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What can a history of the horse tell us about India today?

Yashaswini Chandra's new book is a richly layered account of Hindu, Muslim and secular obsession with the horse, and its shadow over the 21st century

Maharana Sarup Singh of Udaipur-Mewar examining a prize stallion. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky Fund, 2001. )

The horse, on the streets of contemporary India, is a rare sight. Its occasional appearance, either as mount for the flickering handful of cavalry soldiers or as an emaciated beast of burden yoked to a tonga, evokes momentary amusement, perhaps a fleeting sense of wonder. Some hotels and wedding planners employ these elegant creatures as mascots of Indian exotica and cultural baggage. But even the scrawniest animal carries a trace of its ancient nobility, an innate grace that is almost genetically written into its gait, though increasingly waning after centuries of abuse and mistreatment by humans.

Yashaswini Chandra devotes her recent book, The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, to chronicling the myriad fortunes of this exquisite creature from the annals of our chequered past. While the horse is at the centre of her story, the narrative is much wider in scope than a naturalist’s account. Trained in art history, Chandra takes us into the rich iconographic tradition of horses in subcontinental art; she revisits mythology, folklore, recorded history, and apocryphal anecdotes. Above all, she forges connections between trade and commerce, social structures and gender roles, all in relation to horses—and uses these interconnections to illuminate the people we once were, and have now become.

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The crux of Chandra's argument is contained in the closing lines of her book. “The history of the horse in India, mirroring that of its human inhabitant, is a tale of migration, from across the subcontinent and within, and of permanent intermingling,” she writes. “And so, the horse presents a fable.” Indeed, horses have played a pivotal role in shaping the subcontinent’s identity for a long time. Myths of equine gods and fantastical creatures abound in our ancient texts, as do rituals around them.

The ashwamedha yajna, involving the sacrifice of a peerless horse, is mentioned in the epics. “A priceless jewel of a stallion” called Uchchaishravas is valorised in the Hindu pantheon. The Koran describes the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (isra) on a horse-like creature called Buraq. Prince Siddhartha rides out into his life of the renunciate to become the Buddha in his horse, Kanthaka. Kalki, who is supposed to deliver us from the Kali Yuga, is to come riding on a white horse, with his sword drawn. And last, but not the least, the Rig Veda mentions the horse more frequently than it does the cow, though this fact may seem hard to digest in 21st-century India.

The history of the creation of the subcontinent as we know it is a result of relentless imperial churnings—be it the invasions by a series of tribes from Central Asia, the race for supremacy in the Deccan region between the Mughals and Marathas, or the colonial invasion by Britain at the end of the Mughal era. Chandra weaves together a rich matrix of stories, legends and attitudes to the horse to show its centrality to the subcontinent’s consciousness. Without the animal’s vital presence, empires were unlikely to have risen and fallen in the way they did, while monarchs and marauders would have been forced to devise other strategies to wage battles.

The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback by Yashaswini Chandra, Pan Macmillan India, 336 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback by Yashaswini Chandra, Pan Macmillan India, 336 pages, 699

Tied to these expansionist ambitions was a surging interest in trading Arab breeds, expert horses known for their prowess in military situations and for fetching hefty prices. Horses were not only used for martial purposes, but also for recreation, to play polo, for instance, a game that has a popular history in Manipur and Rajasthan. Chandra’s initial chapters explore the minutiae of the transactions involved in getting prized horses into the subcontinent, from the bargaining of prices to risky modes of transportation via road.

While the northern and western parts were more conducive to the upkeep of horses due to their regional vegetations, the south was relatively deprived of good breeds, which aggravated demand and kept it alive for a long time. Both Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, father-and-son duo, went out on a limb to procure superior horses. The former heavily invested in bringing the choicest animals from the Persian Gulf, even agreeing to pay traders for those that have died during the voyage, as long as their ears or tails were produced as proof. His son was equally enamoured of the Persian kind, purchasing 1,050-odd horses a year.

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Chandra decodes the unbroken tradition of snobbery over horses lasting to this date with clarity and, at times, with a sparkling sense of humour. If foreigners like Marco Polo were aghast to see the paltry quality of Indian horses, the later colonial officials, such as Thomas Webber, were enchanted by some of the desi breeds. On coming across a handsome Kathiawari horse, Webber described it as “a beauty, with black tail and mane, about 15 hands [in height], of light dun colour with stripe down black, and very sure-footed in gallop across the cracked cotton soil.” In the context of the 21st century, the passage is the equivalent to the rapture felt by a typical male gaze ogling a fancy sports car.

Notwithstanding her attempt to give us a comprehensive sense of the stakes involved in horse trading in the subcontinent, Chandra shines brightest in her chapter on the Mughals and their love of horses. Her attention to detail is mightily impressive. Chandra argues, for instance, that in no small part, Akbar’s arrival into the world was facilitated by a loyal horse—which saved the greatest Mughal emperor’s father, Humayun, from the jaws of certain death.

This earliest-known painting of Chand Bibi portrays her in a manner which became standard, as hawking in the company of female attendants, if not alone. The lower half of her horse is painted with henna, which was often used to decorate horses in India.
This earliest-known painting of Chand Bibi portrays her in a manner which became standard, as hawking in the company of female attendants, if not alone. The lower half of her horse is painted with henna, which was often used to decorate horses in India. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, 1999.)

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Akbar crucially factored in horses while setting up his famous mansabdari system of administration. He employed grooms in the royal stables to swat flies off his most favourite steeds. Similar stories of equine indulgence and loyalty run right through via the reign of Aurangzeb into the last days of Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Marathas, too, had their share of horsey glory, as did the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, “the horse-mad king”, who claimed to have once fought a war costing 60 lakh rupees and 12,000 soldiers, all to win a prize horse.

While studded with passages of close historical reading, Chandra’s narrative also holds a mirror up to our present, taking us into the regions she writes about, to see how these places have survived the ravages of time. At present, horse-riding is the privilege of the well-heeled, a hobby and pastime not many can afford to cultivate, but it wasn’t always so before the advent of motorised vehicles. And while the history of subcontinental art is crowded with images of men on horseback with a few women (like the legendary Chand Bibi) breaking the monotony of the boys’ club, women (especially those of the Rajput stock) rode horses regularly, as did the British memsahibs during the colonial period.

Just as some of the grand monuments of yore still stand proud in contemporary India, so do the narrowness our ancient value systems continue to sully the 21st century. Private use of horses is still tied up with age-old prejudice of caste hierarchy in many parts of India. News reports of Dalit grooms being abused and harassed by upper-caste men for riding horses to their weddings are not uncommon. To her credit, Chandra doesn't gloss over the historical moorings of such attitudes. If the task of the historian is to alert us to the nuances of the past while illuminating its lingering hold over the present, Chandra succeeds in this regard abundantly.

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