Common section


1500 to 1700 CE


1486-1533 Chaitanya lives

1498-1597 Mirabai lives

1532-1623 Tulsidas lives

1608-1649 Tukaram lives

1622-1673 Kshetrayya lives

It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mughal rule.

Amitav Ghosh (1956- )1

Hinduisms of various kinds flourished under the Mughals. The production and preservation of a large number of digests, as well as literary and religious texts, during this period suggest that this was another of those periods—we have encountered several—when the presence of foreign cultures in India led many Hindu intellectuals to take pains to preserve their cultural heritage.2 This was not an unalloyed Good Thing. Some Hindus retreated into more conservative practices lest someone mistake them for Muslims in the dark of cultural fusion. As K. M. Pannikar, prime minister of Bikaner in the 1940s, put it, with benefit of hindsight, “The reaction of Hindu lawgivers to [the Mughal] challenge was in general to make Hinduism more rigid and to re-interpret the rules in such a way as to resist the encroachments of Islam. It is perhaps this defensive attitude toward society that is responsible for the orthodoxy of views which is characteristic of the Dharma Sastra literature of this period.”3

But in a more positive vein, Hindu kings in medieval India arranged large-scale public debates.4 Fear of Muslims and a desire to circle the wagons were among the inspirations for this burst of literary and religious activity. Mughal policies that encouraged trade and pilgrimage5 (in part because several of the Mughals collected taxes on pilgrims) benefited the sacred Vaishnava sites of Ayodhya and Vrindavan. Devotional Vaishnavism flourished under the Mughals in the sixteenth century in ways that are foundational for subsequent Hinduism. The establishment of Muslim rule and the subsequent loss of a political center for Hinduism triggered a shift of focus in Vaishnavism away from the more warriorlike and kingly aspects of Vishnu to those of the passionate god of the forest, the playful, amorous god, Krishna the cowherd.6 Though the Mughals picked up some aspects of caste, by and large they ignored it, and some Hindus followed their lead and loosened up. Outside the nervous world of the Brahmin imaginary, many good things were happening.


Tulsidas (c. 1532/1543-1623), one of the main architects of North Indian Vaishnavism, was close to several movers and shakers at the Mughal court, including Man Singh.7 His retelling of the Ramayana in Hindi, titled “The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama” (Ramcaritmanas), is still read and enacted each year at the “Rama Play” (Ramlila) throughout North India, particularly at Ramnagar near Varanasi. Tulsidas, who composed his poem at a pilgrimage center that had been attacked by Muslims, said that even the Muslims would be saved by Rama’s name8 (rather reminiscent of earlier claims that this or that pilgrimage spot would save even Pariahs). The Brahmins of Varanasi, where the text was composed, are said to have been shocked by the composition of such a text in a vernacular language. They tested it by placing it in the Shiva temple for one night, with the Vedas and Puranas placed on top of it. In the morning Tulsidas’s’s text was on top of them all, legitimizing its authority,9 like that of the scriptures in the South Indian myth (which texts will float upstream?), buoyancy being, apparently, a sign of sanctity.

Some Brahmins also objected to Tulsidas’s challenges to caste. Although by and large Tulsidas toes the Brahmin party line and upholds caste, there are also moments of compassion for Pariahs and tribals, such as this story about a Pariah, told, significantly, through the masking device of an animal:


When Rama was still a little baby, he began to cry when he could not catch the crow that came near him; he pursued the crow no matter how high the bird flew into the air. The crow fell into the child’s mouth and watched for thousands of years as Rama was born again and again as a child on earth. Then the child laughed, and the crow fell out of his mouth. Rama granted the terrified crow the boon of eternal devotion to him, and so the crow sings Rama’s praises eternally.10

The manifestation of god’s universal form within an anthropomorphic body, a manifestation that we have seen experienced by Brahma and Vishnu, by Arjuna (in the Gita), and by Krishna’s mother, is here given to a crow, an unclean scavenger. The caste issue is explicit here: The crow was an uppity Pariah in a former life, until Shiva cursed him to be reborn as a crow. This story stands in marked contrast with Rama’s treatment of a crow in Valmiki’s Ramayana, in which he regards the crow as an enemy and blinds him.

Tulsidas also tackled in his own way the problem of Rama’s treatment of Sita. In the centuries that had intervened since Valmiki’s Ramayana, as Rama had become one of the two great gods of Vaishnavism (Krishna being the other), Sita’s fate had become more vexing than ever. Tulsidas dealt with this problem by incorporating into his poem the tradition of the illusory or shadow Sita from earlier Sanskrit texts. Sita enters the fire at the ordeal and “both the shadow form and the stigma of public shame” are consumed in the blazing fire.11 Thus the Vedantic concept of illusion allows Tulsidas to argue that Rama never intended or needed to test Sita (since he knew she wasn’t in Ravana’s house at all) but goaded the shadow Sita into undertaking the fire ordeal merely in order to get her into the fire so that he could bring the real Sita back from the fire.12 And the real Sita then stays with him; Tulsidas omits entirely the episodes in which Sita bears twin sons and enters the earth; the story ends with Rama and Sita together, happily ever after.


Like Sita, Radha suffered in separation from her beloved (Krishna), but the spirit of Radha’s longing in separation was different from Sita’s and was interpreted still differently by each of two great medieval Bengali poets, Chandidas and Chaitanya.

