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History on horseback

Avarna Ojha | Updated on March 18, 2021

Enduring partnership: Chandra explores the multifaceted relationship humans share with horses   -  ISTOCK.COM

Through captivating anecdotes and in-depth research, Yashaswini Chandra brings alive an enduring bond — of humans and horses

*Rulers have often drawn upon the characteristics of the horse — strength, regal demeanour and perseverance — to demonstrate power and prestige

*Ali Akbar gifted his white horse to Shah Jahan’s collection; the prized horse was re-named Padshah Pasand or ‘Emperor’s choice’

*The book ends drawing attention to the fading significance of the horse in colonial and post-colonial India

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The title of Yashaswini Chandra’s debut book is self-explanatory and aptly sums up what’s in store; The Tale of Horses: A History of India on Horseback deals with the overarching landscape of the relationship humans share with horses in India. Chandra, an alumna of SOAS University of London, sketches the man-animal bond through multiple captivating anecdotes spread across pivotal historical moments — from the Harappan era to British colonial rule. The popular imagination about the legendary Rajput chieftain Pabuji captures this relationship well: Pabuji — half-deity, half-human — is remembered as the wandering warrior, travelling across Rajasthan on his mare, a reincarnated celestial nymph. The mare remained his constant companion through many adventures and their bond is recognised as more valuable than every other relationship in his life.

Beyond an expansive chronology, the contents of her book cover the different ends of the subcontinent — from Manipur to Balochistan. The intermeshed trade and migratory connections with faraway regions in Central Asia and European steppes make an appearance, as do the politically important routes used for horse trade — the Himalyan passages, Surat, Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Her richest area of study appears to be Rajasthan, presumably due to her previous research on this site during her stint with Sahapedia, an online repository for public history.

The Tale of Horses: A History of India on Horseback / Yashaswini Chandra / Picador India / Non-fiction/ ₹699

 

Chandra’s attempt to interplay a wide variety of sources grants depth to her lucid albeit variegated narrative. She draws inspiration from an eclectic mix of primary sources such as the richly illustrated Pahari and Mughal paintings of horses and their traders, poetry, folklore, Ghoro songs, postage stamps, and monuments erected in honour of horse traders such as Ibrahim Khan Suri’s tomb in Narnaul, Haryana, built by his grandson Sher Shah Suri.

She explores the multifaceted relationship humans share with horses through the many roles the animal performs. It includes the journeys of grooms (caretakers of horses) and horse traders, who appear to have transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle during the Bronze Age to acquiring courtly privilege (as hangchapa) under Mughal rule and finally facing social extinction in the post-colonial period. Another fascinating example are polo players, especially the British memsahibs and the famous Manipuri polo team. In fact, Chandra notes that Manipur prides itself on being the birthplace of polo, and finds mention in the Cheitharon Kumpapa (17th century) or The Court Chronicles of the Kings of Manipur. Meitei horses — a specific breed used for polo from the 18th century — derive their nomenclature from the ethnic people of Manipur.

 

Stable fare: Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had a great affinity with horses   -  WIKIMEDIA

 

Chandra illustrates in detail the affinity between chieftains or rulers and their horses. She highlights how rulers often drew upon the characteristics of the horse — strength, regal demeanour and perseverance — to demonstrate power and prestige. For instance, Chandra records an anecdote about the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s temperamental affinity for horses that was satiated by an Iranian horse trader named Ali Akbar and Ali Pasha, the governor of Basra. On being persuaded by the governor, Ali Akbar gifted his white horse to Shah Jahan’s collection; the prized horse was re-named Padshah Pasand or ‘Emperor’s choice’. In return, the courtiers were showered with lavish rewards. Taking into account his good taste in horses, Ali Akbar was also appointed administrator for the principalities of Surat and Cambay. Chandra also recounts the popular lore associated with Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who, it is said, adorned his favourite horse Laili with the famed Kohinoor diamond. The book also has accounts of the famous horses in history such as Moti, which belonged to warrior Chand Bibi, and Mewar king Rana Pratap’s horse Chetak.

Chandra’s focus however never deters from the animal. She explores the development of different breeds of home-grown horses such as Bhutia, Gunts, Meitei and Piebald. Yet even when she is discussing the accessories related to a horse, the stirrup or the reins, she doesn’t veer away from making larger historical connects. For instance, the author observes that the farrier or nalband in Rajasthan — experts who provide foot care to horses — often belonged to the Muslim Lohar community. The Lohars, she notes, claim of being Rajputs, their conversion to Islam having taken place during Muhammad Ghori’s time in the 12th century; their choice of profession was blacksmithing, especially the manufacture of horseshoes.

The book ends drawing attention to the fading significance of the horse in colonial and post-colonial India. The author demonstrates this change through the transformation that the famed Pushkar fair of Rajasthan has undergone. Chandra describes the hustle-bustle of a Pushkar fair in the early 20th century during the British rule when traders from different countries would assemble and sell horses. However, the later colonial and post-colonial policies neglected horse trade, thereby, leading to its decline. By 2017, a stark, bereft picture emerges from Pushkar; the fair is reduced to a tourist attraction, with no horses sold and traders reduced to abject poverty.

Chandra’s well-researched book keeps the horse at the centre but studies the animal in relation to the interdisciplinary fields of trade, migration, culture, literature, and statecraft among others. Importantly, it is a valued addition to the growing field of popular history in India and brings to light a relatively unexplored subject through an erudite yet effortless narrative style. It is a homage to two of Chandra’s enduring affections — horses and history.

Avarna Ojha is a historical researcher based in Delhi

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Published on March 18, 2021
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