The Divine Marwari Horses of the Mughals

In the Mughal Court, the only horse fit and noble enough for both battle and parade was the ‘divine’ Marwari. A dynasty that ruled most of India during the 16th and 17th centuries the Mughals invaded from Central Asia and brought with them an entirely horse-based way of life.

This celebrated painting by Payag (Image 2) shows us the mighty Mughul Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled most of India between 1627 and 1658.

Shah Jahan was a powerful ruler, as well as a patron of great architecture; it was he who had the Taj Mahal built for his beloved wife Mumtaz.

Here he sits astride a magnificent piebald Marwari stallion, by all accounts his favourite. Both man and horse are magnificently adorned and bejewelled. The Shah is armed with a sword and a spear, and behind his head in inlaid real gold is nimbus or halo representing divinity. In the background pairs of pigeons and hoopoes fly through a cerulean heavenly sky, and beneath the horse’s hooves we see a lush meadow sprinkled with tiny perfect flowers.

The flatness and simplicity of the background recalls Flemish landscape painting; it is too abstract to represent a particular Indian landscape. On the other hand, given its abstractness it might also be a kind of earthly Paradise.


The detail, richness, and quality of this painting is outstanding. We can even see the tiny hairs on the horse’s belly where the black markings transition to white, and the delicate coat gradation on the flank from black to brown. In his exquisite equestrian portrait for a very powerful patron, Payag the artist has sensibly kept his own profile low; his signature was recently found in miniscule writing on the gold tip of the archery bow that curves up just above the horse’s croup.

Shah Jahan, or ‘King of the World’ as he was frequently styled, was the fifth in the line of eight Mughal Emperors, comprising the dynasty that ruled most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Mughals invaded ‘Hindustan’ from Central Asia and the Middle East. Their culture, which they brought with them to India, had a dual character, reflecting their Turco-Mongol origins along with Persian-influenced literary, artistic, and courtly high culture of the dynasty.

The Mughals also brought with them an entirely horse-based way of life in the form of a system called mansabdar where the Emperor’s officials were ranked and paid by the number of horses and elephants they kept. Horses were frequently gifted to cement strategic relations of all kinds. Elite nobles were required to parade daily on horseback, to excel at hunting, racing and horse sports such as tent-pegging and polo.

Equines and equestrianism were thus enmeshed in the fabric of the Mughal Court. The only horse fit and noble enough for both battle and parade was the ‘divine’ Marwari, a breed that could only be ridden by royals or noblemen, even then they were still considered more ‘divine’ than their riders.

This breed was named for the Marwar, or Jodhpur region (or region of Death, because there were so many battles). The local princes, the Rathores, believed that their Marwari horse could only leave a battlefield under one of three conditions – victory, death, or carrying a wounded master to safety. These horses were trained to be extremely responsive in battlefield conditions, and were practised in complex riding manoeuvres.

The Marwari frequently interbred with their ‘cousins’, the Arabians, Persians, Barbs, and Turkoman horses imported by the Mughals in the tens of thousands from modern day Iran and Afganistan, or via ship from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. (Image 4).

In appearance the Marwari horse is built ‘uphill’, is very long legged, has well sprung ribs and a high set tail. They are poised, sensitive and intelligent, but their most distinctive feature is their incredible scimitar or ‘lyre’ shaped ears.

This trait also attests to the purity of the breed and is the first characteristic to be lost when interbreeding occurs, generally disappearing around the second generation. These remarkable ears can independently turn 180 degrees and are thought to have developed to keep out desert sand and the loud noise of battle.

Their ancestors would appear to be Arabians, but Marwaris are usually taller, often standing around 16.0 or higher. Recent DNA tests on pure Marwaris has discovered that they have more in common genetically with the Akhal Teke than with most other local contenders, including the much smaller indigenous Indian breeds. This Turkmenistan connection would make obvious sense given their geographic origins.

The horse culture of mansabdar produced its own horse care advice manuals known as farasnama. For example The Comfort of the Horse lays out the system of ranking horses by colour: the best were white, then bay (kumayt – bay; the colour of turmeric, the ‘ideal’ war horse) black with a white blaze, chestnut and palomino are all mentioned in order.

