Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the History of Religions, also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College, at the University of Chicago. In a career spanning more than half a century, she has authored over 40 books, many of them on the history and religious past of India. Her latest book, Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares, has recently been published in India. Excerpts from an interview:

Indian mythology is replete with tales of horses, in various roles, guises and avatars. This is intriguing, given that horses are not indigenous to India, and have never been a feature of the countryside, unlike in Europe. Could the fact that horses were so expensive, elitist, and out of bounds for the common man have played a role in the proliferation of horse myths throughout Indian history?
The fact that horses were not part of the real life of most people in India did, I think, inspire a more mythological and less realistic approach to them in the realm of art, and also made them seem magical and full of incomparable power and generally fantastic in every sense of the word.

Sometimes it made the stories about them unrealistic, but even the magical stories ultimately reflect the real circumstances: the idea that horses come down out of the sky is in part inspired by the real fact that so many of them were imported through the Northwest Himalayan passes, close enough to the sky; and the idea that they come up out of the ocean reflects the true fact that so many of them were imported by sea from the Persian Gulf. And the widespread stories about shipwrecked Arabian stallions that came out of the sea to fertilise native Indian mares is a pretty accurate rendition of the use of Arabian stallions, imported by ship, to improve the native breeds.

While it’s an essential feature in the Vedic and Puranic texts, the horse is conspicuously absent from Harappan seals. Does this allow us to make any deductions about the non-use, if not the non-existence, of horses in the Indus Civilisation?
The absence of horses from the Harappan seals as well as from all other forms of excavation in the Indus Valley is quite substantial evidence that there were no horses in the Indus Civilisation. And as horses accompanied the Indo-European-speakers everywhere they went, this is further evidence that the Indus Valley Civilisation had no connection with the world of the Vedas, which is thoroughly Indo-European. Of course, it is possible, indeed likely, that elements of the Indus Valley Civilisation were diffused throughout India and influenced later forms of Hinduism, including Puranic texts, but certainly not the Vedic corpus.

Be it the Ashvashastra, Agni Purana, or the relevant passages in the Arthashastra, the ancient treatises on horses were written in Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmins, kings and educated classes. How then did the knowledge contained in these texts percolate to the unlettered man engaged in the training and upkeep of horses?
Though it is indeed true that only a very small elite group of men could read Sanskrit in the ancient period, Sanskrit texts were available to non-Sanskritists in a number of ways. First of all, the men who wrote the Sanskrit texts had mothers and nurses and other non-Sanskritist contacts who told them things that they put into the texts; and then, on the other hand, everyone who spoke Sanskrit also spoke another language, and told their non-Sanskritist friends the things I learned in Sanskrit.

So, the information about horses in the Ashvashastra and the other horsey texts came, in part, from conversations with non-Sanskritists who worked in stables and was, on the other hand, transmitted to them by word of mouth. There’s a great passage in the Kamasutra about this [note the last sentence!]:

Throughout the world, in all subjects, there are only a few people who know the text, but the practice is within the range of everyone. And a text, however far removed, is the ultimate source of the practice. “Grammar is a science,” people say. Yet the sacrificial priests, who are no grammarians, know how to gloss the words in the sacrificial prayers. “Astronomy is a science,” they say. But ordinary people perform the rituals on the days when the skies are auspicious. And people know how to ride horses and elephants without studying the texts about horses and elephants.

As one turns from the Puranic to the Buddhist texts, is there a transmutation with regard to the equine narratives, motifs and symbolism, for instance in the Jataka tales, or with regard to Kanthaka – Prince Siddhartha’s steed – in the Buddhacharita, or the vicious horse-headed women in the Mahavamsa?

The Buddhist texts present aspects of horses that both overlap with and often differ from those in the Puranic texts. In the Buddhacharita, the horse of the Bodhisatta weeps when the Bodhisatta leaves him; horses also weep in Muslim texts about the horse of Karbala, but not often in Puranic texts. The horse-headed women in the Mahavamsa and some Jatakas are also known from Puranic texts and Sanskrit kavyas, but the idea that they are sexually voracious seems to be a Buddhist contribution to the shared folklore.

How did centuries of Muslim rule in India change the quantum and quality of horses, particularly through imports? Did it lead to greater appreciation among Indians for foreign horses, and among foreigners for Indian horses?
The Delhi Sultans and the Mughals imported thousands and thousands of Arabian and Persian horses to India, dramatically influencing the breeds that became the Marwari and Kathiawari and other native Indian breeds. The Muslim rulers, however, generally preferred pure Arabian horses for cavalry, by far the main use of horses in this era, though they also had great respect for some of the native breeds for other tasks, particularly for the sturdy little hill ponies that were much better for riding in the hills and for carrying heavy burdens.

The history of Rajasthan is inextricably linked with the warrior clans of the Rajputs, their valour and horsemanship. What is less known are the indigenous breeds of Rajasthan, the Marwari and Kathiawari. How did these come into prominence, and what accounts for their continued usage in rituals, for example – marriage ceremonies in northern India – even today?
The Rajputs were indeed great horsemen, and the Rajput epics reflect the positive influence of the Muslims with whom they were so often in official conflict. So, we read in those texts, stories of Rajputs whose best friends were Muslims and who rode on Arabian horses, particularly mares. The ancient Vedic and Puranic equine traditions always favoured stallions (for all that virility, fertility, and aggressive volatility), but the Muslims often preferred mares (for their intelligence and sensitivity and loyalty); and in the Rajput epics there are many stories of Rajput heroes who rode magical mares.

At the same time, the Rajputs often cross-bred their native horses with Arabian stallions and/or mares, and so we see the Arabian influence on such breeds as the Marwari and the Kathiawari. These breeds remain popular for use in marriage ceremonies, in preference to either thoroughbreds or smaller native ponies, because they are beautiful, the right size (not as big as thoroughbreds or as small as ponies), hardy, and generally gentle enough for inexperienced riders to manage; and they prefer mares, for all the reasons that the Rajputs preferred them.

You’ve written about an Equine Caste System in your book. How did this develop, and how did its mores change over time, from the earliest days, to that of the British Raj and our present times?
The Sanskrit texts divided horses into castes, just as they divided people, and emphasised for both horses and people the importance of knowing what in people would have been called the kula, the family line, and in horses the breed. The British enhanced this system with the concept of the thoroughbred, which again emphasised family descent, in this case, ironically, the thoroughbred’s descent from three horses that the British brought to England from their colonies in what they called the Orient: the Byerly Turk, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Darley Arabian.

But this emphasis on breeding enhanced racist ideas about human beings, the belief that the most important thing you needed to know about a person was his (and I use the male pronoun on purpose) parents, an attitude that exacerbated the already racist British attitude to the native people of India. And the idea of the selective breeding of horses further led, in our day, to ethical and political issues that regarded the selective breeding of Marwari horses according to British rather than Indian standards of excellence. And so horses turn out to be at the heart of many deep and often troublesome issues in the history of India.