History of the horse in the Indian subcontinent

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Horse-drawn chariot carved onto the mandapam of Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram, c. 12th century.
Krishna, Arjuna at Kurukshetra, 18th- to 19th-century painting.

Odd toed ungulate, or hoofed mammals, such as horses, rhinos, and tapirs, may have their evolutionary origins in Indian subcontinent.[web 1] While horse remains and related artifacts have been found in Late Harappan (1900-1300 BCE) sites, indicating that horses may have been present at Late Harappan times,[1] horses did not play an essential role in the Harappan civilisation,[2] in contrast to the Vedic period (1500-500 BCE).[3] The importance of the horse for the Indo-Aryans is indicated by the Sanskrit word Ashva, "horse," which is often mentioned in the Vedas and Hindu scriptures.


Odd toed ungulate, or hoofed mammals, such as horses, rhinos, and tapirs, may have their evolutionary origins in the Indian Subcontinent.[web 1] Remains of the Equus namadicus have been found from Pleistocene levels in India.[4] The Equus namadicus is closely related to the Equus sivalensis.[web 2] The Equus sivalensis lived in the Himalayan foothills in prehistoric times and it is assumed it was extinct during the last ice age.


Domestication of the horse before the second millennium appears to be confined to its native habitat, the Great Steppe. An increasing amount of evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes approximately 3500 BCE.[5][web 3][web 4] Recent discoveries in the context of the Botai culture suggest that Botai settlements in the Akmola Province of Kazakhstan are the location of the earliest domestication of the horse.[6]

Use of horses spread across Eurasia for transportation, agricultural work, and warfare. The horse only appears in Mesopotamia from around 1800 BC as a ridden animal and acquires military significance with the invention of the chariot.

Indus Valley Civilisation[edit]

Proponents of Indigenous Aryanism believe that the Indus Valley civilisation was Aryan and Vedic.[7] There are two common objections against such a correlation: "the Rg Vedic culture was pastoral and horse-centered, while the Harappan culture was neither horse-centered nor pastoral";[note 1][3] and "the complete absence of the modern horse (equus caballus)."[note 2] Support for the idea of an indigenous Indo-Aryan origin of the Indus Valley Civilisation mostly exists among Indian scholars of Hindu religion and the history and archaeology of India,[8][9][10][11] and has no support in mainstream scholarship.[note 3]

The paucity of horse remains in pre-Vedic times could be explained by India's climatic factors which lead to decay of horse bones. Horse bones may also be rare because horses were probably not eaten or used in burials by the Harappans.[12][13] Remains and artifacts ascribed to domesticated horses are limited to Late Harappan times[14][3][note 10] indicating that horses may have been present at Late Harappan times,[1] "when the Vedic people had settled in the north-west part of the subcontinent."[3] It can therefore not be concluded that the horse was regularly used, or played a significant role, in the Harappan society.[2]

Horse remains from the Harappan site Surkotada (dated to 2400-1700 BC) have been identified by A.K. Sharma as Equus ferus caballus.[subnote 3] The horse specialist Sandor Bökönyi (1997) later confirmed these conclusions, and stated the excavated tooth specimens could "in all probability be considered remnants of true horses [i.e. Equus ferus caballus]".[subnote 4] Bökönyi, as cited by B.B. Lal, stated that "The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus L.) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size and form of incisors and phalanges (toe bones)."[subnote 5] However, archaeologists like Meadow (1997) disagree, on the grounds that the remains of the Equus ferus caballus horse are difficult to distinguish from other equid species such as Equus asinus (donkeys) or Equus hemionus (onagers).[21]

Colin Renfrew (1999) remarked that "the significance of the horse [...] has been much exaggerated."[22][note 11]

Vedic period[edit]

Early Vedic Period.

