The Indian horses bred to fight elephants

The Indian horses bred to fight elephants

How the Marwari, a hardy breed of battle horse, helped change India forever

marwari horse ridePrincess Trails guide, Amar Singh, and Marwari horse, Ponam, in traditional dress.

With their cutely curved ears they may appear purely decorative, but the Marwari warhorses were instrumental in shaping Indian history.

Trained to fight enemies on sword-wielding elephants and bred to withstand the crippling desert heat, their efforts on the battlefield were inextricably linked to the rise and fall of their royal Rajput masters.

Just as India's "Sons of Kings" in what is now Rajasthan were renowned for their bravery, loyalty and pride, so too were their beloved horses.

Opinions differ over the origin of the Marwari with some claiming that it is an ancient breed.

Others believe that the Rajput clans began breeding what would become known as the Marwari in the 12th century after being driven into the more desolate areas of Rajasthan by superior Afghan invaders conquering Northern India.

By combining the most useful characteristics of Arabians, Turkumans and local stock, the Rajputs created an intelligent, fearless and hardy breed with which to defeat endless invasions and hold onto power over the centuries.

The Rajputs cleverly exploited the enemy's weak point to get close in battle by fashioning false trunks for their horses, making them appear to be baby elephants which the adult animals instinctively would not attack.

Marwari horse as elephantModel at Udaipur's City Palace showing a Rajput and his Marwari horse in false elephant trunk.

Horses with trunks

The Marwaris would then rear up on their hind legs, placing their front hooves on the elephant's head to enable their rider to attack the mahout with a lance.

Meanwhile the horses' distinctive ears, thought to have originated as a mutation, were another key to the Rajputs' lasting power, swiveling an unprecedented 180 degrees to provide superb hearing -- vital in sand dunes where, with no cover, a swift getaway could be crucial. 

Many historic paintings celebrating the Rajputs' lengthy reign show Marwaris fighting elephants.

marwariHistoric painting depicting the famous Battle of Haldighati in 1576 where Rajput Maharana Pratap, on his horse Chetak, attacked the Mughal leader.

Battle of Haldighati

Arguably the most famous conflict, which is depicted in a painting displayed at the City Palace in the Rajisthani city of Udaipur, was the 1576 Battle of Haldighati, which took place nearby.

Legendary horse Chetak is credited with saving the life of his master, Maharana Pratap, the last Rajput still standing against Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Chetak is shown in the customary false trunk with his hooves on the lead enemy elephant, allowing Pratap to throw his lance at Akbar's general. However the general ducked, his mahout was killed instead and the general's elephant swung around in panic, slashing off one of Chetak's legs with a sword attached to its trunk for combat.

The dying steed still managed to carry Pratap off the battlefield and the Rajput, his forces heavily outnumbered, escaped on his brother Shakti Singh's horse.

Although ultimately a defeat for the Rajputs, the battle is regarded by historians as a showcase of the loyalty and valour of the clan and their horses.

Such was the importance of the Marwari breed to the clans' survival that it was commonly said that a Rajput could never be separated from his horse.

He was the great great grandfather of Princess Trails' proprietor, Virendra Singh Shaktawat. Renowned Rajput rider, hunter and horse breeder Rawat Nahar Singhji Boheda, circa 1900.

Nearly lost to colonialism

But all that changed with the arrival of the British in India, when the Marwari was almost lost forever.

The horses were disliked by the incomers who instead imported Australian breeds.

Marwaris fell out of fashion because everyone wanted the horse of the current ruling power.

When independence was declared in 1947 and the British left India, the situation became worse with the horses viewed as a symbol of the feudal system upon which the Rajputs' powers had been based.

Many Marwaris were abandoned, shot or castrated as their owners could no longer afford them.

The next generation of Rajputs were horseless and the clans' renowned expertise nearly vanished along with the breed.

However interest in the Marwari has returned thanks to the growth of tourism.

Since the 1990s families in Rajasthan have been breeding the unique horses once more, this time for trekking safaris.

At Princess Trails in Udaipur, proprietor Virendra Singh proudly shows photographs of his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather -- all Rajput horsemen whose ancestor was the great Pratap's brother, Singh.

Virendra's wife, Ute, who is researching the Marwari and has a BA in Indian history, says: "The Marwari horse was certainly very influential to the history of Rajasthan. A Rajput's horse and sword were substantial parts of his life and as dear to him as his wife and family."

Thanks to the popularity of Marwari horse treks, the breed is now once more playing a key role in the fortunes of people in this historic land.

marwari rajasthangetting there

For details of Marwari treks visit Princess Trails at

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