'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Stirrup - Some Archeology

Sometime in the year 2000 (several years before I got to know about blogging), I wrote and e-published an article. It was a bit of (very) amateur archeology. The subject was the Stirrup - to argue that it was a 'lost' Indian invention. The article was posted at "" but the host site 'serindian' went down shortly afterwards ( in my native language of Malayalam there is a saying: "Wherever the Sinner goes, Hell follows (with him)"). And worse, I lost the artcle - I had no backup soft copy.

Anyways, the other day, some googling (a bit of e-Archeology?) fetched me this page: - some benevolent soul has cared to quote at length (with some slight modifications, it appears) from my article, and has thus 'returned' nearly three-quarters of it back to me.

The following is a 'reconstruction' of the full article, from the above page and from fading memory - only for those with oodles of patience.
The Stirrup - A 'Lost' Indian Invention?

The stirrup is often said to have been the most significant military invention before gunpowder. Its use is said to have amplified the strike power of horse cavalried manifold and irreversibly altered the very history of the world. Strangely enough, given the very obvious way in which the stirrup facilitates riding and equestrian maneauvres, it was a very late invention - Alexander the Great (4th Century BC), though a skilled horseman, never knew about stirrups and neither did the Roman emperors until well *after* Christ. And I find it still stranger that it is hardly common knowledge that the stirrup was, very likely, invented right here in India, some time *before* Christ.

Of course, many other countries and peoples claim the stirrup as their invention. For example:
-Some scholars suspect that the Scythians of the central Asian steppes invented stirrups some time in the 3rd century BC (so says David Attenborough in his book, 'The First Eden'). The evidence for this seems to be thin.
-Documents released by the 'International Museum of the Horse' via their web site say the earliest evidence for stirrups is in Korea in 5th century AD.
-The book 'Chinese Science and the West', based on a BBC serial on Chinese contributions and innovations, shows a Chinese terracotta of a rider with stirrups (dated at 300 AD) and claims it to be the earliest existing evidence for stirrups. Claims have been made on behalf of the Magyars of Hungary and the Huns.

In an older edition, the Encyclopedia Britannica says that the 'toe stirrup' was probably first used in India (in this supposedly earlier form, only the big toe and perhaps one more toe of the rider are supported by the stirrup - particularly suited if the rider is barefoot; Indians were generally barefoot, the climate here being hot). Then the Chinese adapted it and developed the full ‘foot stirrup’ (this supports the foot and not the big toe; suited to the booted riders of the much cooler China) by about 300 AD. Then the stirrups reached Europe via central Asia and were developed to their full (destructive) potential – heavily armed and armored knights ramming into one another in battle or jousting in tournaments.

In its latest CD edition, the same Encyclopedia gives two variants of the story: (1) the stirrup was invented in Eurasian steppes, probably, in 2nd century BC. (2) The stirrup was first used about AD 500(!), again, in the steppes. India is not in the picture at all.

I could consult a few more references and by and large, all seem to ‘favor’ China. Against this backdrop, one would like to make some observations and raise some questions:

The Bhaja caves, which were excavated in 2nd century BC (most sources I could consult give this date), are near Lonavla, Maharashtra. Here, in cave no. 19 (the ‘Vihara cave’, as it is also called), there are three relief carvings of horsemen. One of them shows toe stirrups very clearly. Another, unfortunately somewhat eroded carving seems to show the stirrup gripping the rider's foot, very close to the middle {a toe stirrup would grip the foot close to the front end (the big toe)}. Does this indicate the use of a foot stirrup? These carvings predate most of the claims listed above – a crucial assumption made here is the carvings are not later day embellishments to the caves.

There are equestrian sculptures in Srirangam (Tamil Nadu) and elsewhere showing barefoot horsemen with full foot rather than toe stirrups. These are admittedly, medieval rather than ancient, but they do seem to question the absolute nature of the ‘barefoot rider - toe stirrup correlation’. A barefoot horseman could also use a foot stirrup. So, the (old) Encyclopedia Britannica statement that in India, we ‘stopped’ with the toe stirrups simply because we had no footwear is not very sound.

Moreover, Indians did have footwear from very early times. Britannica itself has the photo of a pre-Christian 'Gandhara' sculpture of a Bodhisatva who is depicted wearing sandals. The Kushan Emperor Kanishka's (fl. 100 AD) head-less portrait statue found in Mathura shows him in a coat and proper boots; and the same ruler appears booted in his coins. There is a somewhat later (9th century) Chola bronze of 'Kannappa Nayanar' - the hunter-saint - who is shown wearing sandals of very considerable sophistication. These are apart from literary evidences, the most obvious, perhaps, being Bharata worshipping Rama’s 'padukas'. Moreveor, not all of India is always hot. Half of the country has winter temperatures approaching zero and much of our countryside is very rocky and thorny. So, footwear would have been a necessity rather than a luxury right from the beginning. In such circumstances, the toe stirrups could have naturally and necessarily evolved into foot stirrups, right here.

Many references say that the key Chinese contribution in stirrup development was the introduction of the solid iron stirrup (the earlier versions were made of materials like leather and hung loose and limp from the saddle). But it is quite possible that the Indians had used solid stirrups made of some perishable material, wood, say, before the Chinese iron stirrup. The fact that there is probably no archaeological evidence need not rule this out. Climatic and other circumstances mentioned above could have led to the development of the solid stirrup in India itself; moreover, we had plenty of time- at least 400 years separate the Bhaja carvings and the earliest archeological evidences of solid stirrups in China. Moreover, in the Kushans (who were Central Asians anyway), we have 'booted' candidates who could have 'transmitted' the stirrup to China from here.

So, it is very likely that the Indians invented not only the toe-stirrup but also developed the full foot stirrup (and perhaps even the solid stirrup). Of course, the credit for the invention was lost. Our cavalries never evolved into world-beaters either. And even more strangely, memories of having made the innovation faded away - no Indian language seems to have a native word for it; for instance, in Marathi, the language spoken at present, near Bhaja caves, the word for the stirrup is 'rikib', a loan from Persian. One of the words for the stirrup in Tamil is 'ankappati' - approximately 'the step on the flanks'. Does this indicate a full foot stirrup? How old is this word? I dunno!


  • At 10:45 PM, Blogger Random Vandamme said…

    My foot to EB (Encyclopedia Britanica). Is is possible to find out who wrote that part of EB? I wish to correspnd with the author(es) to get some clue as to if the author(ess) is biased or uninformed or are we failing to see something. My hunch is that it (the article and the sirrup) may have been 'made in China' as much as 'intel chips are made in China'.

  • At 12:58 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks vandamme.

    the 'latest britannica' mentioned in my article is actually old hat - over seven years old. plenty of online sources now give credit to india at least for the toe stirrup invention. of course, my feeling is that the indians might well have gone full distance in stirrup development - this opinion is still unconventional, as far as i know.

    yes, the west, still is much more aware of chinese contributions to science than indian ones - perhaps due to the influence of scholars like joseph needham. hence the tendency to give greater weight to chinese claims.

  • At 12:41 PM, Blogger IndUS said…

    Perennial, 1994.
    Dear R.Nandakumar,
    Thanks for this valuable information. I am a Malayalai and I am the founder and CEO of American Saddle Company and IndUS Leather World. I would love to get to know you and I would love to explore some more about the early history of horseman and Indian involvement in invention and manufacturing equine product in BC. Please contact me and my Email add is Moreover, would you be interested in finding out some of the eary pictures of the stirrup. (500 BC)


Post a Comment

<< Home