Horses in Medieval India: Imports and local breeding

In his travels, Marco Polo notes one peculiarity of India, and this is related to horse breeding in the country:

another strange thing to be told is that there is no possibility of breeding horses in this country, as hath often been proved by trial. For even when a great blood-mare here has been covered by a great blood-horse, the produce is nothing but a wretched wry-legged weed, not fit to ride.[1]

While this note may be one of Marco Polo’s ways of highlighting the exoticism of this far-away land, research by twentieth-century scholars tended to stress the region’s reliance on horse imports from Persia and Arabia. Indeed, a number of studies have accumulated evidence of horse trade in medieval India from the twelfth century onwards. Simon Digby, in his influential War-horse and Elephant, says as much, and the assumption has gone largely unquestioned since.[2] Irfan Habib is careful in stating that “better horses for cavalry use were largely imported,” but he goes on state that “India was not a country where good horses could be bred, or good-breeds, once imported, protected from decay.”[3] On the other hand, Nazer Aziz Anjum claimed that while “north India got horses through inland as well as oceanic routes, south India mostly depended on the ocean.”[4]

Thus, it has been widely accepted as a fact that medieval and early modern India relied on horse import from the distant Arabic peninsula, Persia and Iran, without inquiring into the reasons and rationale for importing apparently huge quantities of horses via sea routes, a process that must have been complicated, expensive, and prone to lead to the waste of a considerable number of horses. Even today, horses do not always fare well during sea voyages: they can suffer injuries to their limbs, be weakened due to sea sickness, inferior quality of feed and water, succumb to infectious disease or colic. Thus, a wholesale import of horses would have been a very expensive business, making the horse an elite animal, accessible only to the wealthiest and most noble members of the Indian society.

The import of horses by land into the north of India would have been an equally complicated and expensive affair. The so-called “Khorasan-India Road” connected “the Silk and the Fur Roads to the maritime Spice Route,” and was approximately 730 km long.[5] Khorasan was a region in Iran, famous for its horses. The road was long, and, although it had pastures and studs on the way, it would take a long time to transport the horses along this route. In reality, the Khorasan-India road was used to import horses not only from Khorasan but also from other regions in Asia, including Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, etc. Ali Bahrani Pour claims that, “according to their breed and use, horses had been sorted out into four main categories: warhorses (Turkish, Qipchaq tribes’ breed of Cumania), horses for routine riding (from the Badgheis region), racehorses (Arabians), and ceremonial horses (a pure Arabian breed).”[6] Still, it the appellation of Arabians is clearly anachronistic, as the concept of the breed did not exist in the medieval period, neither was the Arabian breed consolidated as such at that point. It is also hard to see how the distinction would be applied consistently throughout the period considered by Pour (13th to 17th centuries).

Much of the evidence for horse trade in India comes from writings by foreign travelers, such as Marco Polo in the twelfth century, or the fourteenth-century Arabic writer Ibn Battuta.[7] The latter notes, for instance, that the best warhorses were imported by sea from the regions of Yemen, Oman and Fars. However, other medieval Arabic authors confirm that horses were used for transport, albeit it seems that these were the less elite, locally bred specimen, called tattu.[8]

In fact, there is no lack of evidence both from the later medieval and the early modern periods that there existed a range of local breeds in India. Many of these local breeds were praised by the authors for their hardiness and endurance, although implicitly they were inferior to the imported horses. In the case of one breed, the legend has it that it originated from a number of horses from Arabia, which came from a shipwrecked ship and multiplied. This account, tracing the descent of a local breed to a limited number of imported (and implicitly superior) ancestors is not unique to India. The English Thoroughbred traces its descent to three Arabian sires, although recently the role of indigenous British horses in the formation of the breed has been reevaluated, especially with the help of the DNA analysis. No such work has been recently conducted for Indian indigenous breeds, so the proportion of imported blood from Arabian and Persian sires remains to be determined.

What these references to local breeds show, however, is that, contrary to Marco Polo’s statement that a locally bred horse in India was “not fit to ride,” indigenous horses were not only used for riding but also highly valued for their specific qualities, such as their endurance and ability to cover difficult terrains. Perhaps, we should view Marco Polo’s and Ibn Battuta’s statements about the superiority of imported horses and inferiority of locally bred specimen with a pinch of salt and inquire into the reasons for which these two authors wanted to highlight the difference between the two types of horses. Was owning and riding an imported horse a mark of status? Was it one more way to promote one’s belonging to a higher social class, as different from the lower-class people who had to ride locally bred ponies? By associating themselves with foreign, imported horses, their riders would not only appear superior by their ability to afford more expensive, imported goods (who, moreover, would require specialized foods), but could also possibly claim their affinity to imported cultural values.

