Revisiting the MARWARI HORSE and its Evergreen Legacy
Classical accounts of Indian mythology, historical narratives, legends, traditional art and iconography have all born the indigenous horse at their fulcrum at recurring points of time. One of its most iconic variants, namely the Marwari horse requires no prior introduction for its wartime heroism. This lyre-eared and fleet-footed ranger of the desert has gone down in immortal fables for having timelessly protected its people and soil from foreign invasions till its dying breath. In its 1st Anniversary Special Edition, Rajputana Collective pays homage to the beloved Marwari horse in its evergreen legacy spanning from premodern to contemporary times. Through the collaborative efforts of veteran horseman old and new, this Special Feature Article revisits the political economy trends and contemporary relevance of an erstwhile military crusader into a symbol of feudalism and an endangered species of colonial distain before reversing into a token of modern affluence and subject of international wonder.
HORSES IN INDIAN MYTHOLOGY
Ancient Vedic and Puranic scriptures derive the mythological birth of the horse king, Uchairasharava from the great ocean churn, whereafter he was exalted to the heavens by Lord Indra to be later returned to mankind. The subsequent existence of humans with heads of horses, commonly referred to as horsemen, carried on through twins known as Ashvins who represented immortal youth and a cosmic duality of existential being. They are mythologically attributed to stirring the chariot of Indra across the sky in his golden chariot, thereby heralding the progression of day as is the case with Helios in Greek mythology. According to the Mahabharata, these divine physicians and mascots of ancient Ayurveda are traced as having fathered one Pandava each, namely, Nakul and Sahdev. In fact, the 12,000 verses-long Ashva Shastra, literally translating into the sacred scripture of horses, is a glorious documentation of horse medicine, science and horsemanship; and is said to have been written by Nakul himself. Similarly, the Hindu god of knowledge, Haygriva too is depicted in popular iconography as a horseman.
More ritualistic narratives of Hindu mythology tell us aboutAshwamedha- a horse sacrifice that was performed by eminent kings and rulers in order to prove their imperial sovereignty. In present-day India, the continuing mythological reverence of horses amongst their ancestors finds resonance in the annual advent of Dussehra through the Ashwa Puja, wherein horses are worshipped for their services and exemplary loyalty to humankind.
GENEALOGY OF THE MARWARI HORSE
Not a very long time ago, somewhere in the Shivalik ranges,, scientists discovered fossils of an ancient mammal belonging to a time that predated the Hyracotherium, which had thus far known to be the oldest taxonomical member of the horse family. The newly-revealed fossils qualified as belonging to the remains of Cambaytherium Thewissi, an ancestral rhino-horse as classified by present-day biologists.
For the equine world, this discovery was monumental in that it intimately situated the genealogy of horses within the Indian subcontinent, which was home to a large population of indigenous horses. Chiefly amongst these, was a particular equine breed that was firmly distinguished through its lyre-shaped ears. Bearing a high head carriage, slender neck, strong-yet-narrow chest, an agile body and quick moves, these majestic beasts were capable of covering long distances while enduring the most extreme weather conditions with utmost prowess. Following the nomenclatural trend of their neighbouring variants such as the Sindhi and Kathiawadi horses, they too were attributed a name based on the region of their predominance. Since they were mainly bred in the Marwar region of erstwhile Rajputana, the 16th century rulers of this region began to call them the Marwari horses. Over time, this breed of horses became the most notable companion of the ascetic warrior. The accompanying beauty and elegance of the Marwari horse evolved its stature into a allegorist of opulence and grandeur; and comprehensively accounts for its nationwide presence today.
LEGENDS OF THE MARWARI HORSE
Rajputana’s varied ballads and tales provide voluminous mentions of the Marwari horse- its magnificence, valour and the fearlessness with which it galloped into the gates of death. In times of conquest, it took the horse just one command from its master to charge fiercely into the battlefield and only departed victoriously. Lest his master perished at the bloodstained hands of an enemy, his aide lay fallen in his defence. In this regard, the Marwari horse is essentially recognised as a one-man horse, thereby re-instating the deep-rooted bond between the steed and its rider.