Sites such as the BMAC complex are at least as poor in horse remains as the Harappan sites.[8][note 12] The earliest undisputed finds of horse remains in South Asia are from the Gandhara grave culture, also known as the Swat culture (c. 1400-800 BCE),[3] related to the Indo-Aryans[24] and coinciding with their arrival in India.[25] Swat valley grave DNA analysis provides evidence of "connections between [Central Asian] Steppe population and early Vedic culture in India".[25]

Horses were of significant importance for the lifestyle of the Indo-Europeans.[26] Ashva, a Sanskrit word for a horse, is one of the significant animals finding references in the Vedas and several Hindu scriptures, and many personal names in the Rig Veda are also centered on horses.[26] Derived from asva, its cognates are found in Indo-European languages like Sanskrit, Avestan, Latin and Greek.[26] There are repeated references to the horse in the Vedas (c. 1500-500 BC). In particular the Rigveda has many equestrian scenes, often associated with chariots. The Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice is a notable ritual of the Yajurveda.

The difficulty of breeding large numbers of horses in the Indian climate meant they needed to be imported in large numbers, usually from Central Asia, but also elsewhere. Horse traders are already mentioned in Atharvaveda 2.30.29. A painting at Ajanta shows horses and elephants that are transported by ship.[27] Trautmann (1982) thus remarked the supply and import of horses has "always" been a preoccupation of the Indians and "it is a structure of its history, then, that India has always been dependent upon western and central Asia for horses."[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ R.S. Sharma (1995), as quoted in Bryant 2001
  2. ^ Parpola (1994), as quoted in Bryant 2001
  3. ^ No support in mainstream scholarship:
    • Thapar 2006: "there is no scholar at this time seriously arguing for the indigenous origin of Aryans".[28]
    • Wendy Doniger (2017): "The opposing argument, that speakers of Indo-European languages were indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, is not supported by any reliable scholarship. It is now championed primarily by Hindu nationalists, whose religious sentiments have led them to regard the theory of Aryan migration with some asperity."[web 6]
    • Girish Shahane (September 14, 2019), in response to Narasimhan et al. (2019): "Hindutva activists, however, have kept the Aryan Invasion Theory alive, because it offers them the perfect strawman, 'an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent's real argument' ... The Out of India hypothesis is a desperate attempt to reconcile linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence with Hindutva sentiment and nationalistic pride, but it cannot reverse time's arrow ... The evidence keeps crushing Hindutva ideas of history."[web 7]
    • Koenraad Elst (May 10, 2016): "Of course it is a fringe theory, at least internationally, where the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) is still the official paradigm. In India, though, it has the support of most archaeologists, who fail to find a trace of this Aryan influx and instead find cultural continuity."[11]
    • Witzel 2001, p. 95: [the] "indigenous Aryans" position is not scholarship in the usual sense, but an "apologetic, ultimately religious undertaking":[29]
  4. ^ Sharma et al. (1980) p.220-221, as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 170
  5. ^ Alur 1971 p.123, as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 170
  6. ^ Bholanath (1963), as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 270
  7. ^ Bholanath (1963), as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 270
  8. ^ Sharma 1992-1993, as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 271
  9. ^ Sharma (1995) p.24, as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 271
  10. ^ The finds include deposits at Mahagara near Allahabad, dated to around 2265 BC to 1480 BC, described as Equus ferus caballus Linn;[note 4] Hallur in Karnataka, c.1500 - 1300 BC, described as Equus ferus caballus;[note 5] Mohenjo-Daro;[subnote 1] Harappa ("small horse");[note 6] Lothal, a terracotta figurine and a molar horse tooth, dated to 2200 BC;[note 7][15][16] Kalibangan;[note 8] and Kuntasi, dated to 2300–1900 BC.[note 9] An alleged clay model of a horse has been found in Mohenjo-Daro and an alleged horse figurine in Periano Ghundai in the Indus Valley.[subnote 2] According to Erwin Neumayer, Daimabad bronze "chariot" had "a yoke fit for the neck of horses rather then cattle."[web 5] According to Pigott (1970), various copper vehicle toys having animals with arched neck, described as bulls by some scholars, possibly are of horses.[17] Several chalcolithic period scenes depicted in rock art of India show chariot driven by horses as well. A daimabad cylinder seal dated to 1400-1000 BC depicts a horse driven cart.[18][19][20]
  11. ^ Renfrew's statement refers to his own Anatolian hypothesis, which is criticized by mainstream scholarship on similar grounds.
  12. ^ Hastinapur (8th century BCE) is likewise poor in horse remains, even though it is considered as Indo-Aryan.[23]
  1. ^ Sewell and Guha (1931), as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 270
  2. ^ Bryant 2001, p. 171, with reference to Mackay 1938 and Piggott 1952.
  3. ^ Sharma (1974), as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 271
  4. ^ Bökönyi (1997), as cited in Bryant 2001, p. 272
  5. ^ Lal 1998, p. 111, quoted from Bökönyi's letter to the Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1993-12-13.


