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Pride of India
Bred for war, born to dance
In the hot humid deserts of India, surrounded by the ebb and flow of crowds and thick scented spices of markets, one might come across the curious sight of a horse with curled ears.
They are called the Marwari, which means ‘from the land of death’, and much like that arid desert of Marwar, they are strong, resilient, and they endure. They are known today as the pride of India, for within the chest of a Marwari, beats the heart of a warrior whose loyalty has become legendary.
Considered the national horse of India, the Marwari today are honoured and revered. As woven into the land and its history as the mighty elephant. The Rajput clans, descendants of warriors, have kept the breed alive throughout its long existence. But the history of the Marwari tells one of war, conquest and even of great misery.
History and Mythology
According to the ancient Vedic scriptures, the Marwari, like all horses came from the seven-headed horse king; Uchairasharava, who was born from the primordial, churning waters. All horses sprang from this magnificent deity, the Manipur Pony, Spiti, Zanskari and the distant cousin of the Marwari, the Kathiawari. But unlike his brethren, the Marwari was once as exalted and admired as the mythological horse king. In his prime, the Marwari was considered to be above even royalty.
But the true origin of the Marwari, as they say, has been lost to the mists of time. Many a theory has been proposed, from Arabs barely surviving a sinking ship and scrambling up on the shores of India. To a distant lineage to either Mongolian ponies or even the now extinct Quagga. Due to its endurance and elegant body type, many breeders have suggested that the Marwari come from Arabian horses. Recent studies though have suggested the Marwari might have no connection to the Arabian horses and is wholly a breed native to India.
But most accept that the story of the Marwari begins with the Rathores from the Rajput clan. The Rathores were a fierce warrior clan who lived in Kanaju.
After a brutal and epic battle, they were driven from their homes and into the desert, in the arid planes of Marwar, ‘the land of death.’
In these harsh and ruthless conditions, their horses adapted, able to survive on scant cups of water, little food and pushing on through the heat and cold for days on end. Their mounts survived, and so too did the Rathores.
The Rathores would gain strength once more in these barren wastes and in this time, during the 12th century, they started a strict breeding program for their horses. And much of what they looked for back then is still kept in the breed today.
Characteristics of the breed
They are bred strong, yet slim, with an upright shoulder, enabling the horse to pull its hooves out of the sand. Although not as swift as the racing thoroughbred, their endurance is excellent and they are well suited to their desert homes. Their coats are silky and soft, helping them to cope with the harsh heat of the desert, and seemingly built-in they have an excellent sense of direction. When lost, trust your mount to guide you home.
The ears of the Marwari can turn 180 degrees and despite its lyre shape (or most likely because of it) the horse has very fine hearing. This feature is also the first characteristic to disappear when interbreeding occurs.
Pure white horses are called Nukra, the debate rages on whether they should be called Marwari, but tradition will not allow it.
Thus, the ears of the Marwari are a true symbol of its purity.
Much of the old folklore has carried over to modern-day breeders. A black horse is considered unlucky, as it represents death, but a blaze and four socks are considered very lucky. A grey is a favourite, but pure white is not considered a true Marwari, they are instead called Nukra and are a unique breed on their own. The position of the whorls is also very important. A whorl down the neck is called a devman, and is considered good luck whereas one beneath the eye is called a anusudhal is not favourable for the rider.
Bred for war
Although beautiful and almost regal in nature, the Marwari's history is stained by conflict - they were, after all first and foremost, warhorses. At one point the Rathores had fielded a force of over 50 000 men and horses for the Mogul empire.
In battle, the horse had no equal. They were brave, resilient and never faltered. The Rajput boasted of horses charging elephants, leaping walls and rising on hind legs to protect their fallen riders. They would bite and kick, and retain their loyalty even beyond death. The legends say that a Marwari would only stop fighting for three reasons; if the rider turned him from the field, if his rider was wounded and he had to be carried away to safety, or if the horse perished.
And there are many stories to support this.
Chetak, the famous blue mount of Rana Pratap once charged an elephant in battle. Rising up on his hind legs he offered his rider a good shot at their enemy. The elephant’s tusks, a sharpened point and capped with a spike, tore into the horse’s hind-leg leg. But Chetak refused to budge. Only when his rider pulled him away, did the horse obey, hobbling to a 6-foot-wide stream and leaping over it, to give his rider a chance to safely escape. He died in Rana Pratap arms. But Chetak’s bravery ensured his King would survive and continue to protect his people. A statue has been mounted in Udaipur and Haldaghati to honour the deceased horse and his bravery.
Another story tells of Bahadur. After killing Slabat Kahn in Arga’s Red Fort, Amhar Singh made his escape upon his horse Bahadur. Surrounded by the enemy and with no way out, the horse raced to the battlements and leapt off the high wall of the Fort. Bahadur would not survive the fall but he left the men so bewildered that his master would escape. A small shrine has been erected in memory of the brave horse.
But these few famous names are not the only ones to be remembered, Arbudh was a famous war horse of Veer Durga Das Ji, a brilliant warrior and tactician.
