Rajasthan

 

The first thing I noticed about the horse was that she was completely jet-black. Black is considered a very risky colour in India - the colour of the goddess Kali, it denotes darkness, death and destruction. As I ran a nervous eye over Raat ki Rani’s fiery figure I wondered if Kali was sending a message here that I ought to heed. Raat ki Rani means ‘Queen of the Night’ but, more than a mere queen, this horse would once have been considered literally a divinity. As a Marwari warhorse her caste was traditionally higher even than that of the Rajput kings and, not so long ago, the sacrilege of my mounting her would have been followed immediately by a swift dose of Kali’s death-and-destruction.

Ancient texts say that the Marwari were bred ‘to lift the heart in battle and to please the eye.’ The Rajput warriors were respected for their courage, their lust for conquest and their nobility and they refined these same qualities in their horses. They trained them to gallop from a standing start, to pirouette on the spot at any pace and to collect on their haunches for close fighting. There are numerous stories of noble Marwaris who leapt fearlessly onto the spear-studded howdahs of battle elephants or threw themselves into the fray from high battlements.

“Riding a Marwari is like looking at the world through the sights of a rifle,” my guide said as we rode out of Fort Dundlod stables. Raat ki Rani’s characteristic lyre-shaped ears curved inwards, almost touching at their points, offering what Francesca Kelly described in Marwari: Legend of the Indian Horse as ‘a gateway to the heart of India’s spiritual and ceremonial heritage.’

Despite the burgeoning summer heat it was a good time to be in Rajasthan and Dundlod was already gearing itself for the region’s most important festival. Horses play a major part in the Gangaur processions and have always held a special place in the hearts of Rajasthani men. A local folksong has a wife lamenting:

“How can I compare as a lover to the mare when she is close to thee?

“I’m sure that when she’s between your thighs you lose all thought for me.”

Essentially Gangaur is a celebration of the marriage of Lord Shiva (Gan) and the goddess Parvati (Gauri). Even in the smallest desert hamlet the girls - certainly among the most beautiful in India - were preparing their brightest saris and fluttering like peacocks against the sun-bleached stonework. In Fort Dundlod’s great reception room veiled women from the Dholak caste were already wailing their endless chants beside the bejewelled effigies of Shiva and his consort.

After the eighteenth century fortress was used during the making of The Far Pavilion, Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod (known more often as Bonnie) bought several of the best Marwaris used in the film and set about converting his family home into a heritage hotel. During the days of the British Raj even the Indian princes began to give up their Marwaris for European thoroughbreds and polo ponies. Only a few respected horsemen stuck their necks out – almost apologetically – to point out the superiority of what were derisively referred to as ‘native horses.’ Now Bonnie has founded the Indigenous Horse Society of India and is working to save what he has described as an endangered species.

The society’s overseas representative, Francesca Kelly, has won a lengthy battle against bureaucratic and antiquated US import restrictions to ship the first six Marwaris to her ranch on the island of Chappaquiddick, in Massachusetts. “The Marwari is capable of adapting almost anywhere,” she says. Some have already been sent to a trekking operation in Sri Lanka and the society has looked at other possibilities in Australia and Spain.

Despite their statuesque Arabic beauty, Marwaris have all the toughness and desert guile of the hardiest Outback brumby and Bonnie quickly realised that with good training they would be ideally suited to horseback tours across the Sheikhawati plains. Their fine, silky coats keep them cool and their small, tough hooves travel unflinchingly over the stony land. Their long eye-lashes and the wonderful ears, which flick through 180 degrees, protect them from sandstorms. Bred for long, arduous desert campaigns the Marwaris could travel for great distances on scant water and little grazing - the horse-traders of the Marasi tribe still measure distance by the ground that a good horse can cover in a day.

Even the Marwaris’ reputation as a warhorse has been revived: the cavalry ranks of the Indian police force and army, and even the president’s bodyguard, are once again looking at the world through those scimitar-shaped ‘sights.’ “They can function very well as police horses,” Bonnie points out. “They are not afraid of crowds or cane-charges and will go straight into a crowd because of their racy temperament.”

Bonnie’s magnificent stallion Gajraj is busy siring the next generation of Dundlod foals and the society has produced the first ‘Breed Standards’ book to outline the desired characteristics for a prime Marwari. Yet the Marwari can never be classified as a ‘thoroughbred.’ European owners might talk with pride about the thoroughbred offspring of English mares and Arab stallions whose bloodlines are certified back to their great-great-grandparents. But the Marasi horse experts can recite poems that record the ancestry of horses like Raat ki Rani and Gajraj for ten generations!

The back of a Marwari certainly offers the finest view of the Rajasthani wilderness…though I might just have missed out on some of the sights, what with my eyes being closed for part of the time. Amid the excitement of pounding hooves and flying ebony mane I can still dimly recall peacocks squawking in panic, wild nilgai antelope scattering ahead of us and a pair of haughty camels looking up with surprise to appraise my unusual riding style.

I suppose I could have asked Raat ki Rani to go slower but, as an old Rajasthani saying goes, “If the Marwaris don’t run during the festival of Gangaur, when will they run?”