In the fourteenth century Bangla poetry of Chandidas, Radha is already married when she goes off with Krishna. (In the sixteenth-century Sanskrit plays of Rupagoswamin, Chaitanya’s most famous disciple, Radha is married to Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna.13) Chandidas writes:

Let us not talk of that fatal flute.
It calls a woman away from her home
and drags her by the hair to that Shyam [Krishna].
A devoted wife forgets her spouse
To be drawn like a deer, thirsty and lost.14

The legends about Chandidas tell us how the tradition regarded him. His poems say that he was a Brahmin and a village priest who openly declared his love for a low-caste washerwoman named Rami. Legends say that he was dismissed as a priest and fasted to death as a protest but came to life again on the funeral pyre, or that the begum of Gaur took such a fancy to him that her jealous husband, the nawab, had him whipped to death while tied to the back of an elephant.

The Bengali saint Chaitanya (1486-1533) was born into a Brahmin family and received a sound education in the Sanskrit sacred texts. After the death of his father when he was twenty-two, he made a pilgrimage to Gaya to perform the funeral rituals, and there he had a religious experience that inspired him to renounce the world. The world, however, would not renounce him; people flocked to him and joined him in singing songs (kirtana) to Krishna and dancing in a kind of trance, as well as repeating the names of Krishna, worshiping temple icons or the tulsi plant (a kind of basil sacred to Vishnu), and retelling Krishna’s acts, particularly his loveplay with the cowherd women (Gopis).15 Chaitanya settled in Orissa in the town of Puri (rather than Vrindavan, the scene of Krishna’s youth) at his mother’s urging, so that he could more easily stay in touch with her. He had frequent epileptic seizures and may have died by drowning while in a state of religious ecstasy.

Chaitanya and his followers believed that he was an incarnation of Krishna and Radha in one body, where at last the two gods (and Chaitanya) could simultaneously experience the bliss of both sides of the couple in union.16 The Bengali sect called Sahajiyas (“Naturalists”) saw Krishna and Radha united not only in Chaitanya but in every man and every woman; their goal was not to worship or imitate Krishna or Radha, in a dualistic, bhakti sense, but to become them, in a monistic and Tantric sense, to realize both male and female powers within their own bodies.17 They praised the ideal of love for another man’s wife or for a woman of unsuitably low caste, or an unmarried woman’s love for a man (for even in texts in which Radha is not anyone else’s wife, she is usually not Krishna’s wife), because they admired the intensity of such love in the face of social disapproval. The adulterous love between Krishna and Radha or the Gopis made a positive virtue of the addictive vice of lust, coming down solidly on the side of passion and against the control of passion through renunciation; adulterous passion, which had long been the benchmark of what religion was designed to prevent, now became a metaphor for the proper love of god.

Yet unlike the model of Shiva as Skull Bearer, these ideals were never taken as paradigms for an imitatio dei; they were theological parables, not licenses to commit adultery. The difference can be accounted for when we consider the radical contrast between the relatively lawless period in which the Kapalikas thrived, not to mention the antinomian nature of their community, and the more tempered and theocratic atmosphere of even the most erotic of the cults of Krishna.

Chaitanya was said to have reconverted the Muslim governor of Orissa back to Hinduism, from which he had converted and to which he had also converted many Pathans (ethnic Afghans).18 Chaitanya’s followers include many groups, beginning with the antinomian Bengali Sahajiyas, who were his contemporaries. His main disciples were the renunciants called Goswamins. One of them, Nityananda, continuing the paradigm, was said to be the incarnation of Balarama, Krishna’s brother. In his efforts to convert the Bengali Tantrics, Nityananda is said to have consorted with “prostitutes, drunkards, and others of dubious character,” behavior that his followers justified by his association with Balarama, who was known for his excesses.19 Other Goswamins developed an erotic devotional theology that incorporated still more antinomian and ecstatic Tantric influences and took root among the people known as Bauls.20

At the same time, many worshipers in the Chaitanya tradition, recoiling from the antinomian Tantric variations on the theme of Krishna and Radha that had made them the target of social opprobrium,21 developed a different tradition and went back to the Gita-Govinda for their central imagery, emphasizing not the union but the separation (viraha) of the two lovers and the suffering of longing for the otiose god, the renunciation rather than the passion of love. Once again, a Tantric tradition had split in two. These Goswamins, anxious to prevent the story of Krishna and Radha from becoming a model for human behavior, hastened to sanitize the myth by reversing the locus of the real people and the shadows; where in earlier texts the Gopis had left shadow images of themselves in bed with their husbansds while they danced with Krishna, now some of the Goswamins specified that the real Gopis remained in bed with their husbands and merely sent their shadow doubles to dance with the god. The quasi-Tantric Bengal traditions debated for centuries whether Krishna and Radha were married or, as they put it, whether Radha was Krishna’s wife (“his own” [svakiya]) or his mistress (“someone else’s” [parakiya]), and they decided, in 1717, that adulterous love was in fact orthodox.22

The question of role models was a pressing one, for in Bengal Vaishnavism the worshiper is inspired to decide not which of the personae dramatis s/he would like to play, but who s/he is: the mother, lover, servant, or friend of Krishna.23 Bhakti was better suited for women, who could be god’s lovers and mothers, the most intimate roles, whereas male worshipers had to pretend to be women (some of them withdrawing to menstruate every month). This gave women a great measure of spiritual authority, though not necessarily practical authority. Rupagosvamin wrote of “the devotion that follows from passion” (raganuga bhakti), in contrast with scriptural devotion (vaidhi bhakti). In the familiar pattern, both paths lead to Krishna.

