Anirudh Kanisetti is part of new generation of scholars who are making Indian history accessible and interesting. He is the author of ‘Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India’, and hosts the ‘Echoes of India’ and Yuddha podcasts. In this piece he brings to our notice that as early as 700 years ago India and China were involved in an arms race: “Contrary to what we might imagine, the 13th century was a time of global arms deals, deterrents, escalations, and grand strategic manoeuvres, quite similar to those of today. Among the premier weapons of that time were warhorses from Central and West Asia. Carefully bred, trained, and exported through networks spanning thousands of kilometres, their lives were short and brutal…”
So what was the trigger for this 13th century arms race? “Over the course of the early 1200s, the Mongol people had created an empire unlike any in human history. Their dominion stretched across a vast swathe of Eurasia — from Russia to Iran to China — and it reshaped networks of trade and exchange, allowing unprecedented degrees of interaction between these regions. Iran and China, the two cornerstones of this Mongol world, became especially interconnected through overseas trade. Ships to and from these regions passed by India, pausing to trade seasonally along its western and southern coasts.
…The highly militaristic polities of the peninsula immediately grasped the advantages of increasing trade with the Mongol-ruled polities, especially due to their connections with horse-breeders in Central Asia. Merchants, especially of the Kudirai Chetti and the Hedabuka castes, made fortunes as horse traders; they are attested as actively participating in annual auctions in Yemen, paying in gold and silk to secure hundreds of fine warhorses.”
Kanisetti then helps us understand why the need for horses compelled the Delhi Sultanate to conquer the southern Indian kingdoms: “…through multiple campaigns in the early 1300s, then-Delhi General Malik Kafur bolstered this slight tactical edge with the use of subterfuge and local intelligence. He struck when the kingdoms were least expecting him, directly besieging their capitals rather than confronting them through field engagements. He then demanded thousands of horses in tribute from the Yadavas, Kakatiyas, and Pandyas while also plundering some wealthy temples; this made it financially impossible for them to maintain the cavalry forces that were crucial for their internal and external conflicts and led to their collapse. Delhi, strengthened with vast quantities of warhorses, was thus able to defeat the Mongols and dominate the Deccan….”
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