The most famously-known pair was that of the brave warrior Maharana Pratap and his legendary stallion, Chetak. Wartime fables of the historic battle of Haldighati recount the bold charge that Chetak made towards the fearsome war elephant of Raja Man Singh and thereafter rescued his warrior king by jumping over a twenty two feet-wide river despite injured legs. That day and now forevermore, the continuity of Rajput-led military confrontation in Haldighati owes priceless credit to Chetak’s extraordinary sacrifice. Therefore, it comes without surprise that the city of Udaipur, as well as present-day Haldighati have each erected Chetak’s statue as a tribute.
We hear a similar story of Amar Singh Rathore’s horse Bahadur, whose loyalties had impulsed him into fleeing with his unscathed master after he killed Salabat Khan in the presence of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan himself. Causing much confusion and havoc for his enemies, Bahadur made a valiant jump from the parapets of Agra’s Red Fort while the battle ensued and gave up his life in the process. Till date, his martyrdom is honoured in the form of a small shrine that stands at the very landing point whereupon Bahadur deceased.
For historians and history-lovers alike, the mighty Rathore warrior, Veer Durga Das Ji needs no prior introduction. When the then-Maharaja Jaswant Singhji was poisoned by his enemies in Afghanistan, a brave cohort of four hundred Rathores fought their way out of Delhi against Aurangzeb’s army, Veer Durgadasji included with an infantile Maharaja Ajit Singhji strapped onto his back. Being amongst the four out of the four hundred to survive the armed skirmish, Veer Durgadasji returned to Jodhpur upon the death of Aurangzeb to place the young Maharaja on the throne, hence marking the end of the Thirty Years’ War that had placed Jodhpur under an invader’s rule for the first and only time in history. For the greater part of this duration, Veer Durgadasji is believed to have fought the Mughal armies while being mounted on his famous warhorse named Arbudh.
Veer Durgadasji’s extraordinary contributions to the kingdom of Marwar find a tribute in Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, in the form of a famous painting of him being mounted on a horse while roasting some baatis in the fire with his spear.
Chetak, Bahadur and Arbudh are powerful protagonists in the prologue of a vividly extensive lineage of selfless Marwari horses that risked and often, even lost their lives in the name of Rajputana. Viram Dev’s stallion, Jheetda is said to have carried his rider all the way from Delhi to Jalore in one single night in order to save his life. It is in his honour that the present-day village of Jheetda derives its name. In close succession to Jheetda are Kesar Kalmi of Pabuji, Hanza of Umaid Singh Hada, Cheeta of Maharaj Kumar Jaswant Singh, Udal of Amar Singh Rathore and Ankara of Shakti Singh, all of whom served their war-engrossed masters till their dying breath.
Renowned for its formidable nature, the Rajputana cavalry owes much of its status to none other than its equine squadron, which was responsible for executing some dramatic war-strategies to vanquish their aggressors. A closer elaboration is provided by Jai Singh from Polofactory, “they say that it (the Marwari horse) could take on an elephant. Rajput cavalrymen would charge on rampaging war elephants and rear the horse up on the elephant’s head, thereby providing the rider a clear shot to spear down the enemy sitting up on the howdah. They would sometimes even dress the Marwari with a faux elephant trunk to confuse enemy animals. The larger picture is that Indian history would be different had not the rulers of Marwar created and celebrated this magnificent horse.” In close conjunction to the various military anecdotes of Marwari stallions, a keen pursuer of the breed, Angad Deo Mandawa comments, “the Marwari horse has remained an unchanged symbol of Rajputana history. The present form of this horse has survived many generations, so in that sense it carries a bit of history in its blood. Its resilience is a reminder of our collective past.”
THE TILWARA FARE
Speaking of the past, a few informal records profess the Marwari horse to have been brought to Marwar by Malinath Ji, a warrior saint from the desert region of Malani or modern-day Barmer. In order to commemorate this significant contribution of his, Barmer’s Tilwara village organises an annual horse and cattle fair, which is particularly striking for a peculiar claim that it makes. In other words, it traces a divine intervention as being responsible for providing drinking water to the thousands of animals that annually gather amidst the arid sands of Barmer. Even today, visitors report having found water just two feet below the fair’s ground level.
Apart from art representations and war tales, the Marwari horse finds references in a variety of bards, folksongs, horse folk dances and puppet shows, to name but a few. As the renowned veteran and co-founder of the Indigenous Horse Society of India- Raghuvendra Dundlod notes, “o pawan waig se udne wale ghode” is a popular folksong amongst horse-lovers. He also observes the symbolic depiction of the indigenous horse during marriages as being reflective of its prominent value in Indian households and customs.