Yet another branch of Bengali Vaishnavas rejected the renunciation espoused (if one can espouse renunciation) by both the Goswamins and the lineages of the philosophers Ramanuja and Madhva. These were the Radhavallabhas (“Radha’s Darlings”), who venerated the householder stage, rejected renunciation, and regarded Krishna not as the supreme deity but as the servant of the goddess Radha. As one British scholar put it, Krishna “may do the coolie-work of building the world, but Radha sits as Queen. He is at best but her Secretary of State.”24 Many of the Bangla verses of Chandidasa and the Maithili verses of Vidyapati (in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries) are written from the standpoint of a Radha who is more powerful than Krishna.

Continuing the Bengali tradition, the celebration of poverty by the poet Ramprasad (1720-1781) served both as solace for other people truly in need and as a metaphor for spiritual poverty, though the upper castes supported Ramprasad quite well and he gave no opposition to caste. His poetry bristles with references to real life: to poverty, farmers, debts, absentee landlords, lawyers, leaking boats, merchants, and traders.25 Strong Tantric influences are also evident in the wine and drunkenness that pervaded both his poetry and (as the stories go) his life.26


Tukaram was a Shudra who lived in Maharashtra from 1608 to 1649. None of his poems were written down in his lifetime; all that we have were later transcribed from oral traditions, along with legends about him. According to one story, which bears a suspicious resemblance to the story of the floating South Indian texts and, closer to home, to the buoyancy of Tulsidas’s text, angry Brahmins forced Tukaram to throw all his manuscripts into the river in his native village. Tukaram fasted and prayed, and after thirteen days the sunken notebooks reappeared from the river, undamaged.27He married, but since his wife was chronically ill, he took a second wife. When the great famine of 1629 killed his parents, his first wife, and some of his children, he abandoned the householder’s life, ignored his debts and the pleas of his (second) wife and his remaining children, and went off into the wilderness. He became a poet, devoted to the god Vitthal, speaking in the idiom that the Marathi poets had fashioned out of the songs that ordinary housewives sang at home and that farmers, traders, craftsmen, and laborers sang at popular religious festivals. Some say he ended his life by throwing himself into the same river where his poems had sunk and reemerged. His poems, which challenge caste and denounce Brahmins, also denounce the ascetic: “He must consume a lot of bhang, and opium, and tobacco;/ But his hallucinations are perpetual.”28

His poems often imagine the relationship between god and his devotee as the relationship between a secret lover and an adulteress (as many bhakti poets do) or, more unusually, as the violent relationship between a murderer (in this case a Thug, a member of a pack of thieves, stranglers, and worshipers of the goddess Kali) and his victim: “The Thug has arrived in Pandhari./ He will garrotte his victim with the cord of love.”29 He also imagines the divine relationship as a bond between a master and a dog:


I’ve come to your door
Like a dog looking for a home
O Kind One
Don’t drive me away . . .
Says Tuka,
My Master’s trained me hard
I am allowed to eat
Only out of his own


Dogs were one sort of religious symbol; horses were another. And real, as well as symbolic, horses played a major role in Hindu-Muslim relations under the Mughals; horse trading, both literal and figurative, was the common theme. A great deal of the revenue drawn from taxing the peasants was spent on royal horses. In Haridwar, in the Mughal period, the great spring horse fair coincided, not by coincidence, with a famous religious festival that drew thousands of pilgrims to the banks of the Ganges each year. This combination of trade and pilgrimage was widespread; the Maharashtrian and Sikh generals and their troops came to the fairs to pay their devotion at the holy places in the morning and secure a supply of warhorses in the afternoon.31

When the Europeans arrived in India in the Mughal period, horses were very expensive animals, the best ones costing up to ten thousand dollars.32 More than 75 percent of Mughal horses were imported, mostly from Central Asia. Babur seems to have spent more time in the saddle than on the ground, and took a personal interest in the horses.33 Akbar had 150,000 to 200,000 cavalry-men, plus the emperor’s own crack regiment of another 7,000.34 Abu’l Fazl tells us how important horses were to Akbar, for ruling, conquest, presentation as gifts, and general convenience;35 Akbar even had luminous polo balls made so that he could play night games.36 The horses, as always, were mostly imported: “Merchants bring to court good horses from Iraq, Turky, Turkestan . . . Kirghiz, Tibet, Kashmir and other countries. Droves after droves arrive from Turan and Iran, and there are nowadays twelve thousand in the stables of his Majesty.”37

Abu’l Fazl insists, however, that the best horses of all were bred in India, particularly in the Punjab,js Mewat, Ajmer, and Bengal near Bihar. He continues:

Skilful, experienced men have paid much attention to the breeding of this sensible animal, many of whose habits resemble those of man; and after a short time Hindustanranked higher in this respect than Arabia, whilst many Indian horses cannot be distinguished from Arabs or from the Iraqi breed. There are fine horses bred in every part of the country; but those of Cachh [Kutch] excel, being equal to Arabs. It is said that a long time ago an Arab ship was wrecked and driven to the shore of Cachh; and that it had seven choice horses, from which, according to the general belief, the breed of that country originated.38

This, then, is the answer to the apparent contradiction: Indian horses (or, rather, some Indian horses) are Arab horses, and there is no contest.

