Meeting the Darkhad, the soul guards of Genghis Khan

Society & Culture

For nearly 800 years, the Darkhad have claimed to be the official guardians of the soul of Genghis Khan. But controversy abounds.

At the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan; photo by Mads Vesterager Nielsen

As Genghis Khan lay on his deathbed, a shamanic priest came to him to perform the rites of cindariin hurrcag — the ritual to capture a fragment of the soul for posterity in this world. The shaman plucked a white hair from the forehead of a camel and placed it in the Khan’s mouth; the hair absorbed the Khan’s last breath, and with it, a part of his soul. The shaman — along with 1,000 guards — pledged to protect the soul of Genghis forever.

There is a subgroup of Mongol people who believe they are the direct descendants of these guards. Called the Darkhad, they are a tribe that has passed down stories of the Great Khan for generations, including the legend above. Myth mixes easily with facts. Today, the Darkhad man the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Inner Mongolia. If its members are to be believed, they have now safeguarded Genghis’s soul for 36 generations — 794 years.

“I am Da-er-hu-te,” he says. The man is wearing a blue Mongolian robe with silver lining that runs sleekly from his neck down the right side of his chest all the way to his ankles. He is operating a small snack booth at the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan on the windswept edges of the Ordos Desert in Inner Mongolia, selling sweet potatoes, sausages, spicy glutinous sticks, and soft drinks to visitors.

He points to the screen of his phone, where his Baidu Translate app has spit out these words in English: “I am Darkhad.”

At first I am reluctant to believe him. I thought the Darkhad (达尔扈特 dá ěr hù tè) were extinct, their ways lost during the turmoil of the 20th century. There are even online accounts of actors on the prowl, alleging to be the descendants of the soul guardians.

“Oh of course we exist,” the man says. I learn his name is Sukhbaatar and he is 38 years old. “Although, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was nobody here. And there are not many left.”

According to a census from 2000, there were 16,268 people who identified themselves as Darkhad at that time. Today, only a fraction of that number identify as active guardians of the Khan. “We are just about 100 people here at the mausoleum,” Sukhbaatar says.

“Mausoleum” is probably a misnomer, considering Genghis has no known grave. But the Mongolians have a shamanist belief that the soul of a person may live on in the objects they used in the world of the living. The Darkhad experimented with erecting fixed structures to honor the first Great Khan beginning in the late 1800s, though the mausoleum in Ordos wasn’t built until the mid-1950s.

“We guard the soul of Genghis, which lives on in his things,” Sukhbaatar explains. “We have done so since the death of the Khan.”

What is known — or believed — about the death and the history of Genghis and the Darkhad is important, because it remains a part of East Asian politics to this day.

A grave shrouded in mystery (and politics)

Darkhad yurts in Ordos — Charles-Eudes Bonin, 1897

Considering the immense power that Genghis Khan wielded during his life — having united the Mongol tribes and created an empire that stretched from Asia’s Pacific coast to the frontiers of Europe — it is remarkable that there are so many conflicting tales about his death. One story is that he was stabbed by a detained harem girl. Another is that he was killed by a stray arrow in a battle with the Western Xia. Marco Polo alleges that he fell from a horse or was injured during a hunt. There are stories of illness, from plague to old-fashioned poisoning.

There are stories and counter stories, crafted to honor the Khan with a more noble death or to smear his legacy, or simply muddy the waters, according to his wish.

According to The Secret History of The Mongols, Genghis Khan died on August 18, 1227, in what is today Yinchuan in northern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, close to the Yellow River.

Maybe the Darkhad were lucky to have survived the death of Genghis, as there are gory tales associated with the Khan’s passing. To honor the Khan’s wish of secrecy — we are entering deep into the territory of legend here — 2,000 people who attended the Khan’s funeral were slaughtered by his army. The army was then killed by the Khan’s escort. The escort then killed anyone that crossed their path, in order to conceal where Genghis was buried. Finally, when they reached their destination, the remaining survivors committed suicide.

In Mongolia, a prominent version of events is that the Khan was buried by his close family, and herds of horses galloped over the grave until it was nothing but dust. Eight centuries have passed, and the location of the grave of Genghis remains a mystery, with would-be leads occasionally popping up in media headlines. In 2004, a team of Japanese and Mongolian archaeologists unearthed a palace they speculated was linked to the Khan’s burial site in Mongolia. Still, many believe that the grave should be close to the river Onon in Mongolia, where Temujin — which was the Khan’s given name — was born and raised.

But in China, for all intents and purposes, the Khan’s final resting place is in Ordos, where the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan was built between 1954 and 1956. When plans to develop the mausoleum in 2004 became public, they were condemned by Mongolians as an attempt to exploit the legacy of Genghis Khan. To this day, the area is regarded by many Mongolians in Outer Mongolia as illegitimate.

Guardians for 800 years

Genghis Khan’s fourth son, Tolui, had a portable mausoleum built on the Mongolian grasslands. The Darkhad is said to have pledged themselves as the guardians and soul-priests immediately after 1227, but the earliest historical references are to 1250, stating “a thousand people who had been exempted from military service protected the place.” The guardians put Genghis’s things, such as his saddle, belt, and various other artifacts, into eight temples representing the Khan and his family members. Other artifacts, like the Khan’s “horsehair” battle banners, were held at lamaist temples in Mongolia, but have been lost or destroyed.

