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Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Horses have a captivating and curious existence in India. Stallions have been graciously carved into the Indian landscape in a variety of ways. To view the subcontinent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept back in its power and propriety. Horses have a galactic connection to Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also popular belief.

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 is too obvious to point out.

Emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri is an interesting tale of gallantry. In India’s modern history, there were fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. Horses have an intimate connection to grooms, blacksmiths, breeders, traders and bandits.

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 are riveting. This glorious age of the horse met its painful decline with the onset of colonial rule and automation.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger is an engrossing book not only for the subject but also the research. In this inspiring and scholarly book, Doniger — who has been called the greatest living mythologist — examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history, from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, followed by the Greeks, the Turks and Mongols (who imported Arabian horses) and the British (who imported Thoroughbreds and Walers). 

Along the way, she delves deep into the rituals of horse sacrifice in the Vedic age. She rummages through the stories of warring horses and snakes in the Mahabharata. She digs into   tensions between Hindu stallion and Arab mare traditions; imposing European standards on Indian breeds; the reasons many Indian men ride mares to weddings; the motivations for murdering Dalits who ride horses; and the enduring myth of foreign horses who emerge from the ocean to fertilise native mares.

Doniger combines erudition with storytelling and gives the reader a persuasive account on the horse in Indian culture just as she does it in her other books on Indian mythology. 

Quoting from the book: “The horse is not indigenous to India, except in a few small pockets. Even after it was brought to the subcontinent sometime between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE by the Indo-Europeans. It played almost no part in the lives of ordinary Indian villagers, being too expensive for all but the most privileged people to own. In India’s folklore, epics and popular culture horse stories abound and there are some brilliant images of the animal.”

Doniger’s ride through four millennia of Indian legend and folklore is full of sacrificial horses, horse-headed gods, transformations and couplings. Like Doniger’s other works on Indian mythology and history, this book  is astonishingly accomplished with the threads of mythical narratives woven into a meaningful depiction of the Indian imagination.

Author of classic works like The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger has two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford. She has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her other books include Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities; The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra.  

The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (Fleet). Doniger retells the story thus:

“The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (Savarna) and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.”

Doniger takes us 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 horse-warrior states. 

Doniger professes her earliest exposure to India and the horses was in 1963 when she was twenty-two years old. Her meeting with Penelope Betjeman — daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode who was the head commander of the British forces in India from 1928 to 1935 — gave her an introduction to these creatures. Doniger has dedicated the book to Penelope who died accidentally in 1986 in the Kulu Hills.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares has about a dozen chapters — most of which have a throwback to the Vedic and Puranic times. It is only in the last two chapters where she writes the horse saga of modern India. With a slew of illustrations and profound research, the book makes for a gripping read. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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