Yashaswini Chandra has a PhD in the history of art from SOAS, where she was also a teaching fellow, and formerly worked with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and histories of India. In her first book, The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, Chandra reminds us of how central horses were to polities, economies and ruling classes, both ancient and medieval, before the mechanisation of the modern world changed everything.

Chandra’s book introduces us to the divine origins of the horse in Indian mythologies, descending from the skies and emerging out of the sea, and how it embedded itself firmly into Indian traditions and popular culture. In telling the history of the animal, Chandra is also recounting the stories of the people who bred, traded and went to war on horseback.

In the book, for example, you’ll learn how hundreds of thousands of horses were brought overland to India from Central Asia and beyond as well as on ships from West Asia, creating powerful lasting trade links spanning entire continents, and also how European biases about Indian horse breeds as well as the colonial distrust of nomadic communities altered the nature of the trade in India.

I spoke, over e-mail, to Chandra about why she wrote a history of the horse in India, how she compares its position in Indian culture to that of the cow and what we understand today about India’s horse-breeding culture.

Could you tell us a little bit about your academic background, and how you came to write this book?
I have a PhD in the History of Art from SOAS, and the Himalayas and Rajasthan are my main areas of research. I also have an interest in the social and cultural history of colonial India, based on which I managed the multi-volume documentation project of the Rashtrapati Bhavan on behalf of Sahapedia.

It entailed bringing out several volumes covering different aspects of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and associated institutions of colonial origin. One of the books, which I ended up co-editing, was on the President’s Bodyguard, the household cavalry of the Indian head of state.

I wrote the chapter on the horses of and horsemanship at the PBG. Not only was that a rewarding experience, but it also led me to think critically about the historical associations between humans and animals. I became curious about the history of the horse in India or its role in Indian history, especially given the growing interest in animal history, and was struck by the paucity of literature on the subject.

So I thought I’d give the topic a go. Having said that, I didn’t know what I was getting into and initially thought I would write a specialised book, looking into a specific aspect or region of India, or perhaps for equestrians and hippophiles like me. I gradually realised that there was a much larger story there and that the subject had a wider appeal.

If I could put it simply, why focus on the horse?
Why not take an interest in living, feeling beings other than humans, especially when their histories are as closely entwined with those of people, as in the case of the horse? Perhaps because the horse is now as marginal to human life as it was once central, it’s difficult to imagine the full force of its influence and imprint. Horses have been part of my life, so I have experienced some of that.

And if you were to sit down to think about it, the horse was ubiquitous – it’s just that we tend to focus on the people who rode horses or dealt with them and forget about the animal. I have quoted Ulrich Raulff in the book because he sums up the importance of the horse beautifully when he says, “No other historical or natural being except man, presents such a compelling case for a histoire totale.

That is the sort of story I wanted to write about the horse in India, one that doesn’t just view the horse along utilitarian lines – as a trade commodity or a war animal – or even as a symbol. I think it was important to present the creature as sentient and emphasise the historical partnership between humans and horses, the bonds that developed around that.

That’s one of the reasons I cite accounts in which the relationship between a horse and its master sounds like a familial tie (Pabuji and Kesar Kalmi, Rana Pratap and Chetak), if not almost a romance (Raju Khan and his mare). They are a metaphor for the intensity of feelings that revolved around this partnership, the extent to which humans identified with their horses (and, presumably, vice versa). I also came to realise that the horse can provide a wonderful lens to view the history of India, and lead us in new and surprising directions.

Finally, I thought I would contribute to the growing body of Indian animal histories: there’s some literature on the horse in India, even if limited in scope, and quite a bit on the elephant – Thomas Trautman’s Elephants and Kings being the best known. Divyabhanusinh has done amazing work on the rhino, the cheetah and the lion. Romila Thapar, Valmik Thapar and Yusuf Ansari have also written about the lion and the cheetah in India. Shibani Bose recently published Mega Mammals in Ancient India.

Yashaswini Chandra

You describe the book as being in the form of an epic and an ‘ode to horses’. How did this work take shape over the years?
I stop short of describing the form of the book as an epic, even as I acknowledge classical and, especially, oral epics as source material and the epic character of the horse. I call it an ode to horses because the book comes from a place of personal involvement with, love and admiration for horses. I wanted that warmth and enjoyment to be reflected in my prose. I never struggled with the form of the book; that was clear in my mind.

