The true origins of the Marwari horse are lost in the mists and myths of time. So powerful is the legend behind the horse that every deity, from Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, to Lord Surya, the Sun God, vied for possession and ownership, ultimately leading to the creation of a full-blown cult.
Popular opinion asserts that the horse materialised into the Indian consciousness at the dawn of the Vedic era, around 2000 B.C. Great kings associated themselves with these horses enhancing the power and prestige of the warrior clans. Considered divine creatures, blessed by the Gods and exalted by kings, the Marwari horse found his rightful place as the noblest of war horses.
Famous for their fearlessness and lust for conquest, the warrior races of Rajputana chose the Marwari for their steel and passion, proud bearing and noble, unmistakable dignity. Deceptively docile, their penetrating gaze betrays their vast reserves of strength and resilience.
The brave long-limbed and muscular Marwari were trained to survive long hours under saddle in the harsh desert environment, thrive on scant water and rations, face death fearlessly and defend their masters in the thick of battle. Their fine silky coat helps to keep them cool during the long summer months while their long lashes protect their eyes from sandstorms.
Unique to the breed are their beautifully curved, lyre-shaped ears which not only pick up the slightest sound, but can be turned a full 180° backwards to avoid sand entering while charging forward at full gallop. This trait also attests to the purity of the breed and is the first characteristic to be lost when interbreeding occurs.
Over the centuries the Marwari - their name literally means “from the land of death”, such was the terror they instilled in their enemies – became the favourites of many rulers, from the Rathore Rajputs in Rajputana to the notorious Sikh ruler Ranjiy Singh, known as the Lion of Punjab. They fought valiantly in battles from the third century onwards, distinguishing themselves for their bravery, courage and daring. Bedecked and bejewelled by their masters, they were respected and loved by both all clan members, men and women alike. When Laili – Ranjit Singh’s favourite mare – died In 1837, he ordered a 21-gun salute for her funeral and wept unashamedly.
The Marwari fought their last battle with General Allenby in 1917 in Haifa as part of the Jodhpur-Mysore-Gwalior-Jaipur lancers, presently known in India as the 61st Cavalry Regiment, the only “horse” cavalry regiment in the world today.
Redundancy and near-extinction of the breed can be credited to the British who found them too mettlesome. The fortunes of the Marwari ebbed to its lowest point in 1947 when, on behalf of the interim Indian Government, Patel persuaded the rulers to sign away their royal rights. Following the land-owning abolition act, noblemen were further deprived of the means to support their animals. Thousands were shot, castrated or pressed into service by the Dacoits. From celestial messenger and glory of the high-born, the Marwari became beasts of burden. When in 1952 the first free democratic elections were held, the Government felt justified in wiping out all traces of the ruling classes. The Marwari horse was too powerful a symbol and inextricably linked to the values and excesses of the fallen monarchies. Indigenous horse husbandry in the 50s was totally neglected and the Marwari was consigned to oblivion.
Redemption, albeit partial and piecemeal, came from its own people who had many a rough diamond hidden away in their humble homes in the farmlands of Rajasthan. In the late nineties, the governments of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat initiated projects to protect and upgrade their indigenous breeds. Landed gentry and the nouveau riche began to take a renewed interest in breeding, often very successfully, boosting the ancient Rajput culture and often saving their family homes from ruin and destruction.
To continue the invaluable efforts and unflinching dedication of these visionaries will require a global response by horse lovers and breeders all over the world. Nothing less than the concerted and wholehearted commitment of the equestrian community, both in India and abroad, is needed to revive the disinterest currently manifest by the Government of India towards this precious yet precarious heritage that for so many centuries has contributed to the power and wealth of the nation India is today.