CHALLENGES OF COLONIALISM & THE MODERN ERA
The advent of the modern era heralded Nehruvian socialism, modernisation, rapid industrialisation and by default, an automobile boom that was nearly impossible to envision in the past. This factor, coupled with defence modernisation gradually displaced the indigenous horse at the brink locomotive and military superfluity. Socially, it came to be touted by its masters as a distinguishing symbol for caste-based superiority. The Marwari horse now served as a blatant reminder of the impended feudalism that had plagued India for centuries and was facing social redressal, sometimes with a vengeance. Their redundancy in practical spheres and socially antagonistic implications led to thousands of indigenous horses being shot, castrated or handed down to peasants as draft animals, the Marwari included.
At the same time, the post-independence abolishment of privy purses and royal estates further declined sources of sustenance for the Marwari horse. Since the Indian nobility was struggling to maintain their erstwhile glorious stables, the upkeep of Marwaris was transferred from their ancestral custodians onto people who were far from being horsemen. As a result, their breeding standards suffered a gross negligence in this period, wherein no official records were consciously maintained. The breed’s bloodlines had begun to dilute and a decades’-long mismanagement led to its collective degradation; and the successive influx of European horses as a definitive replacement made indigenous horses sustain a generalised apathy vis-a-vis their equestrian credentials.
Trapped in these evolutionary contingencies, the Marwari horse struggled to retain its relevance. What made matters more hostile was the unfavourable attitude held by the British towards this breed, which is rationalised by many as the reason for its acute downfall. Like all things Indian, the Marwari horse was ridiculed by British colonialists who supervised its deliberate expulsion from the cavalry, hence losing its importance as a war horse. Its ceremonial status, however, was kept intact with due credit to Indian royals and nobles who continued encourage horse-breeding for reasons that now prioritised its cosmetic beauty over military expediency.
Just when the fate of the Marwari had reached an assumable ebb, a upturn occurred in its favour. It was the 1980’s and the Indian tourism industry had begun to gain momentum, with Rajasthan serving as a poster state. As the heritage tourism wave’s key surfers, Rajputs had regained their lost economic opportunities in re-emerged from their ancestral forts and palaces.
In subsequence to the resumption of their means of livelihood, their prized activity of horse breeding experienced a reinvigorated surge. Historically-endowed patrons of the breed, such as H.H. Maharaja Gaj Singhji of Marwar spearheaded a countrywide movements as the Founder President of the Indigenous Horse Society of India. In an exclusive commitment to focus on replenishing the“nearly extinct Marwari horse”, he later promoted the All-India Marwari Horse Society. Not only were these societies successful in stabilising the country’s Marwari horse population, but also enabled a systematic documentation its horse-breeding through a stud book, which now serves as a universal showcase of the breed. More recently known as the Stud Book Authority of India, this internationally-certified Stud Book has taken over the DNA parentage of indigenous horse breeds in the country. Alongside the Presidency of Rao Rajendra Singhji of Shahpura, Thakur Devendra Singhji of Nawalgarh currently serves as the honourable Secretary of the Indigenous Horse Society of India and is known for his expediency in the breeding and equestrian training of Marwari horses. Over time, studs such as those of Rohet, Dundlod, Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Barkana, Kelwa, Posana and several others gained national acclaim for their fine breeding of the Marwari horse.
It is argued that Marwari horses arose out of the crossbreeding that took place between Indian ponies and Arabian horses many centuries ago. With the passage of time, the indiscriminate breeding of the horse led to an unfortunate dissolution of its chief characteristics. A common example is the continued breeding of extremely tall Marwaris, an intervention that caters to the glamour-quotient of the horse whilst seriously compromising on their original frame.
Added to that, the horse community of India remains divided in its respective opinions of what constitutes the principle characteristics of a distinguished Marwari pedigree. Unlike other parts of the world that safeguard its equine breeds with clearly-documented pedigree norms, the sheer lack of a clear system here in India adds to the jeopardy of a well-ordered breeding trend of the Marwari horse.
Restorative actions taken in order to counter this ambiguity are elaborated by Dundlod, the pioneer himself, who says, “when breeding any horse breed, it is important and mandatory to know the breed standard in regard to their conformation. The Marwari breed had lost its conformation due to inbreeding and therefore, our first task was to choose the best lineage to bring back the standard of confirmation and the lost glory of the breed.”
