The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 14, 2010


You may recall that Afanasii Nikitin came to India in the 15th century trying to make his fortune after a concatenation of circumstances resulted in him losing all his worldly goods. He heard that there was a big demand for horses in India, and thought to bring along a colt to sell. 

Of course, he was absolutely right. Horses from Arabia or Persia were most highly coveted among the kingdoms of the subcontinent. There were Indian varieties available, termed kuhi (from the Northeast of the country), but the tatari (Central Asian) and the bahri ('from across the Seas' - or Arab/Persian) were better rated. 

It is interesting that when Benjamin of Tudela toured these lands in the 12th century, he made no mention of the equine trade. Scarcely a century later, Marco Polo was complaining of the way Indians treated their steeds,  pointing out that they had hardly any skilled horse-keepers. The Gulf tradesmen was smart - they were happy enough to export horses, but not the breeders or trainers that might create a competitive breeding business in India.

It was not just the lack of horsekeepers in the subcontinent that caused such a toll in the livestock. The climate was barely conducive to the health of the Gulf horse. And so over time, the import demand for horses continued to rise, much to the glee of the Gulf traders.

The volume of trade was staggering. Chinese manuscripts and Ilkhanid chronicles, besides Marco Polo's texts, especially are illuminating in this regard. One recounted story (by the Ilkhanid historian Rashid ad-Din Fazlallah) is about the trade with the Pandyan kingdom (Ma'bar, as he called it):
...the brother of Shaykh Jamal ad-Din, ruler of Kish, Malik Taqi Allah, who was an important official in Ma'bar decided to acquire 1,400 horses from his brother’s stud farms annually and send them to Ma'bar. Additionally, 10,000 horses should be bought from other places in the Gulf as Qatif, Lahsa, Bahrayn, Hormuz, Kalahat and others. The price for one horse should be 220 dinars and the merchants should be compensated for any loss or death of the horses. The annual price for these 10,000 horses was thus 2,200,000 dinars. In the historiography of Vassaf almost the same text can be found. At first glance this transaction seems to be a deal between the two brothers at the expense of the treasury of the kingdom of Ma'bar, whose rulers, however, had to consent. According to the above mentioned numbers, if we make the generous calculation that 100 horses could have been loaded onto one ship, we could conclude that at least 100 “horse-ships” annually took to the sea from the Persian Gulf to Ma'bar! 1
The price of the horse multiplied crazily once it arrived in India. Ibn Battuta talks some numbers: the best bahri horse was valued at up to 4000 tanka, as compared to the middling tatari, which cost only about 100 tanka. The top-class bahris were not for war - most were kept as luxury items coveted by the rich; only the tataris were destined to be warhorses.

1. Ralph Kauz, "Horse Exports from the Persian Gulf until the Arrival of the Portuguese", in The Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Maritime World, 2009.


km said...

10,000 horses. Wow. Just think of HUGE secondary market for horseshit disposal services.

//kidding aside, wonderful post.

Fëanor said...

I wonder what that service would be in Sanskrit. Ashvam Shittam Phenkum?

Space Bar said...

i want like buttons.

Fëanor said...

SB: Is that as in 'I swim like otters'?

km said...

Ashvam Shittum Phenkum sounds like the never-made sequel to "Satyam Shivam Sundaram".

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