“The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback” by Yashaswini Chandra

Royal Horse and Runner,  16th–17th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Royal Horse and Runner, 16th–17th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The horse is a beautiful animal, so it is fitting that an art historian should take us through the history of India on horseback. Yashaswini Chandra describes animals and the men and women who rode them, their grooms, their saddlery, even the grand tombs of horse dealers turned sultans. We are left with an ever richer picture in the mind’s eye of this most visual of countries. Her sensitive and insightful description of the great Mughal and Rajput equestrian portraits show how rulers depended on the horse to express who they were and what they stood for. As Mughal vizier Abu Fazl put it, “The horse is a means of attaining personal excellence.” For Chandra, it is a means of retelling the story of Indian history.

The horse is not native to India, as Chandra explains in the opening pages, nor is it easy for this animal to thrive in the prevailing climate, hot, wet and subject to the torrential monsoon. For this reason, the horse was always either an exotic and priceless import, or a kind of marginal, disruptive force at the service of local warlords. As an example of the first case, Chandra describes the pains Mughals took to secure fine horses from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Exiled central Asians themselves, the Mughals looked at these horses like a letter from home. Chandra richly illustrates her book with well-chosen reproductions of Mughal horse portraits, a genre in  which Indian artists distinguished themselves. The Muslims sultans of the south and the rajas of Vijayanagar imported horses from Arabia and the Persian Gulf, a tradition carried on into the 20th century by equestrian-keen Bombaywallahs, including the Prince Agha Khan.

 

The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, Yashaswini Chandra (Picador India, Jnauary 2021)
The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, Yashaswini Chandra (Picador India, January 2021)

The horse was, at the same time, an element of disruption in the once sanctified hierarchy of Indian kingship. The really exclusive symbol of the maharaja is the elephant. You and I can own a horse, but only the royals could afford to keep elephants. Chandra emphasizes that the availability of horses to marginal, often nomadic peoples, allowed them to rise up the social hierarchy. Some groups managed to muster powerful cavalry even without showy imports, rather like the Indian-manufactured Maruti today competing against Toyotas.

Perhaps the first to do this were the Rajputs, who turned their desertic realm into a center of horse trading and breeding. Their mastery of horsemanship justified their pretension to ancient kshatriya, that is Veda-sanctioned warrior, status. Later the Marathas and the Khalsa Sikhs followed in these hoof-prints.

Other nomadic peoples in India remained close to the horse trade, as ferriers, bandits, musicians and caravanners (also described in Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads). Chandra explores the fluid boundaries between all these professions, and how these reverberate in the folk stories, songs and legends of local divinities.

 

In a society traditionally preoccupied with bloodlines, Chandra shows investigations into the noble origin of a given horse breed can be as inconclusive as exploring the  kshatriya origin of the martial races. Advocates of the Marwari horse will, for example, argue that this horse is descended from prized Arabs. Chandra concludes, on the contrary, that neither the historical sources nor the current nomenclature provides for a clear definition of which modern horse breed comes from what historical stock.  Horses, like other ungulates, develop different appearances over time depending on their feed, how they are raised and the climate to which they are exposed. So horses, native or imported, living in the foothills of the Himalayas, would, after three or four generations, tend to look like the hardy, Tibetan ponies, even if they had Persian or Turki blood. As the concept of pure breeds came to India only in the 19th century, few traditional breeders practiced selective breeding.

It all sounds very unscientific by modern standards, but one must consider that when the Mughals had one million horses to choose from, selective breeding was unnecessary. And since, as the saying goes, one picks horses for courses, each of India’s traditional horse breeding regions produced the right horse for their own social and environmental conditions. The Manipur horse, high in the Himalayas, could barely keep its rider’s feet from dragging off the ground. But, trained for centuries to play polo, it won over the picky English sahibs and relaunched the game of polo on the international scene. Readers will enjoy learning, by the way, that in both Manipur and Ladakh, polo was popular sport, played in pick up games, like football in the slums of Barcelona and Naples.

 

Always lucid and insightful, Chandra has to throw up her hands at the cacophony of medical, dietary and physiognomy-related recommendations in India’s equine manuals. From 4th century pandits to Mughal generals, some treatments or feeds prescribed here seem like a sure way to kill your horse. Chandra has not, understandably, tested any of these practices on live horses, even if she sometimes defends Indian practices. She approves of feeding them molasses, a practice John Lockward Kipling (father of Rudyard) condemned.

In Indian history it is often difficult to separate folklore from fact. Indeed this is what gives it a special charm. Chandra is a gifted storyteller and finds just the deft tone for a culture and gender inclusive retelling of India’s turbulent history, sufficiently respectful of the winners and duly attentive to the losers. She can even admire the pluck of Fanny Parks, the “intrepid memsahib” who showed the Rajput ladies how to ride sidesaddle. Indeed women, Englishmen and low-caste grooms appear alongside Rajput grandees and Mughal emperors in this fascinating tale of the horse.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)