Equine experts such as Dundlod, as well as those hailing from the houses of Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Rohet, Sirmathura and Barkana provide some commonly-agreed upon standards that jointly encapsulate the key characteristics of the Marwari horse : -
The most striking feature of the Marwari horse are its lyre-shaped ears, which turn inward and often meet at the tips. Unique to this specific breed, these iconic ears boast an impressive turning radius of 180 degrees, a feature unknown to any other indigenous horse breed in the world. The auditory proficiency of the Marwari horse adds to its existing intelligence by making it alert and extremely sensitive to sound. Its normative height is placed close to 15.2 hands (62 inches), classifying it as a medium length horse. A strong and well-arched neck leads to a proportional head with a wide set of alert, long-lashed eyes, a narrow, yet shapely mouth collectively with moderately-flared nostrils blend into a fine set of features. Additionally, a narrow chest and agile body jointly assist its swift movement; and a command-sensitive mouth makes it very easy to manoeuvre. A linear back that descends to a prominent quarter and hocks, its legs fall straight into hooves that are small and relatively hard. Marwaris can be found in a wide range of coats such as dark bay, bay, chestnut, pie bald, skew bald, grey. roan, palomino, buckskin and the most popular choice- pinto.
Limitlessly hailed for its fine performance as high-endurance war horses, contemporary efforts made by the Indigenous Horse Society of India has helped the breed achieve the status of a sports horse, mainly for endurance acts and tent-pegging. The wise judgements of Dundlod, Nawalgarh and Mandawa predict the Marwari horse’s endurance will compete with a stature none less than that of the Arab horse. It is simply a question of time, they say.
In olden times, breeding and maintaining horses was considered the prerogative of the upper castes, predominantly Kshatriya communities. This is one of the governing reasons why most Indians continued to bear a limited exposure to the equine family in general. However, the revivalist trend that has caught up vis-a-vis the Marwari horse has rekindled an interest and sense of recognition not just across India but also the world. In terms of trade restrictions, the Indian government has been maintaining a strict ban on all exports of the Marwari horse.
Interestingly, this very trade policy has resulted in two unexpected collaterals.
One, it has further enhanced the exotic and exclusive profile of the breed, thereby stirring a global curiosity of sorts. In Jai Singh’s words, “when horse lovers from the world see our Marwaris, they are fascinated by their ears! They find them stunning. Out polo guests from abroad go back with more photos of our Marwaris than the polo they’ve come to match. Due to the export ban, people abroad haven’t seen them much.” Its acute international absence could be argued to have intrigued equine-enthusiasts from around the world.
Two, this governmental regulation has been economically- sustained by a renewed patronisation of the horse-breed in its homeland. Jai Singh notes, “there’s a huge demand for Marwaris, not just in Rajasthan but Punjab, Maharashtra and in the southern states too. Prized stallions are being traded at phenomenal prices. Interestingly, the biggest paymasters for these stallions are not horsemen, but others for whom the Marwari horse is a status symbol to announce their newly acquired wealth.” In what would be sociologically argued as a modern-day Sanskritization of sorts, the Marwari horse is reaping the ultimate benefits of India’s multifaceted socio-economic contestations. In similar conjunction, art and iconography revolving around the Marwari horse extended its popularity beyond equestrian circles and continues to do so.
HORSE SAFARIS & EQUESTRIAN TOURISM
Finding their ancestrally or commercially- acquired herd difficult to maintain, a substantial number of contemporary horsemen harnessed this potential in the form of horse safaris, which has become a meaningful activity in terms of ushering equestrian tourism all over the world. Trending from South Africa and parts of the Middle-East, the idea of commercial horse safaris was prompted to Dundlod by some British polo players who were visiting India at the time. And just like that, for the thirty two years that followed from then until now, there was no looking back for Dundlod and his equine cohort.
