The story of Khutulun Khan, an undefeated wrestling princess and one of the most feared warriors of the Mongolian Empire.
In Mongolia, wrestling (also known as Bökh ) is a very popular sport and has a significant cultural and historical significance for all Mongols. The Mongolian national wrestling costume itself has its own unique history and is an interesting piece of garment.
The wrestlers wear a particular type of vest that has long sleeves but no shoulder covering with a completely open front exposing the whole of the chest. The open chest allows each wrestler to confirm that his opponent is a male. At the end of the match, the victor slowly waves his arms in the air like a bird, turning for all to see.
More than a celebration of victory, the victor is paying tribute to the greatest wrestler in Mongolian history, a princess whom no man had ever defeated since she became the wrestling champion of the Mongols in the 13th century. And as a mark of respect to her, since her death, male wrestlers have only wrestled men. Her name is Khutulun Khan and she was one of the most feared warriors of the Mongolian Empire.
The story of Khutulun Khan
Khutulun (which means ‘shining moon’) was born around 1260. Her father was Kaidu, a grandson of Ogedei Khan and a cousin of Kublai Khan.
The Mongol empire at that time was in the process of getting fragmented with Kublai Khan and Kaidu waging war against each other to gain supreme control of the empire. Kaidu was one of the most powerful rulers of the empire and maintained a stronghold over the Chagatai Khanate, which was based in Central Asia. He vehemently opposed the rule of Kublai Khan and his allies and refused to swear allegiance to him as the ‘Great Khan’.
Khutulun was brought up by her father in the traditional Mongolian nomadic way of life, along with her 14 other brothers. Since her childhood, she consistently outperformed all her brothers and excelled in wrestling, horse-riding, and archery. As she grew up, she became Kaidu’s favorite child who started consulting her in military matters and on the battlefield.
One of the sources of information about Khutulun comes from the writings of Marco Polo, the Venetian who visited the Mongol Empire at that time. Marco Polo seems to be highly impressed by Khutulun as he writes.
“Khutulun was so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess and that she was so strong, that there was no young man in the whole kingdom who could overcome her, but she vanquished them all”.
According to Marco Polo, when Khutulun came of age, Kaidu wanted to marry her off. But Khutulun had a condition; she would only marry that man who can defeat her in wrestling and in case she defeats him, he has to give her a 100 horses. Kaidu accepted her challenge and invited suitors from all over the kingdom to fight her.
No man could defeat her. She ended up unmarried with 10,000 horses and a fearsome reputation.
Her reputation and physical prowess made her a dominant force on the battlefield as she led Kaidu’s army to victory after victory against Kublai Khan who tried in vain to rule over the tribes of the steppes of western Mongolia and Kazakhstan where Kaidu remained undefeated until his death.
Khutulun’s triumphs made her the ideal companion for her father as he increasingly relied on her for advice as well as for political support. He even attempted to name her the next Khan before his death in 1301 but was unsuccessful due to the intense opposition from other brothers and relatives.
However, her unmarried status and warring activities gave rise to malicious gossip. Her political and military opponents started spreading stories about her incestuous relationship with her father. Realizing that, the malicious propaganda is hurting her kingdom and her father, she finally agreed to marry one of her father’s supporters without a fight.
Kaidu died soon afterward and from there, Khutulun’s story begins to slide into the forgotten annals of history.
She leaves behind an everlasting legacy
Khutulun died under unknown circumstances, at the age of 46. After her death, she was forgotten for centuries.
in 1710 a Frenchman named Francois Petis de La Croix rediscovered her heroism when he was writing a biography on Genghis Khan. He calls her as Turandot (‘Turkish Daughter’) in his book. Later in the early 1900s, Turandot was immortalized by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini in his opera of the same name. Her story also became the inspiration for various other artworks throughout Europe as the world finally recognized this brave princess.
For the Mongols, she became a symbol of unabashed pride as a great woman athlete and warrior whose achievements are still celebrated today in the open wrestler’s vest and the victory dance of the victor.
Khutulun’s story is the glorious testimony to the fact that the greatest pleasures in life come from doing things that are deemed ‘impossible’ to be done. Once your mind is freed of the ‘impossible’ mindset, the sky becomes your limit and the world becomes your oyster.
As Amelia Earhart has rightly said.
“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”