The Arab horses from Kutch were probably the sires of the most distinctive native Indian breed. Sometime before the eleventh century, a clan of Rajput warriors developed a new breed of warhorses from Arab and Turkmen stock in Marwar (a state whose capital was the city of Jodhpur, the city from which the riding pants and short boots adopted by the British in the nineteenth century take their name). The Marwari is a desert horse with a thick, arched neck, long-lashed eyes, flaring nostrils, and distinctive ears, which curve inward to a sharp point, meeting to form an almost perfect arch at the tips. Aficionados compare the shape of the Marwari’s ears to the lyre, to the scorpion’s arched stinger, and to the Rajputs’ trademark handlebar mustaches, turned upright and set on their thick, bushy ends. (The Kathiawar horse from Gujarat has the same special ears but is not quite so tall or so long.)39

Despite these occasional breeding successes, negative factors made the Indian horse into a beast so rarefied that it became more mythical than practical. Ever since the Arabs entered India, then the Turks, and then the Mongols who were to become the Mughals, and despite a few passing references to the Scythians and the British, it has almost always been the Muslims who play the role of good and evil foreign horsemen in the local equine rituals and mythologies of India. These myths and rituals, though not always documented in the Mughal period, are often about the Mughals. The corpus of Hindu myths that depicts the Turks and Arabs bringing horses into India seems to have assimilated the historical experience of the importation of horses not only to the lingering vestiges—the cultural hoofprints, as it were—of Vedic horse myths but also to the cross-cultural theme of magical horses brought from heaven or the underworld. 40

There are some negative responses too: In the seventeenth century, for instance, a Hindu from Afghanistan insisted that when he died, he wanted to be buried where he couldn’t hear the hoof steps of Mughal horses.41 But despite or because of the political domination that the Mughals maintained, their contribution to the equine legends of Hinduism was generally positive, and the Muslims in the stories are often depicted in a favorable light, both because the Mughals strongly influenced Hindu horse lore and because some Hindus welcomed them as the bearers of the gift of horses. The shadow of the hated and loved Muslim horse may also fall across the highly ambiguous equine figure of Kalki.

Many Hindu rituals involve Muslims and horses. The Muslim saint Alam Sayyid of Baroda was known as the horse saint (Ghore Ka Pir). He was buried with his horse beside him, and Hindus hang images of the horse on trees around his tomb.42 In Bengal, people offer clay horses to deified Muslim saints like Satya Pir, and Hindus as well as Muslims worship at the shrines of other Muslim “horse saints.”43 Then there is the South Indian Hindu folk hero named Muttal Ravuttan.44 “Ravuttan” designates a Muslim horseman, a folk memory of the historical figure of the Muslim warrior on horseback, “whether he be the Sufi warrior leading his band of followers or the leader of an imperial army of conquest.” At Chinna Salem, Muttal Ravuttan receives marijuana, opium, cigars, and horse gram (kollu) for his horse. The offerings are made to an image of him mounted on his horse, sculpted in relief on a stone plaque, or to a clay horse (or horses) standing outside the shrine in readiness for him. The horse is canonically white and is said to be able to fly through the air.45

Muslims are deeply involved in the worship of the god Khandoba, an incarnation of Shiva, in Maharashtra, and many of Khandoba’s followers have been Muslim horsemen, though it is sometimes said that Aurangzeb was forced to flee from Khandoba’s power.46In Jejuri, the most famous center of the worship of Khandoba, a Muslim leads the horse in the Khandoba festival and a Muslim family traditionally keeps Khandoba’s horses. The worshipers of Khandoba act as the god’s horse (occasionally as his dog47) by galloping and whipping themselves, 48 and at the annual festival in Jejuri, when, as in many temples, the worshipers carry a portable image of the deity in a palanquin or wheeled cart in procession around the town, devotees possessed by the power of the god move like horses in front of the palanquin.49 In the myth associated with this ritual, the god Shiva arrives on his bull Nandi50 before he mounts a horse to fight the demon Mani; some texts say that Nandi turns into the horse,51 while others52 say that Shiva ordered the moon to become a horse and, seated on it, cut off the head of the demon.53 The pan-Indian image of Nandi stands at the bottom of the hill at the shrine of Khandoba; the local horse of Khandoba stands at the top and is regarded as an avatar of Nandi, just as Khandoba is an avatar of Shiva. Both are waiting for Khandoba/Shiva to mount them. Khandoba is not a horse god or a horse; he rides a horse, which is, in this context, the very opposite of being a horse. In the myth, he rides a demonic horse; in the ritual, he rides his human worshipers. He is the subduer of horses, the tamer of horses. He makes demonic horses, like his worshipers, into divine horses.


A story about horses and Mughals is still prevalent both in oral tradition and in popular printed bazaar pamphlets in Hindi and Punjabi in the great Punjab area—Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Delhi—where real horses have remained important throughout Indian history. This is the story of Dhyanu Bhagat:


There was once a devotee of the Goddess named Dhyanu Bhagat who lived at the same time as the Mughal emperor Akbar. Once he was leading a group of pilgrims to the Temple of Jvala Mukhi [at Kangra, in Himachal Pradesh] where the Goddess appears in the form of a flame. As the group was passing through Delhi, Akbar summoned Dhyanu to the court, demanding to know who this goddess was and why he worshipped her. Dhyanu replied that she is the all-powerful Goddess who grants wishes to her devotees. In order to test Dhyanu, Akbar ordered the head of his horse to be cut off and told Dhyanu to have his goddess join the horse’s head back to its body. Dhyanu went to Jvala Mukhi where he prayed day and night to the Goddess, but he got no answer. Finally, in desperation, he cut off his own head and offered it to the Goddess. At that point, the Goddess appeared before him in full splendor, seated on her lion. She joined his head back to his body and also joined the horse’s head back to its body. Then she offered him a boon. He asked that in the future, devotees not be required to go to such extreme lengths to prove their devotion. So, she granted him the boon that from then on, she would accept the offering of a coconut to be equal to that of a head. So, that is why people offer coconuts to the Goddess.54

The devouring goddess appears both in the deity who demands blood sacrifices and, at the very start of the story, in the shrine of Jvala Mukhi, the holy place where she takes the form of a flame. For Jvala Mukhi (“Mouth of Fire,” a common term for a volcano) is the name of the submarine doomsday mare. In this story about her worship, the heads of the devotee and his horse are not transposed (as they are in Hindu myths about doubly decapitated women and men) but merely removed and restored in tandem, while Dhyanu asks for and receives a boon: that henceforth people can prove their devotion by giving the Goddess coconuts rather than their own heads.

