‘The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback’ review: Reimagining the horse and its unique place in Indian history

(Published in The Hindu, April 24 2021)

Yashaswini Chandra’s The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback is a charming book, both in its broad strokes as well as details. From the start Chandra’s passion for the horse as a “sentient being” is clear, but it is not a romanticised affair. And though it is perhaps difficult to separate horses from tales of kings and aristocrats — not least because a good deal of visual material featuring them is courtly in origin — there is a conscious effort to move beyond elite quarters and recognise the role of the horse in making communities, economies, identities, sport, and even in challenging gender stereotypes. This last extends also to the treatment of male and female mounts: while one might presume that warriors’ standard preference was for stallions, communities such as the Rajputs, we learn, “did not share in the prejudice against mares”. On the contrary, their folklore reveals a fond attachment for mares, who in some stories join their affectionate human masters in the afterlife.

Chandra begins the book by delving into mythology to locate the horse in Sanskrit lore, moving thereafter into the historical space, down to the British Raj. In the process she also progressively narrows a large canvas into a geographically and culturally compact one centred on Rajasthan. The mythological section features interesting details — we read, for instance, that the horse is mentioned a great deal more than the cow in the Rig Veda —while the historical section highlights the travails of the animal itself as a commodity in human transactions. As many as 11,000 Persian horses could be imported into India in a single batch, but whether by land or sea, not all made it. On arduous maritime routes, for instance, horses regularly died, and their bodies were thrown overboard. While we know of burials at sea for sailors, we don’t always think of the animals dropped into oceanic depths. Meanwhile, to prove to buyers in India that the merchants had indeed set out with the originally agreed number, the dead horses’ tails were preserved, allowing the seller to claim full fees.

Chandra deploys dynamics of the horse trade to demonstrate how politics could be shaped by merchants in this period, not to speak of cultural attitudes. On the one hand it became general wisdom that good horses did not thrive in India’s climate — a convenient excuse, she argues, given that it passed off enervation born of the animals’ painful journeys to the subcontinent, to the recipient’s environment instead. Similarly, while local breeds were smart (with Marathas achieving a great deal on “desi” mounts), it soon became a given that prestigious horses were foreign. This led not only to a caste system of sorts (the Arab was ranked higher than the Turki, with one kind of horse even named “Tattu”, now a favourite slur among schoolboys), it also gave merchants immense power. Sher Shah Suri’s grandfather was a 15th-century horse trader, for example, while in the Deccan, the Iranian businessman Mahmud Gawan’s international contacts enabled a ministerial career in the Bahmani sultanate. Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century, Ali Asker acquired wealth via the horse in princely Mysore, where his grandson later became minister.

Another compelling element in the book is its emphasis on the horse’s role in social formations. Chandra notes that the identification of the horse with specific communities has its own history. Horses are integral today to the Rajput self image, for example, but this evolved relatively late, around the fifteenth century. The elite preoccupation with horses also trickled down to non-elite groups: leatherworking castes, thus, developed sub-groups that were experts at saddle-making. Horses were not only technologically important — Muslim rulers were often described as Asvapatis, for their strong cavalries, while infantry-strong Hindu kings were Narapatis, or lords of men — but also as transregional gifts. So, a horse Shah Abbas sent to Akbar was repurposed as a present to his son, after whose death the next emperor presented it to a Rajput. The gift of a high-status horse marked the recipient’s stature at court, which in turn could directly affect his standing and capacity to marshal resources and exercise power.

Chandra’s notes on women and the horse are also interesting. While art shows courtly women riding in leisurely settings, she notes their role in battle, travel, and even survival. The thought of Akbar’s heavily pregnant mother on horseback, at one point having to survive on horse meat cooked in a helmet, is telling. Overall, by lucidly combining her deep interest with academic themes, alongside flashes of humour, she leaves us having learned several new things through the book. My only grievance is that with its emphasis on Rajasthan, the Deccan and the south are somewhat neglected — and not because the horse was less significant in these parts — though perhaps that would have required a longer book.