But I did experiment with the scope of it, as I mentioned before, until I arrived at an approach by which horses are examined as a thread that runs through Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and popular belief. This, I figured, would enable me to bring out the multifaceted significance of the horse and also indicate the extent to and the diverse ways in which its presence was felt in Indian culture and society. I then settled on a structure, beginning with a general background and an overview of the Indian scene, before narrowing it down to a particular horse territory – Rajasthan.

The book begins as a reminder that the horse was tremendously important to Vedic-era Indians, seen as a divine gift and an important part of royal culture. Though the cow (and even ox-riding) are mentioned sparingly in the book, I’m curious what you make of the different trajectories the veneration of these two animals has taken.
The horse was valorised, cherished and fought over, even worshipped symbolically by certain warrior castes during Dussehra, but I’m not sure it was venerated or revered as an animal like the cow came to be. Within the Shalihotra/Ashvashastra class of literature, for example, divine origins are ascribed to horses. But they are also divided into castes, with the “lower caste” horse being disdained, and into auspicious and inauspicious categories.

It would certainly be interesting to compare the different trajectories taken by the two animals. Within the pastoral economy of Rajasthan, for instance, cattle, horses and camels were all considered “mobile wealth” but gradually a hierarchy emerged among the animals by which the ruling class of Rajputs became riders of horses and protectors of cows, while the camel became the domain of Raika herders. But I’ll have to give the matter more thought. I’m afraid I had my hands rather too full with equine matters.

Though the book focuses to a large extent on the horse in the medieval era, what is your sense of how well we understand India’s horse culture before this period?
The book does focus on the late medieval-early modern periods. But I made a conscious effort to start on the note of the early history and close on that of colonial change and Europeanisation, so that the book neither begins nor ends abruptly. Some aspects of ancient horse culture are well known, such as the Indo-Aryan connection with the horse and related controversies, the horse sacrifice, some myths, the iconography of certain Hindu and Buddhist gods, the horse-drawn chariot, and a picture emerges if all these strands are woven together.

Did you always know you’d be devoting a significant section to Rajput culture and that region of India’s association with the horse? Or was that something that emerged during the research?
I was conscious that if I limited the book to an overview of India’s association with the horse, I would have too much ground to cover: I might have to slide over regional specificities and not be able to take apart all the different layers that surrounded the horse. I felt that an in-depth look encompassing social, cultural and political aspects required a regional mooring, so I decided to make a case study of Rajasthan in the later parts of the book – not only because it’s one of my areas of research, but also for the considered reasons listed in the prologue.

The Rajputs were a factor in the choice, as was the region’s history of pastoralism and trade. I was aware that Rajasthan’s enduring reputation as one of India’s great horse territories had something to do with the romanticisation of Rajputs as horse warriors. But the horse also informed their rise as the ruling class, as also their assimilation into the Mughal Empire and indeed instances of resistance to it. But the Rajputs were not the only reason that Rajasthan emerged as a centre of trade, in the form of livestock fairs in particular, and breeding – that had to do with its location at the crossroads of various horse-trading routes and its pastoral culture.

That is the reason a sizeable section of the book is devoted to nomadic communities from or in Rajasthan that were involved in the horse business. In the context of a history of Rajasthan, there is of course no dearth of information on the Rajputs; they loom large in the court chronicles and the art. It’s finding material related to the itinerants and the lower-status groups who bred horses or looked after them which is far more challenging. It just means that you have to be more creative about your sources.

The book is startling in its reminder of how the horse trade was so massive, and how horse trading could be a stepping stone to a much bigger role, often becoming major powers, whether in the North or the Deccan. You write that these origins for certain lineages were often obscured and given grander backstories, but were they hard to trace as well?
They weren’t hard to trace, since the horse-trading background of many of these characters or groups are documented and historians such as Richard Eaton, Elizabeth Lambourn and Jos Gommans have emphasised the link in specific instances. It was more a matter of collating enough examples from diverse regions to demonstrate the extent of the phenomenon and the different ways in which it played out.

It stands to reason – the bigger players were a class of people who commanded a huge network that extended from horse breeders in Central Asia or the Middle East to buyers among the political elite of India. The demand for horses in the age of cavalry warfare was so acute that they had an automatic advantage. Horse trading often went hand in hand with soldiering and adventuring.

