Ganda, Portugal's Most Famous Rhinoceros

Updated on May 22, 2020
Sandra Miliers profile image

Sandra was born in Toronto, came to Europe for university and ended up travelling and working the world. Portugal is one of her favourites.

Belém, Lisbon

If you have been to Belém and seen the Belém tower, you have seen its beauty. You have seen the architecture, and probably also the terrace facing the river. But what you probably have not noticed is that on the lower right part of the tower, underneath the very right tower, there is a bust of an animal.

At first it may seem like just a gargoyle, or an “outgrowing” of the tower, but it is in reality a bust of a rhinoceros, with the face and the front paws carved in the same type of stone as the actual tower.

If you have seen it before, you know exactly where it is. If you haven’t seen it before, it may seem a little hard to make out at first. Today, the rhino has lost the main part of its horn, and it can give the impression of a dog or a pig, or for someone with less imagination, a big “clump” hanging off the tower.

But in reality, it is far from any common sculpture. It is a bust of Ganda, Portugal’s most famous rhinoceros. Now are there or were there rhinoceroses in Portugal, you might ask? And why did this one become famous?

The tower of Belém.
The tower of Belém.

She Was Born in India

It's quite a story. Ganda, as she later came to be known, started her life living in India, in the late 1400s and early 1500s. In India, she probably lived a normal rhinoceros life.

In 1497, Vasco Da Gama became the first European seafarer to reach India by a boat leaving from Lisbon. The Portuguese empire was now still at its beginning, but travelling to India had been one of their main goals for a long time.

After the Portuguese, the Spanish arrived, then the English, French, and lastly, the Dutch. Now they had all come to the new spice lands to fight each other of the territories. Especially the Indian government, soon got fed up with the Europeans, thinking “why did you sail all the way here to fight each other, can’t you do that at home?”

But then they started to rethink. The Portuguese had a totally different strategy coming for merchandise, not to try to take the land and convert and colonize the people, like the others seemed to be up to a lot, these people “only” wanted some territory to set up merchandising colonies. So, the Indian government decided to let the Portuguese stick around, and made a lot of money selling spices and other goods to these friendly people.

Replica of the colonial boats used by the portuguese during the age of discoveries. Photo taken by me during my visit to the Lisbon Maritime Museum.
Replica of the colonial boats used by the portuguese during the age of discoveries. Photo taken by me during my visit to the Lisbon Maritime Museum.

India's Gifts to the Portuguese

After a while, as a way of rewarding their good behavior, they decided to give the Portuguese some gifts. But what do you give these foreign people, wondered the Indian government? Nobody really knew what these foreign merchants would see as a gift and an insult. In the end, these people governing India decided to go all in. The Indian government ended up giving the Portuguese: a few exotic butterflies, an unknown number of Indian peacocks, three Asian elephants, and one white (albino) rhinoceros. We can imagine now the faces of the Portuguese—they are all the way over in India, so how would they get these animals back to Portugal?

Well, during this time period, there were two ways of getting the animals to Lisbon. One was bringing them on the famous “silk route”, the ancient trading route connecting Asia and Europe since the beginning of times. The problem with this however, was that it was a long, time-consuming journey that had to be made by foot, and there were not too many water stops to let the animals have a sip. It was also quite dangerous.

The other option was to go by boat, the same way they had come. The Portuguese decided to take this route. They now loaded all the animals on different boats—peacocks here, an elephant there, one by one they were loaded on.

Off they went, and incredibly enough, after sailing through the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Africa, continuing north passing the colonies of Angola and Congo, rounding the upper cape, they finally sailed into the Tagus river reaching Lisbon.

A Sensational Return to Portugal

When docking in Belém, one can imagine the sensation. All the local people, as well as the foreign and Portuguese merchants—everybody was there by the port. People must have flocked around the port area, just to see all the new goods arriving in this boat, especially the animals from India.

They now started to load off the animals. Firstly came the butterflies, but people looked at them with disappointment—they were not at all impressed. The second thing loaded off were the peacocks. People were not impressed by them either. "Indian chicken", they seemed to think, I wonder what they taste like. Then they started to load off the elephants. Now people's interest started to wake up. These animals were quite impressive; they did't see this every day.

