Just this once, His Highness Prince Mahipendra Singhji of Danta prefers a Maruti 800 over a Maserati.
“Would you drive a Maserati down Chandni Chowk?” he asks. “Racehorses are like that.”
The image of a saddled thoroughbred barrelling down a narrow, crowded lane comes unbidden. “They’re speed first, everything else second,” Singhji summarizes dismissively. “But the Marwari horse is different. It’s smart. Intelligent. Perfectly adaptable. Just right. Like a Maruti 800.”
The description is delivered with the practised precision of a sales pitch, but Singhji has 25 years of experience with the breed and a stable full of equine Maruti 800s to back his opinion. When he says the Marwari horse is “special”, he says it slowly—like a word he’s summoned out of years of proximity to them. “I believe it is as much an Indian icon as the one-horned rhinoceros or the Royal Bengal Tiger.”
By all accounts, the Marwari breed has seen a “remarkable transformation”, in Singhji’s words, over the last decade—but this is not a journey from near extinction to healthy survival. The Marwari is an “indigenous” breed of horses whose numbers dwindled in the last century, but never to the point of being endangered. Instead, the breed stagnated due to lack of professional breeding practices, and the pure lineage (the pedigree of the horse) was in decline. Since 1997, however, it’s been the recipient of a two-pronged offensive— the first to partially lift the ban on its export and, therefore, bring international interest to the peculiarities of the breed, and the second to revive its image as a royal, regal steed.
Rising up: Ahmedabad-based businessman Virendra Kankariya with his stallion Humayun.
“You can trace the Marwari back to about the 12th century, when the Rathore clan in Mewar started a rigorous, selective breeding process for war horses,” says Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, secretary general of the Indigenous Horse Society of India. Dundlod is encyclopedic in his knowledge of the Marwari breed, and is one of the frontline evangelists for its cause. He encountered the Marwari horse while assisting with the production of HBO’s first ever mini-series in 1984. Called The Far Pavilions, and based on the 1978 book by M.M. Kaye, the shoots in Rajasthan required 25 local horses on set for “authenticity”. Dundlod took them off the film-maker’s hands after the show wrapped up and they’ve been with him ever since.
“Before that, we believe the breed was called the ‘Jangla’,” he says. The Marwari was bred for battle, and survival in a harsh climate—a combination that gives it many of its distinctive characteristics. “It has these wonderful lyre-shaped ears,” Dundlod says, “which can swing 180 degrees—keeping it always alert to its surroundings.” The Marwari’s ears curve inwards to sometimes touch at the tip—every owner of a specimen seems to choose a different metaphor to describe it, from Dundlod’s “lyre” to a “scorpion’s stinger”. The horse is said to have legendary endurance and stamina, able to survive on frugal feeding and ward off most diseases. It is also physically and behaviourally intimidating. It’s taller than most Indian horses at around 65 inches, and it’s said to be hot-blooded and temperamental. Dundlod uses a peculiar phrase to describe this: He calls the Marwari “bomb-proof”. “It’s not afraid of anything—be it loud noises, explosions or a war elephant,” he says.
The Marwari’s history of battle scars also gives it one very peculiar trait: It’s a fantastic dancer.
At horse shows in Pushkar and Jodhpur, the grooving Marwari is a common sight—switching gaits with consummate ease, rearing on its hind legs like a cartoon character sneaking up on someone. “Horses in battle were trained to rear up so the rider could aim his spear,” Dundlod says. “They’re also taught these complex gaits so they can dodge a rampaging elephant.” Over the years, these battle tactics have become dance moves, metal armour switched with jewellery.
The most famous Marwari horse is Chetak, the horse of 16th century Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap Singh. The story of the Battle of Haldighati in 1576 (described as the “Thermopylae of Mewar”) is particularly recounted as a poignant summary of the Marwari horse’s qualities. It’s more pop-culture lore than actual history, however. It’s difficult to ascertain Chetak’s exact breed from historical evidence, and the specifics of the battle have grown in the telling.
