History on horseback: unlike in Europe, horses in India now associated with only the elite

Riding farms are common across Europe, and many young people – especially girls – learn riding as part of growing up

History on horseback: unlike in Europe, horses in India now associated with only the elite

Tabish Khair

You can read Yashaswini Chandra’s fascinating The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback (Picador) as what its title claims or as what its subtitle implies. It is the story of the horse, whose title as man’s best friend was wrongly appropriated by dogs, at least until late in the 19th century, when increasing mechanisation relegated the equine to circus-like spheres. Or, you can read the book as a horse-focussed history of India.

It is the latter endeavour that interests me primarily: Bring in a bit of the external material world and you find it impossible to believe in your own neat, exclusive constructs about the past and yourself in the present. Chandra’s ‘horse’ does this exceedingly well, as it highlights the syncretic nature of Indian pasts. And our many evasions when we look at it today.

Let me narrate a mystery that Chandra’s book has, I think, enabled me to solve. When I first moved to Denmark, I was surprised that horses continued to be part of ordinary life in this country of highly industrialised agriculture. I discovered this to be the case in other European countries too, though in more stratified places, like England, horses had a more upper-class provenance.

This was strange. Growing up in a family with connections to villages in small town India, I had experienced horses only in visiting circuses and, until the 1980s, as emaciated ‘tattu’-ponies pulling dilapidated carts. No one I knew rode, or even wished to ride. This despite the fact that the Bihar in which I grew up was only haphazardly mechanized, its roads more suitable for horses than cars. The few who still rode in India, such as in some Rajasthan ‘tribes’, crossed the roads of our present only fleetingly.

On the other hand, I just need to walk out of my house today – in a village five kilometres outside the second-biggest city of Denmark – and I can count at least six farms that keep horses. There are two riding farms within walking distance. Riding farms are common all over West Europe, and many young people – especially girls – learn riding as part of growing up. It is common to see people riding well-bred horses. These are not upper-class people or people from a military background, as seems to be the case in urban India. They are ordinary Danes. Why this difference, I had often wondered?

Because, as Chandra’s The Tale of the Horse stresses, horses were very much part of India into the 19th century. While it was often claimed, rightly or wrongly, that good horses could not be bred in India, especially in South India, horses had been used and imported in large numbers throughout the centuries. They were, so to say, the petroleum of the past – and like our petrol today, they were largely imported, and heavily taxed at times. Oh, well, maybe not as heavily taxed, but still.

This probably started with the first waves of ‘Aryans’ to come to India – who might have brought horses into the region – and, with perhaps a reduction in the Mauryan period, continued throughout the so-called ‘Muslim’ centuries, down to the Mughals and the British. There is some evidence, though Chandra steers clear of such controversial conjectures, that the ‘Aryan’ conquest of India was enabled by the new ‘technology’ of horse-chariots just as much as some later ‘Muslim’ conquests were enabled by new technological uses of gunpowder and archery-power on cavalry charges.

Chandra delves into this complex history in depth, ranging from our ancient Vedas to Colonel Tod’s horsey tales. She entertainingly mixes ‘stories’ with ‘histories’, using one to comment on the other, though thankfully without a postmodernist erasure of all difference between the two. In the process, she excavates many stories that enabled me, tentatively, to understand the above-mentioned difference between countries like Denmark and India: why have horses survived in ordinary life and middle-class recreational use in such European nations but not in India, where they have been relegated to military units or the upper classes?

One of the achievements of Chandra is to look beyond the elitist discourse on horses in India. She does not call it ‘elitist’, but that is what it is. Much of the recorded evidence of equine life in India comes from the top classes: this ranges from samudramanthan, where the gods essentially cheat the lowly asuras and the horse that emerges sides with the gods, to the royal tradition of ashwamedha yajna, to the fascination for Arab and Central Asian horses during the sultanates and Mughal periods in both Hindu and Muslim courts, to the association of Rajputs with horses, finally codified in Colonel Tod’s annals.

It is while discussing the Rajputs that Chandra goes on a necessary aside and talks, very revealingly, about the ‘lower’ castes in the region, such as the Bhils and the Banjaras, who not only rode horses but also traded in them. However, these peripatetic castes, ‘criminalised’ with suspicion by the British and overlooked by the upper castes, seldom left equinine records.

Similarly, we know of Mughal and Maratha royalty, generals, rich traders with their fascination for horses and their, sometimes legendary, riding skills, but we know nothing about the grooms who looked after their horses. I cannot help wondering if the reputation of India as a place that led to a deterioration of horse breeds over the generations is an index of this huge gap?

Chandra attempts to answer this question, without fully entering the caste-class matter. She does suggest that it might be the effect of class perception: the upper classes, down to the British, tended to attach prestige to imported breeds of horses. She also suggests other factors, including trader manipulation, and notes that there were and are less valorised Indian breeds – the tattu being not a pony, as I had supposed, but the poorest of such breeds.

But I wonder: Can any class of overlords maintain standards when the people doing the real work never really enter their consciousness – and seldom their records? It seems to me that the official ‘memory’ of the horse, as against its reality perhaps, is an elitist one in India. This was not the case in Europe, where the horse, unlike in India, became the main farm animal too. That, finally, explains to me why ordinary Danes continue to think, ride and keep horses. The horse reminds us that we, in India, still need to face up to many areas of evasion relating to caste and class, and their overlap.

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