Besides, horses were a major status symbol; so, say, if a merchant turned up in an emperor’s court with a particularly exotic specimen, he stood to be rewarded with a title. But it’s worth remembering that the phenomenon worked both ways. It didn’t just provide opportunities for ambitious, upwardly mobile horse traders, but the trade was lucrative enough for the established elite within the larger sphere to take it up. Between their impeccable credentials and the clout they exercised as merchants, they were lapped up by Indian rulers – as in the case of Mahmud Gawan of the Bahmani sultanate.

Equestrian portrait of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan from the Kevorkian Album | WikimediaCommons

Again, to put it simply, what is your understanding of India’s (much maligned in many accounts) culture of horse breeding? You explain how much of that comes from certain biases, but yet there is also the sense that in many parts of India it struggled to take off?
These accounts by foreign travellers such as Marco Polo do need to be put into perspective, as they pertain to specific parts and periods and were coloured by the biases and agendas of the commentators, if not based on second-hand information. It also sometimes seemed to me that the conversation about the horse in India wouldn’t go past this stumbling block. Consequently, the emergence of local Indian breeds, many of which barely survive into the present, hadn’t been looked into much.

But to answer your question about horse breeding, vis-à-vis trade, and sum up some of the points I have discussed at length in the book: by and large, for the longest time, not enough horses were being bred in India to meet a massive demand because, with the exception of a few stretches, horses couldn’t be or weren’t produced in sufficient numbers in herds and few groups dedicated themselves exclusively, or even predominantly, to the business of breeding of horses.

There was also an elitist preference for foreign horses. But the fact is that much of the rank and file of many an army by a certain period, including that of the Vijayanagara Empire, rode local horses. About fifty percent of the horse population of Mughal India would have consisted of Indian horses. Indeed, from the eighteenth century, fewer and fewer horses were being imported into India and the requirement was correspondingly met by homegrown horses, until the British began to import horses from Europe and Australia.

In some ways the book is also about the often itinerant communities that surround horse trading, and how the colonial era – and mechanisation – radically changed their lives. Was this something you expected to trace in the book?
In connection with Rajasthan, I had an inkling of their contribution. My association with Rupayan Sansthan, founded by the folklorist Komal Kothari and the writer Vijaydan Detha, sensitised me to the role of non-Rajput groups in the history of the region. I was also inspired by Tanuja Kothiyal’s work on Rajasthan, encompassing nomadic histories, and she gave me a lot of good advice. But I had to be quite imaginative and really dig around to find direct references to their hand in horse trade.

Portrait of a stallion from Northern India | Wikimedia Commons

Is there anything you unearthed over the course of the research that surprised you? That you weren’t expecting to come across?
The paintings of horses were a revelation. They really capture the story of the horse in India. The range includes equestrian portraits, paintings of horse sports and hunting scenes, portraits of individual or actual horses, and paintings with traders, grooms and farriers. I felt that, in the case of many of the images with horses, the animals hadn’t received due attention, treated as incidental, even props, when in fact their inclusion helped constitute the very nature of the artworks. The paintings proved to be a vital source in my research.

Are there misconceptions about India’s horse culture or relation to the animal that you find yourself constantly having to correct?
On the one hand, there are those people who get incensed if you tell them that horses weren’t native to India, at least not since the native population of wild horses disappeared in 8000 BCE. On the other, some people will say that India wasn’t horse country because horses aren’t native to it and because Marco Polo once declared that horses couldn’t be bred in a certain part of it.

In my opinion, the story of the horse in India lies between these poles. I also think that not enough is known about the colonial intervention that led to the decline of Indian breeds and I hope my book makes some contribution in that direction.

What books/podcasts/papers/videos would you recommend to someone who is interested in the story of the Indian horse?

  • Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse is a profound and moving portrait of the final chapter in the mutual history of humans and horses. And although it isn’t concerned with India, its universalist aspects will speak to anyone interested in the horse in general.
  • A journal article by Abhimanyu Singh Arha, ‘Hoofprint of Empire: An Environmental History of Fodder in Mughal India’, Studies in History 32(2) (2016).
  • A paper by Wendy Doniger, ‘Presidential Address: “I Have Scinde: Flogging a Dead (White Male Orientalist) Horse’, The Journal of Asian Studies 58, 4 (1999).
  • Simon Digby’s War-Horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate: A Study of Military Supplies is a classic, as specialised as it is.