Every week my hospital admits a white horse that has been hit by a truck or has gone so lame that it cannot walk anymore. When doctors diagnose them they find that most of them are partially deaf and blind. Most of them die of their wounds and dehydration within a few days. These are “marriage horses.”
People in the business of letting horses for weddings own dozens and house them outside the city. When they are rented for marriages, they are made to walk more than 30-50 kilometres to the venue – a trek that starts early morning and lasts the whole day. By evening they have reached the baraat headquarters and stand around for several hours till the groom and his party are ready to leave. The horse is then “dressed”. The saddle on the horse is a heavy throne like chair and around its forehead is decorated with all sorts of things that hang over and get into its eyes. The groom sits on it with his nephew and then the band starts at a decibel level that makes even passing humans hold their ears. The horse handler holds the horse’s bit tightly enough to prevent it from rearing up at the noise and fireworks. The iron chain fitted into its mouth destroys the teeth and makes its gums bleed. The fire-lit lanterns surrounding the horse generate heat. Various relatives and friends, dancing in front of the horse, constantly tug at the groom to shower him with small notes of money, further unbalancing him. The horse is walked for another several kilometres in a slow and an extremely noisy parade and then finally, when the groom dismounts, it is taken to another wedding.
By 2 am the functions and weddings of the day are over and the horse is walked back to its owner outside the city. After a few hours rest and feeding the trek starts again the next day. Drunken late-night truckers often hit the horse on its homeward journey. While some collapse due to exhaustion, some die on the spot or are left there to die if they have broken their legs. And some fortunate ones are brought to my hospital.
There are two kinds of marriage horses. Some are racehorses that have been kept in great comfort till they start losing races and are then sold down the line to smaller and smaller racecourses till they end up in the hands of the marriage horse suppliers. They go from good food and clean stalls to bad food and being tied up on the side of the road in a village, with no shelter tolerating the heat, rain and cold. The others are inbred because of their white colour and the females are repeatedly made to reproduce till they die of exhaustion, so that there are enough white horses in the market. Both have a terribly sad and short life.
Why are we doing this to this noble animal? People are ignorant of the origin of the horse at marriages and so they carry on this ridiculous custom without understanding the meaning behind it. A few hundred years ago, women used to often get kidnapped from their marriages by dacoits or members of a rival clan who would appear on horses. Many horses were kept at the marriage venues to chase the kidnappers. From there originates this lunacy that makes the bottoms of urbanized young groom so sore that they would probably give their wedding night a miss and put soothing balms on their buttocks instead. This is not a prince that is coming to claim his princess – this is a silly young man overdressed in silks and jewels with a lampshade on his head and garland of money around his neck, pretending he is a kidnapper about to do the unspeakable act of taking a young girl against her will and holding her to ransom.
There are so many other explanations that are as gross. And the horse rented in weddings is always a mare. While the actual reason a mare is chosen is because she is easier to handle round the year than a male, who might get temperamental during the summer season, the use of a mare and not a horse suggests the groom’s intention to domesticate the wife and to ride her for the rest of their married life.
In the Shrimali Brahmin community, the girls ride on horses in the same way as the grooms. The significance is that they are equal in the marriage. Either way, it is the horse that is punished. In some communities the mare's hair is plaited with sacred thread or 'mouli' and the groom's sisters feed her with Bengal gram, which has been soaked in water the night before, or with gur and atta. The horse will definitely get colic from this fermented besan or gur which is the worst thing that can happen to a horse and which kills many.
How inauspicious to start a marriage with a torture of a poor female animal which has to starve, and has to go through dehydration, fatigue, noise, and physical pain. The agony of the horse is clearly shown in the enlarged eyes and wild spin of its eyeballs and the ears held erect – both of which only happen when the horse is extremely distressed.
Horses are extremely allergic to noise, fire, hundreds of people crowding them and walking long distances on tarred roads. There are thirty thousand weddings a day in Delhi during the wedding season alone. There are about 300 horses. Do the math. In Mumbai, the horses are kept in south Mumbai’s Kamathipura and taken to outskirts of Mumbai about 60 km away every day.
What a horrible and outdated way to ruin the baraat tradition; to abuse a horse when you could have gone safely and happily in a car. I am going to ask animal welfare people to intercede in the baraat and call policemen in on the grounds of cruelty. Imagine your bridal parade disrupted by people confiscating the bridegroom’s mount. He would look even sillier then.
Horses are thinking sentient beings. Many terrible customs have ended in India – sati (which presumed that a woman had value only if her husband lived), thuggee (now refined to bribes and white collar crime), and animal sacrifice. It is now time for sensible people to call for ending this hideous and vulgar practice. Or let the bride go to the groom’s house in a palanquin carried by her brothers; an authentic and beautiful marriage tradition.