Auspiciousness was also much connected to whorls (avartas) and to markings (pundras) so horses’ bodies were searched carefully and whorls noted. White markings on the head were auspicious, and a whorl on the breast marked the mount of a king, a horse with three white legs and one black was very inauspicious, and riding a horse with a feather (whorl)on its shoulder would ‘surely cause the rider to fall into misery’.

The piebald, or ‘horse of every colour’ (as it was when its hooves were henna’ed) drew special attention in the advice manuals. Prior to the seventeenth century, this colour horse was for ceremonies only, however later on, it become prized, as we see from the colour of Shah Jahan’s stallion.

Riding a piebald, or ablaq into battle was a fairly risky undertaking since they would draw the attention of the enemy, but by the eighteenth century, when fine war horses of any colour were becoming scarce; the piebald came into its own, and the taboo of riding a piebald in other venues besides gardens was lifted. 

Through the nineteenth century, the Mughal Empire started to shatter into the successor states, some of which were annexed directly into British India. The British, initially via the East India Company, and the later as the colonial prefecture, preferred larger heavier horses, built like themselves, and imported thoroughbreds, as well as Walers from Australia.

About the Marwari horse they were dismissive to the point of racialism, though in fact, they considered any local horse genetically inferior. In his book, Man and Beast in India, 1904, John Lockwood Kipling proclaimed; ‘The animals most liked are the stallions of Marwar or Kathiawar … Their crippled, highly arched necks, curby hocks, rocking gait, and paralytic prancing often proclaim them as triumphs of training’.

Later, at Independence in 1947, the Marwari horse suffered again as under the Government, regional rulers lost claims to both royal status and land, resulting in many Marwari horses being sold as pack horses, castrated, or killed. The breed was on the verge of extinction until the intervention of Maharaja Umaid Singhji in the first half of the 20th century. His work was carried on by his grandson, Maharaja Gaj Singh II and in the 1990s the Indigenous Horse Society of India of which the Marwari Horse Society is part, was formed.

The Society has produced a breed standard and registration, and has done much to promote the breed nationally and internationally.

Affiliated to the Indigenous Horse Society, the Friends of the Marwari and Kathiawari Horse UK has not only brought attention to the breed but also to wider equine welfare issues in the region. Their horse Bit Donation Scheme has the aim of providing smooth snaffle bits so there is an alternative to the cruel ‘thorn’ bits commonly in use in rural India (Image 3). Already thousands of bits have been donated by riders and distributed in India. ‘Bit Delivery Trips’ take in the horse fairs and conclude with trail rides on Marwari horses.

Today, the dramatic story of the Marwari now has a Horses and People connection through our very own resident horse training columnist, Kate Fenner, author of the ‘Starting Romeo’ series of articles.

Kate recently rode a piebald Marwari on her volunteer trip to Nilgiris to share her horse training skills at a rescue horse sanctuary and riding school. Here she rode the Marwari ‘Riia’ (Image 1). Kate confirmed to me; “Riia was a really beautiful horse, quiet to ride and friendly and affectionate to handle.”

‘Riding a Marwari is like looking at the world through the sights of a rifle’ it has been said; ironically up until recently the breed itself has been looking down the barrel of extinction. Shah Jahan, coolly guiding his beautiful Marwari through the Court gardens, would be greatly impressed at the global collaborations that are saving this beautiful, adaptable breed whose dramatic story is interwoven with not just Indian, but world history. 

Further information:

Image credits:

Image 1: Kate Fenner, Kandoo Equine, riding Riia through the Tiger Reserve, Nilgiris, South India. Image courtesy Kandoo Equine.

Image 2: “Shah Jahan on Horseback”, Folio from the Shah Jahan Album, artist: Payag, Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, ca. 1630. ©Wikimedia Commons/Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image 3: Locally made ‘thorn’ bit. Image  by Caroline Moorey, The Friends of the Marwari and Kathiawari Horse UK.

Image 4: Transport routes betwwn 12th and 19th centuries into Moghul Empire of luxury horses for battle and parade: including Arabians, Persians, Barbs, and Turkoman horses. Image source: Google Maps.