The Marwari is built for Rajasthan’s harsh climate; and a statue of Maharana Pratap Singh on Chetak in Udaipur
Pratap Singh, on Chetak, led his small force in battle against the mighty Mughals. The Mughal forces were commanded by Man Singh on a war elephant. Chetak charged into the heart of the battle and reared up on to the elephant to allow Pratap Singh to attack. Pratap Singh’s hurled spear missed and the elephant’s sharp swing of the tusk fatally wounded Chetak. The horse, in obvious pain, still managed to take its rider to safety in the nearby hills before collapsing.
The Marwari’s fierce and loyal reputation made it a target of British concern in the coming centuries.
“The British were partly responsible for the breed’s decline,” says Virendra Kankariya, an Ahmedabad-based owner. Kankariya’s stallion, Humayun, was the Marwari horse featured on an Indian government series of commemorative stamps of indigenous horse breeds.
The Marwari were often at the frontlines of skirmishes against the Raj, so their endurance and strength were undesirable. “Each state that the British conquered, they started a systematic campaign to eliminate the Marwari,” says Kankariya. “They were replaced with Australian imports called Walers, which were brought in during World War I.” Walers are still used in the President’s Guard, and by the army.
The other major cause for the Marwari’s slip into obscurity came, strangely enough, from its veneration. The horse’s image was inextricably tied to Rajput Kshatriya pride and it was a symbol of nobility and the elite. Post-1947, Indian governments saw it as a remnant of imperial pride and princely feudalism. “The princes were forced to sell off large parts of their land, because of legislation starting with the Rajasthan Land Acquisition Act in 1953,” says Nirbhay Singh Deora, a Jodhpur-based breeder who runs a horse farm. “With no land, the first to go were their horses.” The law only permitted up to 132 “bighas” or 30 acres of land, which Deora says is “not even enough for one horse”.
The Rajput princes preserved a few specimens and post-1960, interest rose slowly as the havelis and palaces of the Rajputs became focal points for “heritage” tourism. Horse safaris brought tourists into contact with these animals, and forays into successful businesses meant financial stability for Rajput horse owners, who began buying Marwari horses for their stables.
There’s a curious elitism on display when Marwari horse owners are asked about this period of the horse’s history. All of them cite the breeding of the horse by “countrymen and peasantry” or “farmers” as a reason for its “loss of purity”. While poor breeding practices are a legitimate factor, it wasn’t until foreign interest in the horses (starting from the late 1990s) that the processes were given scientific and professional rigour.
The turning point came in the mid-1990s, and especially in 1999, thanks to confusion over some documentation.
How to ship a horse?
When you ask Francesca Kelly about the first time she saw a Marwari horse, she sighs (“It’s been told and written about so many times”) and begins like a fairy tale (“it’s an old, old story that begins in the desert”).
In 1995, Kelly, a US citizen who spent part of her childhood in Cairo and the deserts of Egypt, was in Rajasthan on holiday. “The Marwari is an animal of great beauty,” she says. “I bought a mare on that trip, but found out that I couldn’t take it back with me.”
The Marwari horse was among the “indigenous” breeds that were banned for export, and it looked unlikely that the policy would be changed any time soon.
Kelly joined forces with Dundlod and in 1997, he formed the Indigenous Horse Society of India, which sought to engage with the government on policy issues centred around indigenous breeds. “While the export policy made sense, the government wasn’t doing anything else to maintain the breed,” he says. At the time, a lot of local breeders’ associations were sprouting in Jodhpur and Gujarat, but no apex body existed that could bring them all together. In 1999, after two years of negotiations with the ministry of agriculture and the department of foreign trade, Dundlod managed to convince the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) to change the Marwari’s status from “banned” to “restricted”.
“This meant that they’d look at it case by case. If a good seller could prove that the sale was beneficial, and they obtained a no-objection certificate from the ministry, it could be allowed,” he says. The battle was finally won in early 2000, when the DGFT allowed Kelly to take six Marwari horses back with her.