Now, a coconut resembles a human head but does not at all resemble a horse’s head. The coconut, as essential to many pujas as animals are to a blood sacrifice, is a clue to the fact that this is really a myth about human sacrifice—perhaps a local myth—that has been adapted to take account of the more “Sanskritic” tradition of the horse sacrifice. There are changes: the horse beheaded in the story is not killed in a horse sacrifice, and it is beheaded rather than strangled as the horses in the horse sacrifice generally are (though they are often beheaded in the mythology). We might read this text as a meditation on the historical transition from human sacrifice to Vedic horse sacrifice to contemporary vegetarian puja, a progression already prefigured in the Brahmanas. Moreover, coconuts do not grow in the Punjab; the rituals specify that one must use dry coconuts for all offerings, presumably because they have traveled all the way from somewhere where they do grow, a long distance. Since these coconuts must be imported, they may therefore represent either the adoption of a myth that is “foreign” (i.e., from another part of India) or a local tradition about a “foreign” ritual that requires imported coconuts, appropriate to a ritual about imported horses.

A similar myth collected in Chandigarh substitutes a child for the worshiper himself:


Queen Tara told her husband, King Harichand, of a miracle that the goddess had performed [involving snakes and lizards]. The king asked, “How can I get a direct vision [pratyakss darshan] of the Mother? I will do anything.” Tara told him that it wasn’t easy and that he would have to sacrifice his favorite blue horse. He did so. Then she told him to sacrifice his beloved son. He did so. Then she told him to cut up the horse and son and place them in a cauldron and cook them. This he did. She told him to dish out the food on five plates, one for Mata [Mother, the Goddess]), one for himself, one for the horse, one for the son, and one for her. The king, bound to his word, started to eat, but tears welled up in his eyes. The horse and the son both came back to life. Devi appeared on her lion, a direct vision. King Harichand worshipped her and begged for forgiveness. Mata forgave him and then disappeared.55

We may see behind this story not merely the Vedic horse sacrifice but the South Indian story of Ciruttontar and the curried child and the well-known Puranic myth of King Harishchandra,56 whose son died and was eventually restored to him. What has been added is the horse.

A story about a low-caste travesty of a horse sacrifice was recorded in North India during the nineteenth century:


There is a horse miracle story told in connection with Lal Beg, the patron saint of the sweepers, a Pariah caste. The king of Delhi lost a valuable horse, and the sweepers were ordered to bury it, but as the animal was very fat, they proceeded to cut it up for themselves, giving one leg to the king’s priest. The king, suspecting what had happened, ordered the sweepers to produce the horse. They were in dismay at the order, but they laid what was left of the animal on a mound sacred to Lal Beg, and prayed to him to save them, whereupon the horse stood up, but only on three legs. So they went to the king and confessed how they had disposed of the fourth leg. The unlucky priest was executed, and the horse soon after died also.57

This is a horse sacrifice in the shadow world of the Pariahs, where Vedic traditions turn inside out. True, the horse comes back to life (like the horses in the tales of Dhyanu and Harichand), but not for long, nor does the priest fare well. The point comes through loud and clear: A horse is not a Pariah animal.


The long struggle and eventual fall of the Rajput kingdoms under the onslaught of the Mughal armies gave rise to a genre of regional, vernacular epics that evolved out of oral narratives in this period, taking up themes from the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharataand Ramayana, but transforming them by infusing them with new egalitarian or pluralist themes, such as the figure of the hero’s low-caste or Muslim sidekick. The regional epics were nurtured in a culture that combined Afghan and Rajput traditions58 and much more. They embellish the trope of the end of an era, from theMahabharata, with sad stories of deaths of the last Hindu kings. The bittersweet Pyrrhic victory of the Mahabharata heroes here becomes transformed into a corpus of tragic tales of the heroic cultural and martial resistance of the protagonists and their cultural triumph, despite their inevitable martial defeat. As Alf Hiltebeitel puts it, “A Mahabharata heroic age is thus mapped onto a microheroic age.”59 The Sanskrit epic supplies a pool of symbols,60 a sea of tropes, characters, and situations that form a kind of “underground pan-Indian folk Mahabharata,” feeding into a system of texts animated by a combination of Hinduism and Islam.61 Horses loom large in all of them.

The vernacular equine epics first moved from northwestern and central regions to southern ones and then carried southern religious, martial, and literary tropes back north, in a pattern we recognize from theological and philosophical movements. The irony is that Islamic culture contributed greatly to these grand heroic poems that people composed in response to what they perceived as the fall of a great Hindu civilization at the hands of Muslims. Two among the many heroes of these epics are Gugga and Tej Singh (in Hindi; also called Tecinku in Tamil country and Desingu in Telugu-speaking Andhra).

