Documenting the horse in Indian history

New Delhi (IANS)┬áThe horse is etched on the Indian landscape and to view the sub-continent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept up in its power and grace.

In this inspired and singularly erudite debut, “The Tale of the Horse – A History of India on Horseback” (Picador India), Yashaswini Chandra takes the reader on the trail of the horse into and within India. What follows is a surprising and exhilarating journey, covering caravan-trade routes originating in Central Asia and Tibet, sea routes from the Middle East, and the dominions of different sultans and Mughal emperors, the south Indian kingdoms as well as the Rajput warrior states.

Chandra outlines the political symbolism of the horse, its vital function in social life, religion, sport and war, its role in shaping economies and forging crucial human bonds. We learn of the emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari, the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri.

We encounter fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. We meet grooms, farriers, breeders, traders and bandits. The highlight, of course are the magnificent examples of the horse itself – Rana Pratap’s legendary Chetak, Ranjit Singh’s much-contested Laili, Pabuji’s cherished black mare and those horses captured in paintings and equestrian portraits. The glorious age of the horse would meet its agonised decline with the onset of colonial rule and mechanisation.

In the end, what is most remarkable is that the history of the horse in India, mirroring that of its human inhabitants, is a tale of migration and permanent intermingling. The horse is this an exceptional and fitting vantage from which to appreciate the history of the land, influenced as it was by this most instrumental of animals.

Yashaswini Chandra has a PhD in History of Art from SOAS University of London, where she was also a teaching fellow. She has been a guest/visiting faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Ashoka University, Sonepat. She worked for Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and histories of India, for many years, managing the multi-volume documentation of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and an institutional collaboration with Rupayan Sansthan. She previously co-edited “Right of the Line: The President’s Bodyguard” on the household cavalry of India’s Head of State. Chandra is an avid horsewoman; her horse is called Sue.

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