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Marwari horses: India's ancient breed comes back to life

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The tips of their ears point toward each other and are sometimes compared to the inward curving arms of an ancient lyre, as well as the fierce warrior Rajput's handlebar mustaches if they were turned on their thick, bushy ends. These ears are the famous trademark of the dancing and warrior horses, whose history dates back to the early 12th century in the Marwar region in the state of Rajasthan, India.

Having been a horsewoman all my life - training and showing America's oldest breed, the Morgan horse, with its relatively modest 200-year history - when I read about the Marwari, I knew that during our upcoming visit to India, I had to meet some of these beautiful creatures and learn more about them. Most tourists go to India to visit the Taj Mahal, sail on the Ganges, climb to the Red Fort on an elephant, and perhaps have an Ayurvedic massage. Yes, I wanted to do all that, but, as usual in my travels, I needed to get off the beaten track a bit, in this case to a horse farm.

When I learned that a stud farm claiming to have the purest original blood line of Marwari horses was just on the outskirts of Udaipur, I made arrangements to visit it. Living on his ancestral estate, the owner Maharaj Narendra Singh Mewar is a descendant of a royal family that dates back into 1,500 years of Indian history.
Of course, en route, we would explore Udaipur, sometimes described as the Venice of the East with its fairytale-like Lake Pichola and floating white marble confection of a hotel, the Lake Palace. If it was good enough for James Bond and Octopussy, we wanted to give it a try. So off we sailed in a 120-year-old barge, strewn with rose petals, refreshed with chilled champagne and orange juice and shaded from the burning sun with a fringed umbrella held by a mustachioed and turbaned attendant.

Later, it was difficult to leave our opulent suite of rooms overlooking the lake, but we managed to do so in order to dine at the rooftop restaurant on lobster bisque, pate, lamb shank, duck breast, accompanied by a fine Indian wine. The reflection of the illuminated and majestic 17th century City Palace, across from us on the mainland, shimmered on the lake. While visiting the City Palace earlier that day, paintings of Marwari horses on the walls, as well as several living ones in their stalls on display for visitors, each with its own electric fan and personal attendant, made me think about tomorrow's visit to the horse farm.

Early the following morning, we traveled to the outskirts of Udaipur and up the long driveway to the Pratap Country Inn, A Royal Resort, as Maharaj Narendra Singh Mewar's ancestral home is now called. We entered this former hunting lodge of the royal family. Decorating the walls throughout the entrance hall were photos of the many famous visitors from over the years, including horsewoman Jacqueline Kennedy.

Singh, an elderly but robust man, casually dressed, exuding the dignity befitting his ancestry, sat in his living room surrounded by several large dogs and cages of exotic birds, beside a bank of windows overlooking horse paddocks. After some preliminary introductions, he invited us outside to view the horses. Soon we were treated to a succession of purebred Marwaris parading before us, from a nine-month-old bay filly to the patriarch, the 24-year-old jet-black stallion, Sultan.

While feasting our eyes on these very lively descendants, the Maharaj entertained us with tales of the breed's history, as well as their dedication and agility.

One legendary tale concerns a fierce fight during the 16th century Mughal wars. Maharana Pratap's faithful horse, Chetak, a gray Marwari stallion, reared up and drummed on the forehead of a war elephant, so that his rider could stab a Mughal imperial commander atop the elephant. The story goes that Chetak, even after one of his hind legs was hacked off, carried his rider to safety by clambering over the 70-foot-high ramparts of Agra Fort. The horse died falling down on the other side and is honored today with a statue not far from the Taj. His name also graces Chetak motor scooters and helicopters.

During the almost 100 years of the British colonial period, the British identified Marwari horses with Indian royalty, thereby introducing European breeds to dilute the bloodlines and even killed or castrated breeding stock. After independence, the Marwari remained out of favor because Indians identified them with the outdated ruling class and oppressive feudalism.

But since the 1980s, with the burgeoning of India's tourism industry, numerous former maharajahs have turned ancestral Rajput forts and palaces into hotels or museums and gone back into one of their historical pursuits: horse breeding. Today, frequently seen in Bollywood films, as well as used in Hindu wedding ceremonies, for polo, racing, police and army mounts, and increasingly as beloved family mounts, the Marwari are known as "dancing horses," similar to haute ecole dressage or the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Their movements originated centuries earlier as combat maneuvers.

The Indian government supports the revival of these animals with grants. The Marwar Horse Breeding and Research Institute near, appropriately enough, the city of Jodhpur, conducts educational programs, and the famous Pushkar Animal Fair in November features Marwari dancing horses.

Singh invited us back to go on one of his Horse Safari Camping trips, as well as to stay in one of the lodge's comfortable guest rooms. When we hesitated at the thought of spending four to seven hours each day on horseback, he reminded us that as desert horses the Marwari are born with a "revaal" gait, a four-beat gait that is very smooth and prevents them from sinking into desert sands. For the rider, it feels like sliding along on silk, with no bumps or jolts. From one to seven days in length, the safaris feature large, comfortable tents, elegantly prepared meals, even hot and cold water, and finally the amazing full-moon experience of the Pushkar Fair itself.

For the remainder of our Indian sojourn to the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Ganges, a ride on that elephant, and even a carriage ride at the opulent Taj Ganges in a 220-year-old carriage pulled by a 3-year-old Marwari stallion with the driver, who is himself a third-generation Marwari breeder, I kept mulling over the idea of bringing that Marwari filly home with us to California. Fortunately, my husband reminded me of the price tags involved, plus we'd have to stay in India several months to deal with the export and import formalities. The cost of buying, importing and keeping a Marwari in California would certainly put a crimp in our travel budget.
We settled instead on a plan to return for a horse safari to a Pushkar Fair in the not-too-distant future.

IF YOU GO

Pratap Country Inn and Chetak Horse Society of India, www.horseridingindia.com, e-mail: pratapci@dil.in.
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur and Taj Ganges, Vananasi, www.tajhotels.com.
Trident Hilton Hotel, Udaipur, www.tridenthotels.com.
Tour guide: Dhaneshwar with Registhan Tours Pvt. Ltd., ratorajasthan.org, e-mail: regiudr@datainfosys.net.
Travel arrangement throughout India: www.nomad-travels.com.
Diane LeBow, is a freelance travel writer based in San Francisco.

Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com.
© Copley News Service



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