Thursday, December 14, 2006

Guerrilla Warfare-III (horses and swords)

There are three things you must never ask of a Rajput; his horse, his mistress, and his sword

The Government of India today recognizes five breeds of horses indigenous to India---three of these are Himalayan ponies while only two are full-sized horses (see and Only the Marwari and the Kathiawari horses are present in sufficient numbers to be classed as breeds. This is a remarkable change from the days when the landscape of India was covered with centers of horse breeding and trade in horses was critical to the militaries of all Indian powers.

This change did not come overnight---at least from the 18th Century onwards the futility of charging cavalry against disciplined flintlock-wielding infantry had become apparent and was brilliantly illustrated in the classic Battle of Merta. Since they had little use in war the demand for horses fell sharply and several local breeds veered towards extinction. As Lt. Colonel James Tod noted in 1832, "The Rathor cavalry was the best in India. There were several horse-fairs...but the events of the last twenty years appear to have dried up every source of supply. The breeding studs...are almost extinct."

Another problem was that few records were maintained (or have survived) about horse breeding and only passing remarks in other texts are guides to the state of horses in India. Thus the ancient Vedic texts state that the best horses are bred in the lands around the Saraswati River (northern Rajasthan). Early medieval texts mention Vanayu (Arabia and Persia), Kamboja (Afghanistan), and Turushka (Central Asia) horses as the best and local breeds of Trigartta (Punjab-Himachal), Gurjara (Gujarat-Rajasthan), Avanti (Madhya Pradesh), and Saurashtra (Gujarat) as being inferior. This indicates the change from the use of horses in chariots (ancient period) where the small local breeds were used and as pure cavalry (medieval period) where tall and strong horses were preferred.

As has been explained above, when the Rajput clans began resisting the Turk invaders, they found cavalry to be the most effective and practical means of making war. Horses were useful for making sharp raids into enemy territory and for speedily carrying away all the looted wealth. With their cavalry the Rajputs could intercept trade caravans and small convoys of Muslim soldiers carrying the tribute of distant provinces to Delhi---examples of these are fairly numerous in the period under review. If the Turks retaliated in strength or managed to occupy or destroy the fort of the Rajput clan the latter would escape to remote regions with their cavalry and continue a harassing guerrilla war until the enemy was forced to withdraw.

Thus the Rajputs developed a touching devotion to their horses; from giving them personal names and including them in ritual worship, to mourning their death as one would for a member of the family and building fine cenotaphs and statues in their memory[33]. So important were these horses to the Rajputs that they prohibited other communities from owning these fine animals (the Marwar breed in particular). This was not due to caste hatred---since horses were so important for medieval warfare their purchase for other purposes would have increased the demand and driven up the prices of these vehicles of war. This would have in turn bankrupted the finances of the Rajput states.

[33]Rana Pratap's horse Chetak, of the Kathiawari breed, whose cenotaph is called 'Chetak ka chabutra' and is located at Jharol, north of Udaipur. The Marwari horse of Durgadas Rathor was named Arbud who helped the Rathor patriot in the war against Aurangzeb. The favorite horse of Rao Ummed Singh Hada of Bundi was an Iraqi stallion named Hanja; his cenotaph is in the central square of Bundi town. Lt. Colonel James Tod was gifted a Marwari horse named Bajraj; on this stallion he roamed through Rajputana translating bardic tales and deciphering inscriptions and manuscripts. The cenotaph of Bajraj is located in Kotah. In a more ancient period the horse of the legendary Gugga Chauhan was named Javadia---this name continues to be popular for Rajasthani horses to this day.

After the Turk invasion there was a sudden spurt in this love and desire for horses among the local Rajputs---since few historical records have survived from that period we are indebted to the bards for the numerous anecdotes that describe this phenomenon. For example Rana Hammir cited lack of horses and money to his inability to take Chittor and seeking divine assistance made a pilgrimage south to Dwarka (in Gujarat)---at that place a Charan lady, Barbari Devi, told him that her son Baru would give him five hundred horses and the same number of gold coins. Horses were being delivered to the ports of Gujarat by this time for the Turk invaders and this story may indicate that the Sesodia Rana forcibly acquired such valuable horses with the assistance of the Charans.

In a more mythological account another Rana pleaded to Asapuri Devi that he had no horses whereupon the Goddess told him that on a particular day horses from a caravan would come to him on their own. On the promised day no less than thirteen thousand horses let loose to graze from a (Muslim?) caravan wandered their way to the Rana's side! Another story about the Bhaatis of Jaisalmer states that Rawal Jeth Simha waylaid a caravan carrying the tribute of Tattah (Sindh) and Multan to Delhi. He slaughtered the Turk and Afghan escort and carried away fifteen hundred horses and a large treasure to Jaisalmer. One of his successors, Rawal Dudu, carried away the valuable Arab studs of "Piroja" from the Annasagar Lake near Ajmer.

The Chanda Rau Jethsi Ro, describing the victories of the Rathore Rajputs over the Turks in western Rajasthan, has a lengthy description of horses and their value to the Rajputs: "In swiftness they vie with the wind and enable the rider to catch the neck of the fleeing deer between the bow and its string. And as for their training, well, they are so used to the bustle of battle that at the first beat of the warlike drums they are off with such impetus that no one would think of detaining them; going straight for the enemy, they dash against the points of the spears and carry their rider so close to the adversary that he can fight him with a knife!"