Gugga (also spelled Guga), a folk god, is said to have been a historical figure who lived, by various accounts, during the reign of Prithvi Raj Chauhan (the last Hindu king of Delhi, c. 1168-1192)62 or in the time of the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb (1658-1707)—that is, at either end of the Muslim reign. Gugga is a combination of a Muslim fakir (called Gugga Pir or Zahar Pir) and a Chauhan Rajput63 (that is, a Rajput warrior hero of the Chauhan clan in Rajasthan). According to one version of the story, Gugga, with his famous flying black mare, entered battle and beheaded his two brothers; when his mother disowned him, he converted to Islam and went to Mecca. When Gugga died, the earth opened and received him, still mounted on his mare.64 Another story tells of Gugga’s birth: A great yogi gave some guggal (a resinous sap used medicinally) to a Brahmin woman, a woman of a sweeper (Pariah) caste, and a mare, all of whom were impregnated.65 The horse, the Kshatriya animal par excellence, is here subversively paired with both Brahmins and Pariahs.

Raja Tej Singh was a historical figure, the son of the commander of the fort of Senji under Aurangzeb. When, in 1714, Tej refused to obey a summons from the nawab of Arcot, the deputy of the Mughal ruler (who was then Farrukhsiyar), the nawab waged war against him, in the course of which Tej rode his horse at the head of the nawab’s elephant; the horse reared and drummed his hooves on the forehead of the elephant, blunting the Mughal advance. A soldier sliced the hocks of Tej’s horse, unseating Tej,66 who died in the battle, as did his best friend, the Muslim Mahabat Khan. His queen, a beautiful woman aged sixteen or seventeen, “having embraced her husband, ordered with an incredible serenity that the pyre be lit, which was at once done, and she too was burned alive with him.”67 In Tamil and Telugu legend too, Tecinku’s best friend was a Muslim, while Tecinku was a devout Vaishnava.68 Yet despite the friendship between the Muslim and Vaishnava hero, this is not a simple story of communal harmony. Tecinku’s Muslim companion is a very Vaishnava sort of Muslim, who prays to both Rama and Allah on several occasions but goes to Vishnu’s heaven in the end; Vaishnavism encompasses Islam.69

Many of these stories are still told, indeed performed, in Rajasthan today, where the gods’ priests and the storytellers (bhopas) are drawn from among villagers of the lowest castes.70 Recently the patron of these performances explained why they were beginning to die out: “When the stories used to be told, everyone had a horse and some cattle. . . . Now, when a bhopa tells stories about the beauty of a horse, it doesn’t make the same connection with the audience.” Yet the epics are surviving in places where “the pastoral context of the story”—of cows and horses and heroic cattle herders—is still intact.71


One strong hint that much of medieval Hindu horse lore comes from Muslims is the gender of the horses. Arab horsemen generally rode mares and told stories about mares, while the Hindus before the Mughal period generally preferred stallions. Vedic symbolism had predisposed Indian horsemen to admire stallions, and Hindu mythology is all about stallions, epitomized by the male horse killed in the horse sacrifice, with all its positive symbolism kept entire (virility, fertility, aggressive volatility). Stallions dominate the depicted Hindu battle scenes, hunting expeditions, and court ceremonies. And there are still tales of Rajput stallions, such as Chetak, a gray stallion that sacrificed his life for Maharana Pratap, the last Rajput to succumb to the Mughals, in the 1576 battle of Haldighati.jt The females of the species, on the other hand, mares, are regarded as wild animals never tamed, symbolic of wild women who deceive and leave their husbands, a pattern exacerbated by the image of the submarine mare, symbolic of dangerous lust and anger that will inevitably erupt to destroy the world at doomsday.

A dramatic change takes place in the Hindu equine epics, where many of the horses are good mares, such as Gugga’s mare and the celestial mare that the Telugu hero Peddanna inherits from his foster mother. Dev Narayan, hero of yet another epic, rides a black mare named Tejan.72 In the epic of Pabuji in Rajasthan, Pabuji has a splendid black mare named Kesar Kalimi (“black saffron”), who dies with him.73 In some versions, the mare is an incarnation of Pabuji’s mother, Kesar Pari (“the saffron nymph”), an Apsaras, who abandons him shortly after his birth but returns to him in the form of a mare when he is twelve. Although Tecinku rides a stallion, Tej in contemporary Hindi folklore rides a mare named Magic Mare (Lila Gori);74 the force of the mare paradigm in the Hindi version seems to have overridden the earlier and more historical Telugu version, about a stallion.

The many benevolent mares in the oral epics therefore stand in opposition to the enduring Vedic and Puranic stallion tradition, arguing, subversively, for a positive valence for the demonic mare of the Sanskrit epics and Puranas. The authors of the regional equine epics were either ignorant of the Puranic bias against mares (which is unlikely) or chose to ignore it in favor of an imported Arabic pro-mare tradition, a narrative pattern of considerable detail repeated in many different stories.



Like mares, women, or at least some women, did rather well under the Mughals. From female Sufi saints75 and the women of the royal harem down to the wives of the lowest administrators, as we saw in the case of the poached peacocks, women exercised great powers behind the throne.76Despite being generally confined in harems guarded by eunuchs, a few princesses had their own libraries, and the women of the harem learned Persian poetry, were often able to sign away land grants (the uzuk, the round seal, was kept in the harem), and could have abortions.77 Though hardly typical (education for girls was rare, and they married too early to have much time for it in any case78), these women were at least possible, and they expanded the boundaries of the possible for their sisters in their day.

