The Karkadann, or Persian Unicorn
I have seen and read so many versions of what the Karkadann looks like.
An early description of the karkadann comes from the eleventh century Persian scholar Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī. His description of the animal says that it has “the build of a buffalo…a black, scaly skin; a dewlap hanging down under the skin. It has three yellow hooves on each foot…The tail is not long. The eyes lie low, farther down the cheek than is the case with all other animals. On the top of the nose there is a single horn which is bent upwards.“ In the work of another author, a part of al-Bīrūnī’s description exists that adds: “the horn is conical, bent back towards the head, and longer than a span…the animal’s ears protrude on both sides like those of a donkey, and…its upper lip forms into a finger-shape, like the protrusion on the end of an elephant’s trunk.”
Undoubtedly, the Indian Rhinoceros was the creature that he had described. However, the future confusion between the rhinoceros and the unicorn was already in progress, as the Persian language uses the same word– karkadann– for the mythological animal as it does for the rhinoceros. In illustrations of the karkadann this confusion is obvious.
Taking this description, scholars described continuously more fanciful versions of the “Persian unicorn”, complicated by the absence of first-hand knowledge and the difficulty of reading and interpreting old Arabic script.
A very notable difference concerned the horn: where Al-Biruni had listed a short, curved horn, later writers made it a long, straight horn. The horn then traveled in artists’ interpretations from the beast’s nose to its forehead.
In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta, in his travelogue, calls the rhinoceros he saw in India a karkadann, and described it as a rather pugnacious beast, driving away other animals—-even those as big as the elephant—from its territory, allowing no one else to graze there.
The name karkadann is a variation of the Persian kargadan, or Sanskrit kartajan, which is said to mean “lord of the desert”.