On the whole, while there is no question any longer that horses are indigenous to India rather than imported, the question remains why India seems to have relied so largely on horse imports rather than local breeding and what was the exact role of imported horses in forming the Indian cavalry.

[1] Marco Polo, The Book Ser Marco Polo , the Venetian, Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East , translated and edited, with notes by Colonel Henry Yule, third edition, revised throughout in the light of recent discoveries by Henri Cordier (of Paris) London, 1903, vol. II, 342.

[2] Simon Digby, War-Horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate (Oxford, 1971).

[3] Irfan Habib, Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 (Delhi, Chennai, Chandigarh: Centre for Studies in Civilization, 2011), 61.

[4] Nazer Aziz Anjum, “Horse Trade in Medieval South India,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 73 (2012): 295-303, at 296.

[5] Ali Bahrani Pour, “The Trade in Horses Between Khorasan and India in the 13th-17th Centuries,” 124.

[6] Pour, 124, referring to Mazaheri 1993, I, pp. 36-39.

[7] Ibn Battuta, The Travels oflbn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354, transi, with revision and notes from the Arabic text by Ç. Defremery & B.R. Sanguini, by H.A.R. Gibb, New Delhi, 1993, vol. 2.

[8] Barani, Tārīkh-i Fīrozshānī, 313, reference in Habib, 62.

About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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6 Responses to Horses in Medieval India: Imports and local breeding

  1. Som says:

    Interesting write-up, however, I do think that there seems to be a neglect in most Delhi centric sources about the more ‘peripheral’ provinces such as Sindh, Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan), Gujarat and the Western Deccan.
    While the origins of many indigenous breeds are a matter of contention, post-Ghurid conquest of 1192, local breeding picked up rapidly. The main bane of horse breeds in India was the humidity, however, areas like the aforementioned regions were either arid, semi arid or rain-shadow areas, simply put, they were dry areas that were ideal for horse breeding.

    While the Sultans of Delhi, and later the Mughals, had to rely on overland and overseas trade, the likes of the Rajputs and the Deccan Sultanates (later the Marathas) were able to find several local breeds that served them as well or sometimes better than the foreign horse, depending on the terrain.

    The famed breeds of Marwari and Kathiawari, both quite similar to the Arabian, as far as height and stamina goes, were bred in Sindh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Apart from these, Iraqi horses known as the Tazi became the biggest imports, and featured heavily in Rajput armies. By 14th century, cavalry armies became the norm in the Rajputana, as they mostly raided the Sultanate armies before retreating to their desert strongholds. As a result the States of Mewar (Udaipur) and Jodhpur could muster an army of over 30000 horsemen each respectively at their peak. Mewar’s Rana Sanga’s coalition in 1527 saw an army of almost 50000 well mounted horsemen from Rajputana alone. The Marwari horse in particular distinguished itself for both speed and endurance, one example being the famous battle of Haldighati, where the victorious Mughals could not chase the retreating Rajputs, thanks in large part to the Marwari and Kathiawari breeds’ endurance. The Mughal army, part Rajput, part Indo-Persian and part Turkic could not pursue the Mewari (Udaipur State) army into the rugged Aravalli ranges.

    In the Deccan, starting from the beginning of the early 16th century, Maratha light horsemen became the preferred cavalry troops for the Ahmednagar and the BIjapur Sultanates. By early 17th century, both Sultanates actually disbanded several foreign horse regiments and began heavy recruiting of Maratha Sardars (Chiefs) and their Bargirs (State paid cavalry trooper). The Marathas had begun cross-breeding Tazi and Kathiawari horses with local hill ponies, creating the now native breed of Maharashtra; the Bhimtadi (named on the Bhima river near Pune). This breed was hardy and excelled on long rides with minimum feed requirements, often both the trooper and the horse would have the same diet of little dried millet. So we see ridiculous speeds of 40-50 miles on average, and sometimes even over 70 miles in rapid dashes. Also this breed excelled over foreign and Rajput breeds when it came to traversing hills and more rugged terrain of the Western Deccan that is intercepted by numberless valleys, ravines and wooded hills, nestled in the great Sahyadri Mountain ranges.

    I would recommend Jos Gommans’ work, his research gives a first hand account of the horse breed prices in the Mughal period to give an idea:

    Essentially: Arabians were prized the highest, then came the Arab-like horses such as the Tazi (in the Deccan Bhimtadi is clubbed in this category), Marwari and the Kathiawari, here the Pancha Kaliyan (a type of Marwari with 5 auspicious marks) was considered the most valuable, after this was the Turki, and finally the local Tattu breeds.