Babur’s maternal grandmother managed everything for her young grandson, and his mother accompanied him on many of his campaigns. Hindal’s mother, Dildar Begum, restrained him from at least one attack on his brother Humayun, when he was nineteen, by putting on mourning and telling him she was mourning for him, bound as he was on the path of his own destruction. (He listened then but tried it again later, and Humayun killed him.ju) Akbar’s mother, Hamideh Banu, was in charge of the empire while Akbar went off on military campaigns, and Akbar gave each of his concubines her own house and her own day of the week reserved for him to visit her; he also constructed an entire, strictly regulated city district for the prostitutes, called City of Satan (Shaytanpura). The cash allowances that Akbar’s wives received were called pan (betel leaf) money (barg baha), a rough equivalent of what Euro-American women used to call pin money. Akbar also had female bodyguards, with archers in the front lines.79 He took an interest in the education of women and established a school for girls in Fatehpur Sikri.

One woman who opposed Akbar was Chand Bibi (“Lady Chand”), who was regent of Bijapur (1580-1584) and regent of Ahmednagar (1595-1599). A fine horsewoman, who knew many languages (including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Marathi, and Kannada), she took part in the defense of the fortress of Ahmednagar when forces under orders from Akbar led an attack and siege against it in 1595. But when she began to negotiate a treaty with the Mughals, rumors circulated that she was in league with them, and her own officers murdered her.80

One of the few prudent things Jahangir ever did was to marry a very capable woman, Nur Jahan, the thirty-four-year-old widow of one of his Afghan amirs; she was also the daughter of his chief minister (whose large estate she inherited) and sister of his leading general. A first-class rider, polo player, and hunter, she was a “cunning and energetic woman,” who exploited the Mughals’ weakness for drugs and alcohol. She became the de facto regent on those many occasions when Jahangir was too smashed to function. As Jahangir himself put it, mincing no words, “I have handed the business of government over to Nur Jahan; I require nothing beyond a ser of wine and half a ser of meat.” Coins were struck in her name, and she could sign mandates granting rights. She built many gardens and a gorgeous mausoleum at Agra. She cleverly managed to have her niece (her brother’s daughter) Mumtaz Mahal marry Shah Jahan and her own daughter by her first marriage marry one of Shah Jahan’s brothers. Other women of Jahangir’s harem encouraged the design and building of mosques when he himself did not.81

Mumtaz Mahal (“the palace favorite”) is surely the most famous of the Mughal women, the one for whom Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. She was the mother of Dara Shikoh and his older sister, Jahanara. Jahanara was initiated into a Sufi order and wrote about it and about her pilgrimage to the shrine of the Indian Sufi Mu’in ud-Din Chisti in Ajmer; she also wrote a biography of him. She was immensely wealthy, both from half of her mother’s fortune and from trading with the Dutch. Jahanara drank wine and inspired many rumors; she was said to have hidden young men in her house, sometimes disguising them in women’s clothing and riding with them on an elephant.82


There was, as we have seen, a great deal of intermarriage between Rajputs and Mughals: Mughal men married Rajput women, and to a lesser extent, Rajput men married Mughal women. Intermarriages of both sorts were also common among the nonroyal classes. Mirza Aziz Koka (governor of Malwa, Akbar’s foster brother) wrote a poem comparing the members of the multiethnic harem: “Every man should have four wives: a Persian, with whom he can converse; a woman from Khurusan for the housework; a Hindu woman to raise the children, and one from Transoxiana, whom he can beat as a warning to the others.”83 And Urdu poets composed romantic Hindustani poetry on an ever-popular theme, “Muslim boy meets Hindu girl, with fatal consequences.”84

Many heroines among the Rajput princesses fought against the Mughals in battle, rather than marry them. Tulsibai, a Maharashtrian woman, led a great army into battle, and Rani Durgawati of Gondwana was famous for her courage. The widow of the Raja of Srinagar ruled with an iron hand during the reign of Shah Jahan; she often ordered the noses to be cut off convicted criminals, 85 a punishment traditionally meted out to unchaste women.

There were also brave women in religious literature of this period, the most famous of whom was Mirabai (c. 1450-1525). According to the earliest version of her life story, she was forced to marry a king’s son but preferred the company of wandering mendicants and devotees of Krishna; the king (either her husband or her father-in-law, according to various stories) tried, in vain, to kill her; she left her marriage to join the devotees of Krishna. In later tellings, however (including the Amar Chitra Katha comic book, India’s version of Classic Comics), it is her husband’s brother who tries to kill her; her husband conveniently dies soon after the marriage, and Mirabai is depicted as “an ideal Hindu wife.” Although her poems are the most quoted and her life story the best known of all the North Indian saints, few of her poems were anthologized in her time. Perhaps this is because her poems mock both marriage and asceticism,86 leaving her few allies.

Mirabai composed a poem based on a story that Valmiki, Tulsi, and Kabir told about a tribal woman (Shabari) who offered Rama fruit. Mirabai adds a woman’s touch. The tribal woman (here a Bhil) first tastes the fruit herself:

The Bhil woman tasted them, plum after plum,
and finally found one she could offer him.
What kind of genteel breeding was this?
And hers was no ravishing beauty.
Her family was poor, her caste quite low,
her clothes a matter of rags.
Yet Ram took that fruit—that touched, spoiled fruit—
For he knew that it stood for her love.87

Mirabai asks, about the Bhil woman, “What sort of a Veda could she have learned?”

Another poem by Mirabai is about Krishna, whom she calls Mohan (“the deluder”):

My eyes are greedy. They’re beyond turning back.
They stare straight ahead, friend, straight ahead,
coveting and coveting still more.
So here I am, standing at my door
to get a good look at Mohan when he comes.
Abandoning my beautiful veil and the modesty
that guards my family’s honor; showing my face.
Mother-in-law, sister-in-law: day and night they monitor,
lecturing me about it all and lecturing once again.
Yet my quick giddy eyes will brook no hindrance.
They’re sold into someone else’s hands.
Some will say I’m good, some will say I’m bad—
whatever their opinion, I exalt it as a gift,
But Mira is the lover of her Lord, the Mountain-Lifter.
Without him, I simply cannot live.”88

The mother-in-law, a figure who also plagued another woman devotee, Mahadevyyakka, is still around, though no longer analogized to illusion (maya); now it is the god himself who is the deluder, capturing Mirabai’s eyes in the binding gaze of love (darshan).