The Marwari were used in war for centuries. Their bravery and fearless nature some claim were pivotal for India's history.
Jheetda carried his rider hundreds of miles to save his life, and other names to be remembered are Kesar Kalmi, Hana, Udal, and Ankara, all of which served their masters in their wars with unrivaled bravery.
Horses charging elephants, leaping battlements and staying on the field to protect their riders are stories and legends carried over for many a year, but there is a larger point to this, as Jai Singh says, “The larger picture is that Indian history would be different had not the rulers of Marwar created and celebrated this magnificent horse.”
The bravery of Chetak is legendary. There is a festival dedicated to the horse, which has been celebrated every year for over 300 years.
And it is easy to believe that without the bravery, tenacity and endurance of the Marwari India might have been a far different place today. Their bravery often saved key characters in battles, and should those men have instead perished, India might have taken a far different route.
Born to dance
The Marwari are beyond their bravery and courage, beautiful and many owners back then and today enjoy their easy trot, their gaited walk and soft nature. And some horses could even carry the strain of Natchni; which simply means born to dance.
A brilliant performance by horse and handler, the Natchni strain gives the Marwari the ability to dance for crowds.
Although many believe the true strain has faded almost completely from the breed, some still manage to perform fully, giving us glimpses of the fine performers they once were.
The sudden decline
For many years the Raja’s, princes made up of supporters of the British empire, took great pride in owning and bettering the breed. They were the only one’s allowed to breed and keep the lyre-eared beauties. For even a prince’s status, after all, was still far beneath the horse, who was still considered greater than even royalty. Even though the British in their arrogance had no time or care for the Marwari and insisted on using their fine thoroughbreds. This particularly began a slow descent of the breed and as more and more thoroughbreds were used in India, the Marwari was delegated to fewer and fewer battles.
The last battle for the Marwari would be in 1917 under General Albany. But this bravery and strength would be no match for a sudden social movement within India; independence.
In the 1900s the Indian people started pushing for independence from British rule, in order to do so, the Princes had to sign away their royal rights. This ensured they were no longer supporting the British and they could begin a united front for independence.
The curled ears of the Marwari, once a symbol of pride and beauty, now represented tyranny and opression.
This was all orchestrated under the leadership of Iron Man ‘Patel’ who encouraged all Princes to give up their titles. Most of them obliged.
Shortly after this a land reform was announced, and because none of the ex-princes had any claim to their lands anymore, most of it was seized. This meant that stables filled with horses had nowhere to go, and the Princes had little choice but to deal with them.
Thousands of horses were shot and killed in order to alleviate the sheer amount and to prevent the lower-classes from obtaining them, but many were still given to the lower-classes who had a dismaying reaction to the horse. The peasants saw the Marwari as a symbol of tyranny, embodying a time when they were under the thumb of self-decreed princes. Princes who had once levied taxes on them. To abolish the legacy of this time in India completely, they castrated the stallions, and ended up putting down more. Those that did survive were used as beasts of burden.
In a very short time, the once regal and proud Marawi warrior had fallen from beloved royalty to hated cart-horse.
Without the knowledge of breeding and lineages, the Marwari was interbred with other horses, slowly losing its pure bloodlines. The horse kept fading and falling, and for a time, it seemed the world was determined to snuff out the fire of the Marwari.
Saving the Marwari
In 1990 two people Indian lords, a man named Raghuvendra “Bonnie” Singh Dundlod and an American horsewoman named Francesca Kelly. Established the Indigenous Horse Society of India, a foundation set on preserving the once pride of India. As tourism picked up and memories of Princes faded, the community realized how curious these curled ears were and more and more people fought to keep the Marwari alive and well. It has been over 30 years, and progress is slow, but the Marwari’s blood has been revived.
Another man who has been influential in the survival of the breed is His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II. After announcing his interest in bringing the breed back from the brink, he went to visit Thikana of Badgoan where some of the finest Marwari’s were being bred. Before his departure, he was to select one colt to take with him. They were all from the people’s prized stallion; Vangalia.
The horses were lined and ready for Maharaja, but upon the advice of his aids, he dismissed the colts asked the Thakur, a nobleman, to bring forth the prized stallion.
The Thakur was dismayed but did as he was told. A few moments later Vangalia walked into the quad.
His mere presence demanded attention; bright, beautiful, handsome, big and proud, he was led around the quad, showing off his slick movement and perfect conformation, and finally brought before his Royal spectator.
His Highness was quiet, placing a hand on the muzzle of the proud stallion and with a smile, he said, “Vangalia cannot leave Badgoan. He has given a lot to the breed, and where he is now, he is perfectly stationed where mares from the whole of South Marwar will benefit.”
The Thakur smiled with relief, and Maharaja chose a fine colt from the stock before departing.
Today, only 5000 Marwari still remain, they are used for tent-pegging, endurance riding, marriage and celebrations of all sorts. Once embodying the dismal memory of a British rule, it now instead represents what it always was; the tenacity and beauty of India, embodied in the curled ears of a horse.
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