4,000 years ago, when the Aryans came to India from Central Asia in search of livelihood, they brought one unique animal to the region, hitherto unknown in South Asia. It was horse, an animal that became a key item of trade from then on in Indian history. As the Aryans were spread waves after waves in the fertile Ganga Valley, the region witnessed a series of major historical events, beginning with the clearance of forest, introduction of iron technology, establishment of varna order and ashrams for Hindus, foundation of two major religions, Buddhism and Jainism and the emergence of a network of cities, trade routes and small and large states, all in a span of 1,000 years. The Central Asian horse through its Indian adaptation had become yet another lifeline of Gangetic Civilisation, as it provided means of transport, and was used extensively in the war field.
The evidence of horse of the Vedic and Post-Vedic Age is documented in archaeological records. Archaeologists have discovered several bone fragments belonging to horse, from various archaeological sites that flourished in the 1st millennium BC in North India’s fertile landscape. However, for art connoisseurs, the best evidences of horses are found chiselled in low relief in the walls of Sanchi, Amravati, Bedsa and Khandagiri-Udayagiri caves.
From 450 BC to 250 AD, there were second waves of migrations to India from Central Asia, which began with the conquer of Alexander the Great, followed by the rules of Kshatraps, Indo-Greek Kings, Indo-Bactrian Kings and ended with the conquer of Huns. In these waves of conquer and trade, horse had always played a key role. As their rules ended, one after another, the kings and noble men left for their ancestral homes. However, a considerable population who had migrated with them to India had remained back. In course of time, through permutations and combinations of marriages, they became Rajputs and various pastoral nomadic tribes of central and western India. Throughout their history they were closely attached to horses.
Though horse has long gone due to the advance of modern technology of transport, but the tribes said above have retained a strong spiritual connection with horse. History books may remain silent about these tribes, but they are the last links of an unbroken story that began about 2,000 years ago in the form of migration followed by cultural assimilation.
These tribes together are referred to as Bhils. One of the Bhil tribes that perhaps had a close link with Rajputs in the past is the Garasia, which live in secluded villages of North Gujarat’s Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts and in neighbouring Rajasthan districts.
In 2008, I had made the first encounter with the Garasia tribe at Poshina, a small tribal town in Sabarkantha. In a sunny afternoon I reached Hadad travelling through a Gujarat State Bus from Ahmedabad. Hadad is a small village, yet a junction for travellers to Danta, Ambaji, Khed Brahma and Poshina. My destination was Poshina, 20 km away. The only mode of transport available at that time was a jeep which was heavily crowded with people travelling to villages that would fall on the way to Poshina. However, I was privileged enough to find a place to sit. On the way I noticed several small shrines of terracotta votive horses that were placed underneath banyan trees in clusters. However, from the moving jeep it was difficult to capture their essence.
At Poshina, I knew no one, but soon found a shelter to spend the evening, night and the following day in a villager’s house. I strolled in the nearby tribal hamlet Bara Bedi to experience Garasia life. The hamlet was spread across the mountain slopes and a dry river bed of the Aravali. Houses of the village were of basic architecture and gave me a feel of Neolithic time in human history. They consisted of either two or three rooms with mud wall partitions. A small hut attached to the main hut was used to shelter cattle. However, for the other animals like goats and chicken there were open air facilities. While moving out from Bara Bedi to Poshina, I was guided to the river bank shrine, which had one of the largest concentrations of votive terracotta horses anywhere in the world.
The Garasia community have a strong belief in the ancestral worship. According to a tradition, Bhavesingh, a warrior of past, who represented the tribe, his spirit lives in Bakhar hill. Garasias perceive him as God and offer terracotta horse, which according to their belief would be used as his mount during the time of personal or family crises. Another tradition say, the Garasias offer terracotta horses to Bhavesingh to communicate with the divine. Once the offering is made and prayer is given they believe that the spirit inside the horse is absorbed by the deity and all other remains inside the terracotta horse are left to disintegrate.
I left Poshina appreciating both at the terracotta horses and the role of the village potters, who offer services both at the levels of mundane and divine in the grassroots of Indian society. From the collection of clay till it disintegrates completely the terracotta horses of Poshina offers a synoptic view of the rhythm of Indian life which is centred on the concept of birth and re-birth forming a cycle in tune with surrounding nature for thousands of years.