    The reason I would prefer the Mughal pricing as an indicator is because they had greater access to almost all breeds of India, as they had Ajmer and Nagaur in Rajputana, Burhanpur and Aurangabad in the Deccan, as well as control of most of the foreign trade routes, thus their estimation can be considered first hand and more authentic compare to Delhi or Jaunpur based Sultanates.


    • Thank you very much for your commentary. I would agree that the climate of India probably make it less than ideal for horse breeding, but then horses did seem to thrive in certain areas. It would be interesting to explore ways in which imported horses could adapt – or failed to do so – to the Indian climate. I just could not buy into the idea that the Indian elite and cavalry only rode imported Arabian and Persian horses, which, moreover, would not thrive in the climate. I have read a little on the prices of horses in medieval and early modern India, which is what made me question the whole thing about the predominance of imported horses. We can relate this development to horse imports in medieval Europe, e.g., in England, where imported horses from France were more expensive. But then it is hard to compare, as the distance is of course much less, so the costs of transportation are lower.


      • Som says:

        In India the choice of horses for the elites varied greatly as per the regions and the times.

        For example; an Pashtun rulers preferred Tazi over other breeds, early Mughals like Babur favored Turki (Turkmen horse) over even the Arabian, while Rajput rulers preferred their Marwaris (especially the Panch Kaliyan for religious significance) over the foreign breeds. A good example would be Rana Pratap and his equally celebrated horse Chetak which was a Panch Kaliyan Marwar. Maratha Warlords mostly rode Bhimthadi or Kathiawari mares over other breeds, though later in late 18th and early 19th century Arabians became fashionable.

        So it is difficult to pin point. Unlike Europe, standardization never really took place. Often it is very difficult to even understand what ‘Arabian’ or ‘Tazi’ meant in the Indian context, as many times other similar breeds are mixed in, like Arabian or Tazi often becomes a euphemism for a standard of performance.
        Standard gradations of horses were often made on speed and endurance basis. Unlike Europe, where dedicated Chargers or Coursers were developed with specific functions, in India and Asia in general, war horses were very similar in size and strength, it was the endurance that decided the value, which was also difficult to determine. For example, Tazi, Marwari, Kathiawari and even the prized Arabian, all have similar height (14-16 hands), speed and endurance. In 18th cenutry, apart from distinct Marwari ears, one could not distinguish them from the many Tazis in the Rajput armies (despite anachronistic nationalist claims).

        So the task of really finding one elite horse for all of India’s diverse elite is neigh impossible.

        Liked by 1 person

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  3. Som says:

    Sorry for posting after almost 2 years. I just came across this post again and spotted a few errors in my replies. Though nothing major, I would still like make the corrections.

    ‘Tazi’ was a blanket term that was, by Mughal times, used for the Indian breeds that were supposed resemble or perform akin to the Arab horses. Most of the Rajput and Maratha rulers were using the Tazi horses. The Tazi horses in the 18th century context included: Marwari, Kathiawari, SIndhi (also called Kutchi) and Bhimtadi (Deccani) horses. Despite the blanket term and its intent, the performance and appearance of the Tazi horses varied greatly according to the breed. For example the Bhimtadi was a smaller breed and typically slower than the others, but had greater endurance, extremely good footing for rugged and mountainous terrain, and could survive on a meagre diet of a handful of roasted millets that both the horse and the rider shared. These logistical factors allowed the Marathas to outride and outmaneuver their Mughal and Rajput opponents despite them being ‘better mounted’.

    There was another breed of warhorses called the Jangalah, these were graded lower than the Tazi horses, and were found mostly in Punjab and parts of North India. The early Sikhs used these horses extensively, and though unable to properly bear an armored rider (by Asiatic standards), these were well suited to light cavalry forays.

    The Afghans had access to the markets of both Central Asia and Iran, and had become expert horse breeders by late Medieval period. Their horses were called Qandahari and Kabuli. These were possibly akin to the Persian breed, and were ideal for the armored rider (again in the Asiatic context). The Hotaki and the Durrani Afghans maintained some of the best Heavy Cavalry in Asia in the 18th century.


    • Thank you very much for these additions. Indeed from the 16th century onwards we have increasingly much information about horse imports into India. Unfortunately we can’t assume things were the same in the medieval period as they were in the 18th century. If you could point me towards medieval sources (prior to 1500) that I have missed, I would be very grateful. I know of the recent book History of India on Horseback, but I have not read it yet.


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