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A Culture of Horses

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Elizabeth Thelen is fascinated by the Hindi language. And horses. She managed to combine the two diverse interests through a research project in India. 

During spring quarter, Thelen, a fifth year student majoring in Hindi and Comparative History of Ideas, studied in India through a program that emphasized student-initiated research. 

Elizabeth Thelen poses with a horse breeder at the Balotra Horse and Camel Fair.

“There are some very interesting 
representations of horses in Indian 
literature,” says Thelen. “I decided to look at how these representations are being resurrected and reformatted in the Rajput community today.”

Rajput, explains Thelen, is a caste group that has been strongly linked to horses throughout Indian history. Rajputs had been nobility and served as warriors (often on horseback), but they lost their traditional role—along with their land—at independence in 1947. “Only in the last 20 years have they had the financial stability to find ways to get involved with horses again,” says Thelen. “I wanted to see what sources they were pulling on to renew their cultural connection with horses.”

Thelen conducted nearly two dozen interviews in three cities, talking with Rajput polo players, horse breeders, and others with a connection to horses.

“My interest in horses created an immediate link with them,” says Thelen, who began riding at age 11 and owned her own horse until last year. “They could comfortably talk to me using terms that someone else might need explained to them.”

Her conversations often ended up with a discussion of local horse lore. Invariably the interviewee would mention Chetak, a popular horse in Indian literature, credited with saving the king’s life in battle.

“That was no surprise, but they also mentioned things I had no idea existed—
a whole collection of folklore about horses,” says Thelen.

Thelen also met with museum curators, one of whom put her in touch with a Rajput who had, for years, collected sayings from small villages. Her favorite quote from his notebooks? “There are three things a Rajput won’t give up—his horse, his sword, and his wife.”

The future of horses in Rajput society turned out to be the most intriguing part of Thelen’s research. Polo is gaining popularity but pleasure riding is not, which translates to limited clients for horse breeders.

“Whether the horse remains a central part of Rajput society depends a great deal on whether they can keep the horse culture alive economically,” says Thelen. “A lot of Rajputs’ interest comes from being on a horse when they were children, in some cases before independence. If they can keep opportunities to ride, the culture will survive. The people involved feel passionate about horses. They believe that riding is in their blood.”