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Revisiting magical horses and myths of Hindu-Muslim unity

Scholar Wendy Doniger’s latest book is a tribute to an animal she has loved and studied all her life

Khandoba with Mhalsa, a Company-style painting from Tiruchirappalli.
Khandoba with Mhalsa, a Company-style painting from Tiruchirappalli. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wendy Doniger was my teacher at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. It was known all over campus that apart from Sanskrit, her great passions were horses and dogs and that she read Dick Francis’ racing novels as avidly as she did the Mahabharata. Her classes were always scheduled for the afternoons, so that she could ride her beloved Arab horse, Babur, in the mornings. All those years ago, she would often say, “When I write my horse book...” That book, Winged Stallions And Wicked Mares: Horses In Indian Myth And History, has finally been written. Wendy and I picked up a conversation that we could have had in any of the four decades I have known her. Edited excerpts:

You have loved horses for about 50 years. Tell us how you came to ride, and why it took you so long to write “the horse book”.

When I was young, I wasn’t at all horsey, although when I was very young my very first ambition was to be a bareback rider in the circus. But then I became a ballet dancer, and although Degas understood that ballet dancers were very like horses (he painted both in similar ways), your legs move in opposite ways for ballet dancing (turned out to stretch the legs long) and riding (turned in to grip the horse), and I was a dancer. I discovered horses, indirectly, on my first trip to India, in 1963. On a flight from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Kathmandu, I happened to be seated beside Penelope Chetwode Betjeman, a passionate English horsewoman, and when I moved to England in 1965 and visited her, she put me up on her Arabian horse and I immediately fell off and decided I wanted to learn to ride. Penelope taught me to ride, and I then rode for the next 35 years, until double knee replacement surgery in 1998 put an end to my riding days. During all that time, I wrote about horses in India, but only in parts of books about other things, beginning with the undersea mare in my book about Shiva (1973) and the myth of Saranyu in The Rig Veda (1981) and on and on, until finally, when I got old and retired, and started to write books of a more personal nature, I decided to put all the horsey stuff together in a book, and then I began to read more specifically about horses in India and learnt a lot more before I finished the book.

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Especially in myth, animals are rarely just animals, they are always rich in symbolic and metaphorical meaning. Why is that so, and what meanings does the horse carry?

Animals are like people, only more so. We see in them, or project on to them, a kind of suddenly exposed, exaggerated vision of a particular aspect of human nature, stripped of all the other, complicating characteristics of ourselves. So owls are wise, jackals cunning, dogs loyal, and so forth. Since people have depended on horses for many centuries, we know them perhaps better than any other animal (with the possible exception of dogs) and we know them most intimately, in very close physical contact. Thus, the horse becomes symbolic of power (horsepower); the idea of harnessing the power of horses is expressed in the same word (yoke) that is used in India to describe the harnessing of the sense powers (yoga). But horses also symbolise speed, flight (in the real sense of running away and the symbolic sense of sailing through the air), the virility of stallions, the sensitivity of mares, and much more.

Winged Stallions And Wicked Mares—Horses In Indian Myth And History: By Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger, 350 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Winged Stallions And Wicked Mares—Horses In Indian Myth And History: By Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger, 350 pages, 699.

What is the oddest or most unexpected story about horses you came across when you were writing this book?

I was most surprised by the story, much told in south India (in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and other languages), about horses that turn into jackals and devour other horses. The misconception of the danger of horses (which don’t really hurt you much when they bite you; the real danger comes from the back hooves) identifies this as a tale told in a part of India where they didn’t know much about horses. But other aspects of the story are equally interesting: The horses turn out to be totally magical horses conjured up by Shiva, who then appears in the form of a Muslim horseman and saves his devotee from the persecutions of a wicked king. That Shiva should appear as a Muslim is not unique in Indian equine myth and folklore—the whole cult of Khandoba involves a wonderful mix of Hindus and Muslims in the worship of Shiva in his local form—but it surprised me when I first read it.

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Can you say a little more about the Khandoba cult and other places where Hindus and Muslims worship Shiva?

Both Hindus and Muslims in Maharashtra respond to Khandoba, a local equestrian manifestation of Shiva. Muslim horse people of Maharashtra are often followers of Khandoba to the extent that a Muslim leads the horse in the Khandoba festival and a Muslim family traditionally keeps the horses of the god in Jejuri.

Arabian horse lore strongly influenced Indian horse lore, and in other parts of the country too, there are many Indian stories about heroic “Turkish” horses and horsemen. Muttal Ravuttan is worshipped in temples in southern Tamil Nadu. “Ravuttan” means a Muslim cavalier, horseman, or trooper. In some places, Hindu worshippers make vegetarian offerings to Ravuttan images and in Chinna Salem, he receives marijuana, opium and tobacco for himself, and horse gram (kollu) for his horse. Besides, Hindus as well as Muslims worship at the shrines of Muslim horse saints such as Alam Sayyid of Baroda (now Vadodara), known as Ghode Ka Pir, or the horse saint.

You told me that you felt “ethically compromised” when you were writing about the British and horses in India. What did you mean and how did you address that discomfort?

I lived for 10 happy years in Oxford and Penelope Betjeman (the daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, who became chief of the general staff, India, in 1928, and was commander-in-chief, India, between 1930-35 ) was the godmother of my son. I grew up loving English literature, from Shakespeare to Alice In Wonderland and Kipling’s Kim. So it was troubling to me to learn, as of course I did, what the British had done in the colonisation of India; I am still wrestling with that one. When it came to writing about the British in this book, I felt I had to write about the role that the concept of the pedigree of horses (the key to Kipling’s Kim is the code sentence about a white stallion’s pedigree) played in the more general racism of British colonialism, as indeed it played in the Hindu caste system: the idea that the most important thing to know about a person is to know who his (and I use that pronoun intentionally) parents were. Later, when dealing with the way an Englishwoman worked to establish the “breed standards” of the Marwari horse, again I was conflicted: I agreed that it was a good idea to encourage the breeding of Marwaris that maintained the qualities for which the breed was long admired, but it made me uncomfortable that it was an Englishwoman (whom I happen to know and like, and who reminded me a lot of Penelope) rather than an Indian who was doing this. In both cases, I tried to treat both sides of the question with an open mind but it was an uncomfortable part of the writing.

Now that you have paid your dues to the horses you love, are you going to do a book about dogs?

Well, I just did write a book at least partly about dogs in India called After The War: The Last Books Of The Mahabharata. It features the episode in which Yudhishthira refuses to abandon a devoted (bhakta) dog even at the cost of entering heaven—it’s my favourite passage in the whole Mahabharata.

Arshia Sattar is a writer and translator based in Bengaluru.

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