There were also a number of women saints in the Maharashtrian tradition, including Muktabai and Janabai, whose verses to the god Vithoba sometimes address him as a woman, Vithabai, and refer to him as a mother, though he is generally male. Yet despite this female presence, other poems about Vithoba project negative images of women, as temptresses who distract men from their path of detachment.89


The fear that widows too might become temptresses was one of the factors that promoted suttee, the Hindu custom of burning the widow with her husband’s body.

Akbar opposed suttee but did not abolish it or use the power of the state to suppress it.90 In 1583, Abu’l Fazl reports, Akbar decreed: “If a Hindu woman wished to be burned with her husband, they should not prevent her, but she should not be forced,”91 and women who had children were not allowed to burn themselves. Elsewhere Abu’l Fazl quotes Akbar as saying, “It is an ancient custom in Hindustan for a woman to burn herself, however unwilling she may be, on her husband’s death and to give her priceless life with a cheerful countenance, conceiving it to be a means of her husband’s salvation. It is a strange commentary on the magnanimity of men that they seek their own salvation by means of the self-sacrifice of their wives.”92 Jahangir demanded that any women who intended to commit suttee must come to see him personally, whereupon he promised them gifts and land in order to dissuade them.93 He also complained bitterly that even Hindu converts to Islam, still marked by “the age of ignorance,” persisted in buryingjv women beside their dead husbands.94 Under Aurangzeb, a Muslim man dissuaded a Hindu woman from burning herself with her husband’s corpse and suggested that she convert to Islam, “which had no provision for this horrendous practice.” She did so. But no other man would accept her, as her body was covered with the lesions of leprosy.95

Yet the Mughals’ hostility to suttee, which some of them regarded as a byproduct of Hindu idolatry, was undercut by their deep respect for the values that they thought it represented96—courage, loyalty, even love—and Akbar too admired those qualities in the women who committed suttee.97A Sufi in the time of Akbar regarded suttee as a example of “burning human love” and used it (as Kabir had done) as a symbol of the affection of the soul toward god.98 An epidemic of suttees took place in Vijayanagar in the late sixteenth century, when the Deccan sultans destroyed it, and another occurred when the Rajputs fell under the control of the Mughals.99 When Man Singh died in 1614, six women committed suttee.100 Clearly whatever Muslim opposition there had been had not made a serious dent in the Hindu commitment to it.


Women’s voices, produced by men, played a central role in another lineage of devotional poets, who wrote in Telugu from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century in southern Andhra and the Tamil region. The most important of these poets was Kshetrayya, who may have lived in the mid-seventeenth century, under the Nayakas, and who worshiped a form of Krishna that he called Muvva Gopala.101 His poems imagine a courtesan speaking to her customer, who is not only her lover but also her god and her king. The poems thus function on three levels, uniting the themes of ancient South Indian secular love poetry with bhakti poetry that was already simultaneously theological and royal; sex was a metaphor for religion and politics (kama for dharma and artha), and religion a metaphor for sex and politics (dharma for kama and artha).

In early bhakti, the god was treated as a king, but Kshetrayya wrote at a time when the king had become a god, when the distinction between the king in his palace and the god in his temple had blurred to the point of disappearance.102 Money was the main characteristic that they shared; as Ramanujan, Narayana Rao, and Shulman put it, “If a king is a god and if anyone who has money is a king, anyone who has money is also god.”103 God is a customer of the worshiper, just as the worshiper may be the customer of a courtesan.

Kshetrayya’s songs survived among courtesans and were performed by male Brahmin dancers who played female roles. We can hear the triple registers in the poems, some of which treat of such down-to-earth matters as a woman’s concern to find a drug or a magic potion (both of which were traditionally made out of roots, in India) to abort the child that she conceived from her lover—the king, the god, and her customer:


Go find a root or something.
I have no girlfriends here I can trust.

When I swore at you, you didn’t listen.
You said all my curses were blessings.
You grabbed me, you bastard,
and had me by force.
I’ve now missed my period,
and my husband is out of town.
Go find a root or something.
I have set myself up for blame.
What’s the use of blaming you?
I’ve even lost my taste for food.
What can I do now?
Go to the midwives and get me a drug
before the women begin to talk.
Go find a root or something.
As if he fell from the ceiling
my husband is suddenly home.
He made love to me last night.
Now I fear no scandal.
All my wishes, Muvva Gopala,
have reached their end,
so, in your image,
I’ll bear you a son.
Go find a root or something.104

Abortion is, together with the killing of a Brahmin, the defining mortal sin in the dharma texts. Here, however, abortion is called for because the god has raped the worshiper, with overtones of the king’s power to possess sexually any woman in his realm. The mythological possibilities encapsulated in the last two lines—“so, in your image,/I’ll bear you a son”—are staggering; the whole mythology of gods fathering human sons (think of the divine lineages of the Mahabharata heroes!) is cast in a different light, for in the end the woman intends to bear the child, not to have an abortion after all. Sex, religion, and politics mirror one another through a man’s imagination of a woman’s imagination of god as customer and the poet’s vision of the love of god not as a lofty, abstract sentiment but as the most intimate, even sordid, of human concerns.

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