But lastly the rhino was loaded off, and people were amazed. Off the boat, onto the pier of Belém stepped a giant snow-white creature. The rhinoceros created such a sensation, people had never seen anything like this animal before, there were stories and tales about animals like this, but they were from the Roman time period, a long long time ago, now one of the animals was here, alive, and she was albino as well.

The rhino caused such a sensation that even the king of Portugal, Manuel I, heard about her. He immediately went to Belém, met the rhino and fell in love. He decided to adopt the rhino (and as he was the king, nobody could say no) and took her to live with him at the Ribeira Palace.

Praça do Comercio. Where the Ribeira Palace once used to stand.
Praça do Comercio. Where the Ribeira Palace once used to stand.

The King's Pet Rhino

The king loved "parading" his new animal on the streets of Lisbon (like if she would have been a giant dog), and the king is supposed to have filled the courtyard of the palace with hay and mud, for her to "feel like home". Also, a story tells that when the king Manuel realized that walking his rhino on the hard roads of Lisbon made her ankles hurt, he had the streets pavemented with the lower impact cobblestones, for her to walk painlessly, but this story has been heavily debated. Allegedly, it was also the king that started to call her Ganda, learning that in Tamil, the word means just rhino.

King Manuel was the happiest king in the world with his rhino, and with her by his side, his popularity grew. People from all over Portugal now asked for audiences with the king, just to meet the animal, the name Ganda was now on everybody's lips.

People came from Porto and Braga and Coimbra in the north. From Algarve in the south. From Evora inland, they even came from the islands, Madeira and Azores. Having met Ganda the rhinoceros, was now the highest status one could get in this country, and also the gossip point outside of the capital.

A Special Petition and a Special Journey

One day, a special petition came to the court of Lisbon. The pope in Rome had heard about the new pet of Portugal's King Manuel, and wanted to meet the albino rhinoceros. "you can't really say no to the Pope,'' said the Portuguese about the most holy and powerful person on the planet, so "of course the pope needs to meet Ganda".

Now, the smart thing would have been to send a message to the Pope saying "welcome to Lisbon anytime", but the Portuguese said "we're a navigation nation, we'll take the rhinoceros to the Vatican". Now Ganda had no choice, she again boarded a boat with destination Vatican, but this time she was in a cage, specially made for her.

The boat sailed away from Lisbon, around the Algarve coast, and entered the Mediterranean. When arriving close to the Italian coast, the boat started to take in water, ended up sinking, and Ganda, as she was in a cage, drowned. "Absolute catastrophe", said the Portuguese, "what are we going to do now?"

Making the Best of the Situation

They decided to firstly send a message to the Pope in Rome telling him what had happened, and then return home, but before being able to do so, there came a return message from the Vatican stating that the pope was really disappointed of not having met the rhinoceros.

The Portuguese decided to make "the best out of the situation", and ordered people to start digging out parts of the ship to see what they could take up of Ganda from the sunken boat.

When finding her, they cut off her skin from underneath the belly, over the back, brought that up and had it dried. When dried, they sewed it together, and filled the construction with hay. One can imagine what she looked like now, like a giant American football. This was not enough however, they decided for the rhino to look more "lifelike" to put some of her upper skeleton bones into the creation.

They now thought that this was the best they could achieve, and sent "the new Ganda" to the Vatican. When the pope saw what the Portuguese had sent him, he was so insulted that he sent back a raging message and sent the parts of Ganda back to Lisbon, where she allegedly "rests" even till today.

After Ganda had died, as she had during her lifetime been such a celebrity, the Portuguese government decided to honor her just like the royals. She had a bust made of her face and front paws. Now where do we put this bust, said the Portuguese government? Well, she came from India, so let's put her bust in the Tower of Belém.

The bust of Ganda in the tower of Belém.
The bust of Ganda in the tower of Belém.


  • Information: Blue Emotion Tours information guide for tour guides.
  • Pictures: All pictures taken by me.
  • Further reading: "The Pope's Rhinoceros" by Lawrence Norfolk.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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