All the king’s horses

In Masoom (The innocent one), his brilliant debut film as director, Shekhar Kapoor had three children sing a nonsense rhyme, which remains popular to this day. “Lakdi ki kaati, kaati pe ghoda” was an ode to the rocking horse once all too familiar to children across the subcontinent of South Asia.

Less often noticed was a line that ran, “Charta hai Mehrauli me, par ghoda apna Arabi hai.” Sounds apocryphal. The horse grazes in the fields of Mehrauli, then an outlier of the growing city of Delhi, but the pedigree is in no doubt at all. It is a true blue Arab horse, no less. The phrase is evocative of a history that goes back centuries.
For the best horses in India have, by tradition, been imports. There were local breeds of horses, like the Kathi horse commemorated in a special postage stamp by the Nawab of Junagadh. And there were other indigenous breeds in the Deccan, sturdy ponies used by the Maratha irregular troops who were the bane of the Mughal imperial armies three centuries ago. They were small, hardy and swift and could live off the land without special fodder. They were ideal for the Bargis, or the irregular Maratha forces themselves, more suited to the terrain than the horses of their rivals. Local breeds were also found in parts of the Himalayas, and in a very different setting in the Lakhi jungles of Sindh.
Today, feral horses thrive in at least one remarkable Indian national park, Dibru Saikhowa, on the south bank of Brahmaputra in Assam. It is like a fairy tale: horses run wild in the tall-grass wet savannah in an island made by Asia’s great river, the Brahmaputra. But the fact is that the most prized horses lie not in the East but the West. Thomas R. Trautmann, a historian and anthropologist, wrote a perceptive essay on the relationship of the Mauryas and elephants. Now, these were the rulers who in the 3rd century, before the Common Era (third c. BCE), had an empire that covered half of present-day India.
Prof. Trautmann’s maxim was simple: there were more elephants the further east you went. They got bigger and better and much more abundant. With horses it was almost the exact opposite. The quality and breeds were finer the further west you went. The drier and more open the country, the quality improved markedly.
Horses were imported across the centuries, both by land and sea. The notion of the Asvapati, or the lord of the horses, was widely known in Sanskrit epic and poetry, in cultures and literature. But the best breeds were not native born.
This was a critical factor in the longer-term strategic history of north, west and central India. Kamboja, Bactria, Iran and Central Asia were sources of supply. But those who controlled the sources could often also drive home their advantage in war.
Hence, the Sakas and Kushans and later the Turks and Timurids had more and better horses. This did not determine their victory but it did give them an edge.
“The poverty of Indian horseflesh,” writes Prof. Trautmann, was even commented on by the classical Greek writer Herodotus. But it was the living horses and not the taste of the dead ones that was to be so much more decisive in politics and war.
In the early modern era, the rulers of Vijaynagar, the kingdom that perished after the battle of Talikota, kept a tight rein on horse imports. Sea-borne trade opened up supplies from Arabia in addition to Persia. Horses stayed vital to warfare till the advent of motorised transport. In the wars with the Sikhs in the 1840s, it was possible for one single military contractor to supply as many as 40,000 animals.
A hundred years earlier, Jos Gommans, the leading scholar of early modern warfare, reckons there could have been as many as two million horses in India. This was a landscape very different from our own, with not only huge expanses of mature tree forest but also savannah and scrub that could be traversed much more easily in the dry seasons. More than as mere mounts in war, horses were central to the living and evolving cultures of war and mobility. The trade in turn was a specialised occupation across centuries. It is easy in our own age to forget for just how many centuries the mounted archer who combined mobility with accuracy was a decisive figure in fields of battle. Yet, save for very isolated instances in hill societies, the horse was not used for ploughing. In this, India was very unlike Europe which had its special breeds of strong and heavy plough horses. These included the famous and strikingly handsome Dray horses (now reduced to hauling casks of beer to pubs on weekends). Perhaps bulls and buffaloes were better suited to such work in the tropics. And, of course, the best horses were not easy to breed and maintain in much of India. Hence, the need to reach over land and over the oceans for supplies.
The idea of the Arab horse, or the Persian, as a vastly superior breed would have been familiar in the days it was not just a ditty to hum or a song to sing. Amir Khusrau has written of “Sea borne, mountain and Tatar steeds” that took Ghazi Malik to the throne. It may not hold true today but for centuries it was the horse and its quality that held the key to power. It is a time that has vanished and a world we have lost.
Animals crossing boundaries, as silver and gold changed hands for their ownership, once played so vital a role in shaping the course of our history. The Arab horse and its companions were a link in a chain of India with the wider world of Asia.

The author is a historian. Permanent Black will be releasing his co-edited two-volume book, India’s Environmental History.

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