos and elephants were mortal enemies. To test the theory, D. Manuel I matched Ganga up against one of his youngest elephants. The elephant, spooked by the noise of spectators, simply ran away when Ganga approached, leading the monarch to conclude that the animals were indeed archenemies.

In December 1515, by way of a “bribe”, in exchange for Portugal’s exclusive right to exploit the “new worlds”, Ganga was sent to Pope Leo X for his amusement. Unfortunately, with Ganga chained on board, the ship sank near the Italian coast during a storm. The carcass washed up at Villefranche-sur-Mer, shipped back to Lisbon, stuffed and resent to the Pope. It went on display in Rome and although it did not generate the same hysteria as it did in Lisbon while alive, it did feature in paintings by Giovanni da Udine and Rafael.

A decade or so later Ganga disappeared from public view and although its remains have never been found, woodcuts, prints, paintings, gargoyles and literature have secured its place in history. In Portugal, the Torre de Belém, under construction at the time of Ganga’s arrival, had the head of a rhino added as a gargoyle on one of the bartizans (turrets). In Alcobaça, the Cloister of Silence in the monastery boasts a realistic looking rhino as one of its gargoyles.

Lawrence Norfolk published “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”, in 1996, a novel centred on the sinking of the Portuguese ship delivering Ganga to Pope Leo X.

Despite the research, I still have not found a definitive link between Ganga and calçada portuguesa. A pity, as that would have made for a sensational explanation of why Portugal today has such marvellous squares, pedestrian walkways and pavements.