  1. ^ a b Bryant 2001, p. 270-271, 273.
  2. ^ a b Bryant 2001, p. 273.
  3. ^ a b c d e Reddy 2006, p. A93.
  4. ^ Kennedy 2000.
  5. ^ Matossian 2016, p. 43.
  6. ^ Outram 2009.
  7. ^ Bryant 2001, p. "It is claimed that the Aryans created the Harappan culture.".
  8. ^ a b c Bryant 2001.
  9. ^ Bryant & Patton 2005.
  10. ^ Singh 2008, p. 186.
  11. ^ a b Koenraad Elst (May 10, 2016), Koenraad Elst: "I am not aware of any governmental interest in correcting distorted history", Swarajya Magazine
  12. ^ Bryant 2001, p. 194.
  13. ^ S.P. Gupta. The dawn of civilization, in G.C. Pande (ed.)(History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, ed., D.P. Chattophadhyaya, vol I Part 1) (New Delhi:Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 1999)
  14. ^ Bryant 2001, p. 173.
  15. ^ S.R. Rao (1985) Lothal - A Harappan Port Town
  16. ^ "Horse Head". Museums of India. Retrieved 2020-11-12.
  17. ^ Piggott, Stuart (1970). "Copper Vehicle-Models in the Indus Civilization". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (2): 200–202. ISSN 0035-869X.
  18. ^ Sali, S. A. "Daimabad : 1976-79". INDIAN CULTURE. p. 499. Retrieved 2020-08-12.
  19. ^ Singh, Upinder (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Delhi: Pearson Education. pp. 229–233. ISBN 978-81-317-1120-0.
  20. ^ "Excavations - Important - Maharashtra". Archaeological Survey of India. Retrieved 1 September 2010.
  21. ^ Bryant 2001, pp. 169–175.
  22. ^ Bryant 2001, p. 120.
  23. ^ Thapar 1996, p. 21.
  24. ^ Kennedy 2012, p. 46.
  25. ^ a b Narasimhan et al. 2018.
  26. ^ a b c Reddy 2006, p. A-93.
  27. ^ Himanshu Prabha Ray, Early Coastal Trade in the Bay of Bengal, In: Julian Reade (ed.) The Indian Ocean in Antiquity. London: Kegan Paul Intl. 1996
  28. ^ Thapar 2006.
  29. ^ Witzel 2001, p. 95.


Printed sources
  1. ^ a b Patterson, James M. (2020-11-07). "Archaeology: Indian fossils support new hypothesis for origin of hoofed mammals". Tunis Daily News. Retrieved 2020-11-12.
  2. ^ Arun Sonakia and S. Biswas (1998). Antiquity of the Narmada Homo erectus, the early man of India (Report). Nagpur, India: Palaeontology Division, Geological Survey of India. Archived from the original on 2011-05-24. (Note 12. Biswas, S., Rec. GSI, 1988, 118, 53–62.)
  3. ^ "What We Theorize – When and Where Domestication Occurred". International Museum of the Horse. Archived from the original on 19 July 2016. Retrieved 2015-01-27.
  4. ^ "Horsey-aeology, Binary Black Holes, Tracking Red Tides, Fish Re-evolution, Walk Like a Man, Fact or Fiction". Quirks and Quarks Podcast with Bob Macdonald. CBC Radio. 2009-03-07.
  5. ^ Chariots in the Chalcolithic Rock Art of Indian A Slide Show, Neumayer Erwin
  6. ^ Wendy Doniger (2017), "Another Great Story"", review of Asko Parpola's The Roots of Hinduism; in: Inference, International Review of Science, Volume 3, Issue 2
  7. ^ Girish Shahane (September 14, 2019), Why Hindutva supporters love to hate the discredited Aryan Invasion Theory, Scroll.in

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