Marco Polo notes in The Travels of Marco Polo that eight temples were found in Shangdu — the famed city known in literature as Xanadu, 300 kilometers north of Beijing — indicating the first institutionalization of a Genghis Khan cult. After the fall of the Yuan dynasty, the shrine turned mobile, with the eight temples turning into eight Mongolian yurts — round tents of sheep wool and wood. The wandering memorial procession of the Darkhad made its way across the northern steppe frontiers, shifting from place to place with the changing seasons. More than just a cult, this band of Mongols became a centerpiece of East Asian politics. The Qing dynasty subsidized the Darkhad, which numbered about 500 guards by the mid-1800s. They were regarded as a vital part of the spiritual infrastructure of the empire, and cemented the link between the Chinese Manchu dynasty and the Mongolians (specifically, the Manchus as the rulers and the Mongolians, in this symbolic framework, as the ruled).

By the late 1800s, the Darkhad had constructed wooden structures in the Chinese style to house the artifacts, but these were devastated by an outbreak of plague. The Panchen Lama said the plague was a result of displaying items in buildings that were not in harmony with the nomad life of the steppes.

By the 1920s, there were fewer than 5,000 Darkhad in the Ordos Desert region. Many had left for Mongolia after the fall of the Qing dynasty to settle in the Darkhad Valley, and this split remains to this day. Of those who stayed, most were women, children, and herders. Visitors who wished to pay respect to the Khan had to visit eight separate places, as the tents were scattered among Darkhad families migrating with their herds along the northern bend of the Yellow River.

By the 1930s, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) devised plans to move the artifacts west, as the armies of the Empire of Japan were encroaching on northern China. In 1937, the Darkhad moved west, too. The procession made its way through the Communist base area of Yan’an, where a ceremony was held in honor of the great Khan, attended by Máo Zédōng 毛泽东, who laid a wreath before the wandering temples honoring “China’s national hero, Genghis Khan.” The Darkhad then continued south to Xi’an, where reportedly more than 200,000 people cheered in the streets as guardians entered the old city gates. The Khan was back, just in time to turn into much-needed PR for the war effort.

Having enjoyed considerable attention in Shaanxi, the procession moved to Gansu province. It had an armed escort of Nationalist soldiers. The Darkhad guards who accompanied the artifacts and the tents made it all the way to the remote town of Yuzhong, northwest of Lanzhou in Gansu, where it was thought to be safely out of reach from military conflicts in the north.

When the Chinese civil war resumed after Japan was beaten back, the Muslim strongman Mǎ Bùfāng 马步芳, leader of the powerful Ma clique and a general in the Nationalist army, redirected the artifacts and the Darkhad from Gansu to the Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, near his own powerbase, where it remained until the remainder of the war. After 1949, plans were drawn up for a permanent structure, called a mausoleum, to house the artifacts, where the Darkhad could continue their worship and rituals to the soul of the Great Khan. This would cement a permanent link between China and Mongolia, even though Mao had given up territorial claims to Mongolia in 1950. When the mausoleum was finished, Genghis’s items finally found a permanent home — whether people liked it or not. They were placed under the watch, as always, of the Darkhad.

A place for rituals in the desert

Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, photo by Mads Vesterager Nielsen

“What happened during the 1960s and 1970s?” I ask, but Sukhbaatar veers off. “The Darkhad came back in the 1980s,” he answers. I know he is angling to avoid talking about the Cultural Revolution. As far as my research has taken me, the mausoleum was completely destroyed — including all the artifacts on display — by Red Guards, and the Darkhad were driven away from the area. In the 1970s, some artifacts were reconstructed, and buildings re-erected in the late 1980s. “There are new things here,” Sukhbaatar says, “but for us it is important to continue our traditions.”

The mausoleum remains the No. 1 tourist attraction in the greater Ordos region, and the municipal government heavily promotes the site. The Darkhad perform daily rituals to the Khan, with occasionally bigger festivals and ceremonies, like the tribute to the sulde, the golden trident spears which are a symbol of power and conquest in Mongolian mythology. The highest of these ceremonies is held on the 14th day of the seven month on the lunar calendar.

The artifacts, the Darkhad, and the “mausoleum” are continuing to cause considerable controversy. Mongolian pundits regularly call for the Darkhad to move to Mongolia because of concerns about how Chinese authorities will manage the legacy of the Khan. In China, Genghis Khan is routinely referred to as “China’s national hero,” a king in the lineage of emperors that ruled China.

For Sukhbaatar, the rituals go on as they did during the lifetimes of his forefathers, mixed in with ordinary life: sometimes he offers mutton, other times he simply mans the kiosk on the mausoleum grounds. In just six years, 2027, the Darkhad will mark the 800-year anniversary as soul-guardians of Genghis Khan, and Sukhbaatar will be there when it happens. “We have not planned the great festivities yet, but we will,” he says. “It is a great honor to serve the khan.”