Similarly, the houses of Rohet, Nawalgarh and Mandawa are known for their horse safaris as well. Here, horse-mounted tourists are guided through the rural country-side where they get a chance to encounter local wildlife that comprises of nilgais (bluebulls) and antelopes such as the blackbuck and chinkara. Local flora and fauna is sighted over a picnic during which, tourists are encouraged to appreciate the surrounding topographical features such as water bodies, sand dunes and hillocks. As a part of their riding excursion, the tourists are even taken to traditional dhanis or hutments belonging to local communities wherein the two parties interact and exchange cultures. Later on, local performing artists put up cultural dances and music performances through dinner. Summing up the horse safari experience offered by his family, Mandawa says, “we customise each safari by blending tradition, culture, equestrian activities and adventure to create a memorable experience. This way, one gets to blend in a unique Rajputana
experience and share delectable conversations with the like-minded people who love horses, nature and the environment.” While some horse safaris span over a day, longer distances require weeks to complete, and in a sense, could be equated to modern-day car rallies. These longer desert excursions entail superior endurance on the part of the horse and its rider, and serve as an ideal challenge to stimulate the ancestral inheritance of the Marwari horse than desert ranging itself?
ART & ICONOGRAPHY
Traditional art and iconography spanning across Rajput and Mughal eras abundantly display their subjects of portraiture mounted on a Marwari horse in singles, pairs or even groups. Numerous Indian palaces and forts depict war-time cavalry charges in their frescoes; and commonly bear horse-shaped hooks on their walls. Even the traditional art of block-printing celebrates its adored equine by dedicating customary motifs to it.
As a present-day example of its commercialisation, the mass-manufacture of miniatures in the form of print replicas and home decor items have diffused the iconographic presence of the Marwari horse from being an exclusive art entity to being a common household adornment for many. The art commercialisation of Marwaris through these mediums is welcomed by those like Mandawa, who sees it as an effective way of preserving its legacy besides capturing the timelessness of Rajputana culture.
In their iconographic tribute to the Marwari horse, Polofactory is executing some fine manufacturing of lifestyle merchandise. In Jai Singh’s words, “We (Jai & Vikramaditya) are trying to carry forward representative traditions, albeit with a modern touch. To elaborate, we recently made a series of men’s shirts, women’s dresses and handbags, travel accessories and so on with the Marwari horse as the central motif. The print on this merchandise is an ode to the Marwari horse, we fused the animated visuals of horses found in Indian miniature paintings with Andy Warhol’s illustration technique. Each of these products carry notes that tell the story of the Marwari Horse. We believe that whatever we can do for it is nothing in comparison for what we owe to the breed!”
PEOPLE FOR HORSES
Extending from their business label and breeding project is Polofactory’s People For Horses (PFH), a charitable and non-governmental organisation formed by the duo that is dedicated solely towards the wellbeing of horses. Not only does PFH provide direct aid and adoption services for ailing/ abandoned horses, but also works in tandem with influential horse owners, communities, organisations and the government in order to lobby for the improvement of animal welfare standards. Jai Singh notes that despite the Prevention of Cruelty Act 1960 sanctioning a legal ban on animal cruelty and torture, the use of thorned and spiked riding accessories continues to be widely practiced in India due to their cheap & easy availability, as well as a general lack of awareness. Through PFH, Polofactory has thus joined the entourage of those like Raghuvendra Dundlod, who have been working towards ensuring a stricter implementation of the animal welfare law by educating breeders and equestrians alike.
THE FUTURISTIC TROT
Reclaiming its national and international presence through shifting eras and evolutionary phenomenas, the evergreen legacy of the Marwari horse has been proven by its unsuspecting resilience through every hurdle that came its way. Its firm yet gentle gait through the sands of time make it prance upon renewed opportunities vis-a-vis diverse equestrian communities in India as well as abroad.
Speaking of the latter, Dundlod’s partner and co-founder of the Indigenous Horse Society of India, Francesca Kelly is a British horsewoman and forerunning her bid to expand the Marwari horse’s global presence, particularly in the United States. Existing trade restrictions prove dull incentives for the unflinching enthusiast, who is contesting to find a way out. Having bought her first Marwari horse twenty three years ago, Kelly remains as smitten by the horse as she was at first sight. In an interview with Jason Ovendorf of the Smithsonian Magazine, Kelly said, “The Marwari has this incredible, otherworldly presence which said, ‘Yes, I am here by God’s will. But I don’t belong to anybody.’ There are very few horses in the world that have that. It’s [their] combination of beauty and wildness of spirit that is very alluring; especially in this present day, when it’s such a rare thing”.
If not in form then in art representation too, the Marwari horse has encountered a series of warm welcomes in the modern-day textile, art and retail industries, all of which illustrate its humble position in collective imagination. In short, the versatile breed is directed towards a sphere of growing possibilities and revivalisms, each of which pave out their own niches.