But while the US agreed to the import, it also demanded a rigorous set of documents to process the shipment. “We saw this list that said ‘studbook’, ‘breed specification’, and we were completely lost,” Dundlod says.
Internationally, pure-bred horses are codified under what is called a “studbook”, that records offspring and lineage of pure bloodlines. The set of physical characteristics of a breed (height, colour and size) are also set in stone via official breed specification documents, which serve as a reference for breeders and horse owners.
The Marwari horse had neither. Help from the Pune-based National Horse Breeders Society was not forthcoming, so Dundlod decided he’d work on standardizing the breed himself. This meant uniting the feuding local societies into deciding a common set of specifications.
“Since 2008, we have a Marwari Studbook Registration Society,” says Kankariya, who is now on the board of the society. “Before that, it was all hearsay and word-of-mouth, but now we have properly codified breed standards and maintaining organized pure specimens is possible.” The board examines every horse registered with it, brands with a number and enters the details in the studbook. Kankariya says about 4,500 horses have been registered in the last two years mainly from Rajasthan and Gujarat, owned by rich Rajputs or stable owners. The price of a Marwari now ranges between Rs3 lakh and Rs15 lakh.
But there’s still a lot left to be done, says Dundlod. The European Union, for example, does not allow the import of animals from India because of its non-compliance with strict World Health Organization (WHO) protocols. “In the last two years, we’ve been sending a representative to negotiate on our behalf,” Dundlod says. “We’re trying to get a ‘disease-free’ zone approved in India so we can export horses.”
All of India, Dundlod snorts, would take more than “a century” to pass the WHO protocols. “The norms are tough. Our best bet is to get them to agree to one disease-free zone within the country from where exports can be possible.”
It’s not just the economic value of the Marwari horse that’s on the rise. Attempts are under way to establish its usefulness in sports.
“The Marwaris are being used for endurance races—these are 40, 80 and 120km races held annually,” Kankariya says. Endurance riding is a sport recognized by the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) and is being considered as an Olympic event. “The Marwari outperformed all breeds here, including the army hybrids,” he says. Another local Marwari monopoly is tent-pegging, where a rider gallops at full speed, and uses a lance to scoop out a peg placed at a precise distance. “Marwaris are awesome at this—their intelligence means they know exactly when to lower balance,” Kankariya says.
But the gold standard for equestrian events is dressage, an Olympic discipline that’s like gymnastics for horses (it’s often called “horse ballet”). The Marwari’s smooth dance moves makes it potentially suited to the world stage. The Marwari’s prowess at basic dressage was recently showcased at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, US, where Kelly’s exported horses performed to “a great response”, in Dundlod words.
The Indian government postage stamp featuring the stallion Humayun
For Kelly, these advances are important, but she can’t shake the feeling that some things have remained unchanged. “A friend in India once told me that you can go on and on and keep working on an issue, but it won’t change anything. That’s so demoralizing to hear.”
She remembers an incident at a recent Pushkar horse show, where a horse from Punjab was declared “Best of Breed” at the competition. “There was an enormous fight over this,” she says, “with people demanding to know how a Punjab horse could beat the local ones.” Tents were overturned, threats were made and the whole competition had to be rigged and redone to declare the local breeds triumphant. “This kind of crap happens all the time. It’s stupid and pathetic and after 16 years, I’m weary of it.”
The amount of abuse and exploitation that horses suffer in India has also not changed. “India’s progress as a global economy seems to involve ruining the countryside with concrete,” she says. “Taking care of the environment and the animals, or promoting humanity and compassion towards how they’re treated, seems to be low on the priority list. There seems to be no increase in concern about taking care of these animals.”
She’s not quite sure if the Marwari’s future is secure. A small community is reaping the economic benefits of newfound interest in the breed, but they’re still the victims of petty infighting and pure market considerations. “I’m not a foreigner smitten by the image of India. I’ve had years to scratch at the surface,” she says. For the near future, in a strange inversion of images, it looks like the Maruti 800 of horses will remain the preserve of the privileged.