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Remembering the Beloved Animal War Heroes from India's Pre-Independence Era (Independence Day Special)

Remembering the Beloved Animal War Heroes from India's Pre-Independence Era
(Independence Day Special)
Meghna 'Phoenix' Ghatak

Animals have been inseparable and indispensable part of India's pre colonial as well as colonial history. No battle could have been fought or won without the loyal involvement of a wide array of our ancient four legged companions. But while a number of Western countries have commemorated their war veteran animals by erecting statues, immortalizing them in film and literature and remembering them on social media; we Indians have sadly paid limited homage to our animal war heroes. This article endeavors to remember a few unsung warrior companions of Royal patriots from our pre - independence era. 

  1. Chetak  ( the Royal steed of Maharana Pratap) 
Statue of Maharana Pratap Singh in Udaipur

Maharana Pratap, the brave Rajput king of Mewar, needs no introduction to most Indians. In 1568, when most rajput kings were submitting to the mighty Mughal emperor, Akbar, the newly crowned Rana refused to give up Mewar. He entered into the Battle of Haldighati, riding his blue steed, Chetak in 1576, in the Aravali Mountains of Rajasthan and escaped being captured despite the loss of his army. He resurged years later to win back parts of Mewar and establish a new capital near modern Dungarpur but he only lived due to the valour of his loyal horse. The only historical mention of this Marwari breed of war horse is not of their bravery, but the use of fake elephant trunks fastened to them, in order to gain the appearance of baby elephants, giving them the added leverage of attacking first. Mahouts would be killed when the horses rose on their hind legs and placed their forelegs on the opponent elephant's heads. 
In the battle, Akbar’s elephant had panicked and a dagger tied to its trunk had chopped off one of Chetak's legs, yet he had carried his master away from harm, leaping across a river and serving him till his last breath. 
Chetak Fighting Akbar's Elephant in the Battle of Haldighati
Today multiple statues commemorate the blue horse and his rider, in Udaipur and Jodhpur after reference in an 18th century ballad, ' Khummana-Raso' by poet Dalpati Vijay. The horse here has been described as bestowed with blue skin, peacock neck, broad chest, inward pointing ears and small height. Chetak Smarak in Haldighati in the modern day Rajsamand district has been erected where Chetak had supposedly fallen on 21 June 1576. For more than 300 years, Sarangkheda village of Nandurbar district of Maharashtra holds a month long Chetak festival in the winter months to showcase the finest equestrian breeds. 

2. Hiran (the Royal executioner of Emperor Akbar) 
Akbar’s Adventure with the Elephant Hawa’i/Hiran in 1561
by Basawan and Chetar Munti (1590-95)
Emperor Akbar or Jalal-ud-din-Muhammad-Akbar, the third Mughal emperor and son of Humayun had significantly influenced the course of Indian history. He established the town of Fatehpur Sikri (the city of victory) in Agra after the conquest of Gujrat in 1571. Here, he got constructed a lighthouse (akashdiya) or zero milestone called Hiran Minar between the Hathipol (elephant gate) and fields, and according to legends, watched elephant matches below. When people of all ranks would come to meet the king and pitch their tents around in accordance with their ranks, they centered around this lighthouse, situated at the entrance of Fatehpur Sikri fort. This 21.34m tall octagonal tower with star shaped designs featuring elephant tusks was actually constructed in memory of Akbar's loyal and favorite elephant, Hiran. 

Hiran Minar, Fatehpur Sikri
This Asiatic elephant was not just a loyal companion, war hero but also his personal executioner. He is said to have let only the emperor ride him and had even participated in the Battle of Haldighati against Maharana Pratap Singh and Chetak. When the emperor sat in the Audience Hall (Diwan-i-am) to bestow justice and proclaim a death sentence, he would call the pachyderm to crush the heads of condemned men laid on flat stones. Hiran is also sometimes referred to as Hawa'i, a ferocious elephant and is seen championing over another terrifying and ferocious elephant called Ran Bagha in a watercolor by Basawan and Chetar Munti in 1561 in Akhbarnama by Abu'l Fazl. The emperor was famous for taming wild elephants and hence loved Hiran dearly. Hence after a long life, when it died peacefully, he had Hiran Minar constructed over its grave. 

3. Neela (Guru Govind Singh's Blue Roan Horse) 
Blue Roan Breed of Horses

The tenth spiritual leader of Sikhs, Guru Govind Singh is remembered for his velour in numerous battles against Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor, for tormenting Hindus into forceful religious conversions. He notably found the Khalsa, a special unit of Sikh warriors and commanded them to carry the five Ks: (Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (a wooden comb for the hair), Kara (an iron bracelet), Kachera (100% cotton tieable undergarment) and Kirpan (an iron dagger)). Despite suffering the gruesome capture and execution of his family members, the guru fought 13 battles in defense of righteousness ( dharma-yudha) from 1688 to 1705. In Nanded near the river Godavari, the guru was secretly followed back to his tent and stabbed fatally by Mughal soldiers and he succumbed to his injuries on 8th October, 1708.  Legend talks of him proclaiming the Guru Granth Saheb as his successor and then riding to his funeral pyre on his beloved blue horse - Neela. The blue horse is said to be a Blue Roan who have specific color genes and can be red, blue or grey with absence of solid color on their mane, tail and legs. 
Guru Govind Singh Riding on Neela
At Puthi Saheb, Punjab, the guru's guruship was challenged by a local artisan by asking him to sleep in a furnace. Neela was instructed by the guru to trample on the mud surrounding the kiln (puthi) , cooling it instantly. The guru's rest and Neela's hoof marks in the kiln are commemorated by his followers till today by building a gurudwara at that spot. The same incident was repeated in front of Nihang Khan, a local Afghan chief at Kotla Nihang Khan, two and a half kilometers south of Ropar, where the present gurudwara Bhatta Sahib stands. 

Multiple stories from folk tales talk of the guru mounting and marching on his beloved stallion while teaching the morals of Sikhism to fellow warriors and common men. The horse is also sometimes called Dilbag and his lineage continues till today at Hazoor Saheb, Nanded in Maharashtra despite the dilution of the original blue color. They are decorated and respected, especially on the occasions of Gurpurabs - the festivals celebrating the Sikh gurus and believe to get agitated at times as if being ridden by the spirit of the guru. 


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