By Pauline Fan
New Straits Times
02 February 2014
Pauline Fan delves into the significance of the horse in human civilisation, imagination, ritual and material culture the world over
Lean in build, like the point of a lance;
Two ears sharp as bamboo spikes;
Four hooves light as though born of the wind.
Heading away across the endless spaces,
Truly, you may entrust him with your life — Du Fu (8th Century Chinese poet)
THE great Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu, composed these lines about the horse of an imperial officer named Fang. Du Fu was captivated by the supple grace and swiftness of Fang’s stallion, a magnificent breed of Central Asian origin known as the Ferghana. These Ferghana horses were so revered in China that a legend arose that they were spawned from celestial steeds.
Believed by some historians to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s mighty black stallion, Bucephalus, these horses were first introduced to China in the 2nd Century BC, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty. It is often recounted how Emperor Wu went to war against the Kingdom of Ferghana (in modern-day Uzbekistan) to obtain these precious horses that could help China fend off the nomadic horsemen from the north. After a successful conquest, the Emperor’s expedition brought back thousands of Ferghana horses, allowing imperial grooms to breed them with the smaller Chinese horses and establish a formidable cavalry, fundamentally transforming China’s military prowess.
The Ferghana horse seemed to be the earthly embodiment of the Chinese mythical “heavenly horses” (tianma) and “dragon-horses” (longma), fabulous winged creatures associated with certain stellar constellations. The Ferghana came to be known as “thousand-li horses” (qianli-ma), able to travel the great distance of a thousand li in a day, as well as “blood-sweating horses” (hanxue-ma) because of the red droplets they perspired as they galloped, now thought to be naturally caused by a parasite under their skin.
These horses were depicted time and again in exquisite bronze and ceramic figures, and inspired the birth of horse painting as an aesthetic category in China.
The horse became one of the favourite subjects of great Tang Dynasty painters including Han Gan, whose Night-Shining White (a portrait of Emperor Xuanzong’s favourite stallion) is one of the most iconic paintings in Chinese art. The motif of the horse in Chinese painting persisted through centuries of dynastic change, upheaval and revolution, mastered by painters such as Li Gonglin (Song Dynasty), Zhao Mengfu (Song Dynasty), Ren Renfa (Yuan Dynasty), and the modernist Xu Beihong.
Xu’s popular and often-emulated ink paintings of galloping horses evoke the Chinese people’s longing for freedom, their hardships during the war with Japan, as well as their indomitable spirit.
Horses have left their mark in Chinese literature as well. In the 14th Century classic, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, the Ferghana horse is immortalised as Red Hare, the powerful steed of the ruthless warrior Lu Bu. Red Hare eventually comes into the possession of the honourable General Guan Yu. After Guan Yu’s death, Red Hare refuses to follow a new owner and starves himself to death to join his beloved master.
The significance of the horse in human civilisation reaches as far back as 30,000 years into prehistory. The Paleolithic cave paintings of wild horses at Chauvet, Pech Merle and Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain are early testimonies to the prominence and persistence of the horse in human imagination, ritual and material culture the world over.
A striking theme in horse symbolism across cultures is the horse as a vehicle of spiritual elevation, transporting the rider between earthly and divine realms to accomplish heroic tasks or receive sacred wisdom.
In ancient Greek mythology, for instance, the white winged stallion Pegasus carried the mortal hero Bellerophon to slay the chimera.
The Islamic tradition tells of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven upon the back of an equine, Al-Buraq, during the Isra and Mi’raj (The Night Journey). The Prophet Muhammad’s flight with Al-Buraq is both a physical and spiritual journey from earth to the realm of the Divine.
Hindu mythology abounds with horse symbolism. Surya, the Sun God, steers a chariot drawn by seven majestic steeds and the Mahabharata depicts Lord Krishna as a charioteer who counsels Prince Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Two of Lord Vishnu’s avatars are closely associated with horses — Hayagriva, deity of knowledge and wisdom, has a human body and a horse’s head, while Kalki, the 10th and future incarnation of Vishnu, is foretold to appear riding a white horse at the end of the Kali Yuga (the present age of darkness) to herald a new age of hope.
The eschatological symbolism of the horse is also found in the Christian scriptures: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book Of Revelation. In the iconography of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches, Saint George is commonly portrayed astride a white stallion as he slays a dragon. He is also the patron saint of horsemen.
In Buddhism, there is Prince Siddhartha’s beloved horse Kanthaka, who helped his master to escape from the palace grounds to fulfil his destiny of becoming Gautama Buddha. This scene is often reproduced on stupas and in Buddhist art. It is said that Kanthaka’s love for Siddhartha was so great that he died of a broken heart after Siddhartha’s farewell, and was reincarnated as a Brahmin who followed the Buddha and his dharma teachings.
