5/8/12 - the stallion sacrifice

In today's excerpt - during the reign of the Gupta kings over northern India, King Samudragupta symbolically asserted his authority by reintroducing the astonishing ritual of the stallion sacrifice:

"A degree of stability returned to northern India with the estab­lishment of the Gupta dynasty, which lasted from 320 AD to roughly 550 AD. Its second king, Samudragupta, undertook a whole series of campaigns, eliminating small kingdoms that had emerged during the rundown of Kushana rule and he extended his dominion into the upper reaches of the Indus, and some distance beyond, a feat of Indian arms unequalled since the reign of Asoka. The Guptas seem deliberately to have imitated the Mauryans, with one notable exception: they were staunch support­ers of the Hindu gods. To demonstrate his control of 'all between the oceans' Samudragupta staged an Aryan horse sacrifice.

"The rite was a perfect way for Samudragupta to demonstrate the extent of his authority, since it descended from a practice in remote times when a chieftain asserted his ownership of herds and the grounds on which they grazed. When such an early ruler wished to announce himself as a paramount chief, he would do so by letting loose his best stallion. This splendid animal was allowed to wander wherever it liked, followed by a guard of young warriors, ready to defeat anyone who might attempt to capture the horse. The Gupta king's horse sacrifice included such a year­long roam as well as rituals designed to purify both the horse and the ruler.

"Before setting the horse free, the prospective victim was washed in a pool while a dog was killed and thrown in the water. Then the Gupta warriors accompanying the stallion made sure that there was no contact with mares, or further immersion in rivers or streams, during the year it wandered the world. Towards the end of the year a huge pyre was erected, and Samudragupta underwent several observances in readiness for the sacrifice, which lasted three days. On the second day, when the actual slaughter took place, the king drove in a war chariot drawn by the sacrificial stallion and the other horses. The victim was anointed by Samudragupta's three foremost wives, and its tail decorated with pearls. At the sacrifice of the horse, a sheep and a goat were also killed. The stallion was then smothered to death, presumably to avoid damag­ing its body, whereupon the king's first wife, his queen, symbolically coupled with the sacrificed horse under covers, while the royal court gave her encouragement with obscene remarks. Afterwards, the victim was dismembered and burned on the pyre."


Arthur Cotterell


Asia: A Concise History


John Wiley & Sons


Copyright 2011 by John Wiley & Sons (Asia)


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