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Excerpt: Earliest Horses in India

Wendy Doniger combines scholarship with storytelling as only she can, to give us a compelling book on the horse in Indian culture. Here’s an extract from her book Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: Horses in Indian Myth and History.

Most of the peoples who entered India over the centuries rode in on horseback. First came the Vedic people formerly known as Indo-Europeans (more properly, Indo-European speakers), who brought their horses with them from we know not where (probably the Caucasus), and then Greeks and Scythians, riding over the Northwest passes. Carvings at Sanchi, some dating from the second century BCE, depict a number of northwestern foreigners—in this case mostly Greeks—on horseback. Turks and Mongols (the latter to become known in India as the Mughals) brought Arabian horses from Central Asia and Persia, overland and by sea. Then came the British, who brought Cape horses from South Africa and Walers from New South Wales in Australia. Most of these people came peacefully, as traders or migrants, but some came to conquer. It was largely because they had horses, or better horses, or more horses, or bigger horses, or all of the above, that the invaders were able to overpower the Indian people who did not have such horses. To understand some of the reasons for the continual movement of horses into India, we need first to understand two different but intersecting aspects of horses: the physiology and mentality of horses, and horses as humans have used them. Horses move around in search of new grazing land, which they need constantly because, unlike cows (who tend to bite off the blades of grass), horses (whose teeth are rather dull) pull up the roots of the grass or nibble it right down to the ground so that it doesn’t grow back, thus quickly destroying grazing land, which may require some years to recover. Horse breeders leave such fields fallow from time to time to allow the grass to regenerate, but horses in the wild, left to their own devices, range constantly to find new territory, moving on to literally greener pastures, the broad open spaces, eminent domain. (As Virginia Woolf remarks, in Orlando, chapter 3, ‘The gipsies followed the grass; when it was grazed down, on they moved again.’) The ancient Indo-European horse owners mimicked this behaviour as they responded to the need to provide grazing for their horses once they had domesticated them and kept them from their natural free-grazing habits. They rode roughshod over other peoples’ land and took it over for their own herds. This spirit was expressed in their very vocabulary; the Sanskrit word amhas (constraint)—from which comes our ‘anxiety’ and the German Angst—expressed the terror of being fenced in or trapped. (The archvillain of the Rig Veda is the serpent Vritra, ‘The Restrainer’, who coils up around the mountains and holds back the waters.) And the opposite word, prithu (broad and wide), is the name of the first king, the man whose job it was—like that of all the Indian kings who followed him—to widen the boundaries of his territory, to create Lebensraum for his people and his horses. Prithivi (a feminine form of prithu) is a Sanskrit word for the earth, with its wide open spaces that such kings must always conquer. It was not merely, as is often argued, that the horse (and more particularly the horse-drawn chariot with its spoked wheels) made possible conquest in war; the horse came to symbolize conquest in war through its own natural imperialism.

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