HORSES OF THE SOUTHERN SEA
The historic and symbolic significance of the horse in the Malay Archipelago and present-day Malaysia is no less fascinating. Fossil remains in Southern Luzon of the Philippines suggest that horses have existed in the Malay Archipelago since the Neolithic period.
Charles Darwin, in his book The Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestication, remarked on the diversity of horses in the Malay Archipelago: “Thus in Sumatra there are at least two breeds; in Achin and Batubara one; in Java several breeds; one in Bali, Lomboc, Sumbawa (one of the best breeds), Tambora, Bima, Gunung-api, Celebes, Sumba, and the Philippines.”
In the 14th Century, constant threat of attacks from the Mongols urged the imperial admirals of the Ming Dynasty to seek out new suppliers of horses. One source came from the region they called Nanyang (Southern Sea), particularly the Kingdoms of Lusung (Central Luzon), P’ing-ka-shi-lan (Pangasinan) and Sulu (encompassing the Sulu Archipelago and parts of Sabah). The small but strong ponies of this region were sent as tribute and also imported to China, and were well-suited to navigate perilous terrain and patrol the Great Wall.
The horse trade in the Malay Archipelago flourished again during the 16th Century with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch, who acquired horses from eastern Indonesian islands for their colonial stables. The Dutch East India Company imported Arabian and Barb horses to Java, which they crossed with local ponies, engendering various Indonesian breeds still found today. Batak and Sandalwood ponies, partly bred from Arabian blood, remain among the finest of the Indonesian steeds.
In present-day Malaysia, the West Coast Bajau people of Sabah — who traditionally reside in and around Kota Belud — are renowned as expert horsemen. Their inherited equestrian dexterity has earned them the affectionate designation “Cowboys of the East”. For horse riding competitions and ceremonies, they decorate their Bajau ponies in brightly-coloured fabric, saddles made from buffalo hide, and brass bells. For the West Coast Bajau people, the horse is a symbol of life itself.
THE SEMANGAT OF STALLIONS
In the villages of Johor — particularly in the areas of Batu Pahat, Muar and Pontian where Javanese migrants settled centuries ago — young men still dance the Kuda Kepang, straddling hobby horses made of woven rattan as they stride and sway to the trot-like rhythms of the kenong, gong and gendang.
Originating from Java, the Kuda Kepang tradition is said to commemorate the Wali Songo (Nine Saints) who spread Islam to the interiors of Java in the 15th and 16th Centuries. According to the legend, the Wali Songo travelled on horseback and captured the attention of locals by dramatising stories of the triumphant battles of Islam, including those fought by Imam Ali upon his swift white stallion.
Rooted in myth and mysticism, the Kuda Kepang horse symbolically transports the rider-dancer between mundane reality and kayangan (the celestial realm), leading some dancers to fall into trance. The dancers invoke and express the semangat (spirit) of brave stallions within themselves, as well as other celestial beings such as royal guardians, valiant warriors, and ferocious tigers.
In Malaysia’s layered history and confluence of cultures, the horse has various incarnations. One can even sense the presence of the horse in discreet corners of Kuala Lumpur. The towering gopuram (gateway) of the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee displays a pair of warriors riding white stallions who guard the entrance to the temple. Another noteworthy instance of temple horses is the Ayyanar Temple in Taiping, where the two white horse guardians of the Tamil folk deity Ayyanar stand vigilant. Ayyanar is related to Muneswaran, a fierce warrior god who is a popular folk deity among the Tamils in Malaysia, and is sometimes depicted riding a horse.
Among contemporary Malaysian artists, Lee Joo For has made his mark with his paintings of wild horses, expressionistic in style yet drawing from elements of tradition. The painter Lim Ah Cheng is also known for capturing the dynamism of running horses in his works.
Equine sports are also gaining popularity in Malaysia. The turf clubs in Selangor, Penang and Perak — vestiges of British colonialism — are still active, while the past few decades has seen a rise in recreational horse-riding at clubs such as the Bukit Kiara Equestrian Club in KL. Meanwhile, bare back horse riding is an increasingly popular sport in the villages of Kelantan.
Strength, beauty, freedom, loyalty — these are just some of the attributes we associate with horses. Their agile movements and wind-swept manes are the very expression of energy, effervescence and independence. They embody the power of the earth and evoke the transcendence of the divine, affirming the old Arabic proverb: “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears”.