Typical horse of the Marwar breed in the grasslands of western Rajasthan from"

The Marwar breed of horses is practically inseparable from the Rathor clan and is said to have originated in the Mallani district, from which place the breed spread out to other parts of Marwar. Other centers of horse-breeding were found in the relatively dry Northern and Western regions of India. Thus Multan and the Lakhi Jungle in Punjab, Mewar and Malwa covering Eastern Rajasthan, Kutch and Kathiawar in modern Gujarat, and the Pune district of Maharasthra were regarded to be famous for their breeds of horses.

Such is the paucity of our knowledge about the period that almost nothing is known about the origins of these horses---whether they were derived from the same horses described in the ancient Vedic texts or whether they had infusions of blood from Arab or Turk horses. No genealogical records were maintained by the horse breeders, instead all these horses were taken to annual animal fairs in different parts of India to be sold or traded, as they still are. But as a Rajput justifiably retorted to Lt. Colonel Tod on the question of written records of history, "when our princes were at war, driven from hold to hold, and forced to dwell in the clefts of mountains...was that a time to think of historical records?"

What was true for records of human history is doubly true for the history of the horse in India!

The Talwar

A similar paucity of records has left us with inadequate knowledge on the most important weapon of the period---the slender curved sword called the Talwar. Such has been the impact and popularity of this type of sword that in most of the Indian continent talwar has become the only word for the sword! Ironically, for such an extraordinary blade, almost nothing is known of its origins and history---even the meaning of the word is not entirely clear[34]. All surviving specimens of the talwar are from the 17th Century onwards and they have been obtained mostly from the Rajput states of Rajasthan[36]. In the Mughal texts the talwar is practically a Rajput sword and in describing a victory gained by a Rajput general over Afghan rebels it is stated that, "the Afghan army's sword broke under the Rajput talwar."[37] However from Rajput tradition it becomes clear that an older and more typical Rajput sword is the Khanda[38]---the double-edged straight blade that seems to be similar to ancient specimens depicted in sculptures and wall paintings.
[35]Tal-war; war or vaar means "strike" as in "strike a blow".
[36]One of the best versions of the talwar is the Sirohi, manufactured at the town of that name in south-western Rajasthan. The Sirohi is lighter and more slender than other versions. The state of Sirohi was founded in 1405.
[37]From "A History of Jaipur" by Jadunath Sarkar.
[38]The blade of the khanda tapers outwards and is broader near the tip than at the hilt.

The hilt of the talwar is similar to the hilt of the khanda while the slender curved blade appears to be similar to that of the Persian shamshir---it is thus concluded that the talwar is the result of the Rajputs mixing the best of the new sword with their traditional khanda. However such a conclusion is hasty and ill informed because the curved sword was known in India much before the birth of Islam.

Rajput princess wields a tulwarRajput princess with a talwar fights a foot soldier armed with a khanda. Scene in a miniature painting from Bundi.

At the start of the Common Era the Sakas (Scythians) and Kushans (Yeuh-chi) from Central Asia had established their kingdoms in northwestern India. These Saka-Kushans were the ancestors of the Turks and they used the composite bow, the spear, and the broad sword. The Indian warrior clans, ancestors of the Rajputs, adopted these new weapons and eventually overthrew the invaders from different parts of North India[39]. Inscriptions and statues from that period depict warriors astride horses carrying these weapons while paying homage to their clan-goddess.

The slender curved sword was eventually born in Persia and Arabia. This specimen was then reproduced in India when the first Islamic invasions began. Another reason to ascribe an older origin to the talwar is that steel was exported from India to Arabia and Persia from the earliest times[40] and the technologies of sword-manufacturing in all three places could not have been isolated from each other.

[39]According to European historians of the 19th Century the Rajputs were descended from these same Sakas and Kushans! However they did not cite actual evidence to back these claims.
[40]The famous wootz steel used to make the damscus sword. The word wootz is said to be derived from 'ukku' the Kannada word for steel.

Whatever its origins the talwar became the archetypal Rajput sword for the same reason that cavalry became the primary military formation of these people. With the curved sword a soldier could strike repeated blows without the danger of the blade getting stuck in bone or armor. This was especially important while attacking at a furious pace on horseback---the Rajputs could slash madly on all sides and quickly cut through enemy formations. Additionally the talwar had a spike below the hilt so that while grappling at close quarters and with no room to maneuver that spike could be used to stab the opponent---at other times the spike could also be used for gripping the talwar with both hands[41].

Just as the horse became so closely enmeshed into Rajput traditions and customs the sword too became an inseparable part of their culture. Thus it was used to invest subordinate chiefs with titles of nobility and was bestowed on others as a mark of honor. In case a groom could not attend his wedding due to war or illness his personal sword was sent to the bride's house and represented him in the wedding rituals. The talwar was worshipped by the Rajput warriors along with their other weapons[42] and was used to swear an oath of allegiance to the head of their clan---dhal talwar ki aan (by the honor of my sword and shield)!

A Rajput shield from the National Museum New Delhi

[41]It is said that in this period the khanda became the sword of last resort. When a Rajput warrior lost his horse and was surrounded by the enemy he would pull out the double-edged khanda and fight to the last while swinging it over his head and taking down as many of the enemy as he could.
[42]Weapons were worshipped to ensure that they would never be misused.

The Age of Imperial Kanauj - Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan
The Struggle for Empire - Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan
The Delhi Sultanate - Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan
Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan - Lt. Colonel James Tod
A History of Jaipur - Sir Jadunath Sarkar
Muslim Saints and Hindu Rulers: The Development of Sufi and Ismaili Mysticism in the Non-Muslim States of India - Dominique-Sila Khan