The Magical Horse Dancing of Uttar Pradesh
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Not only is it a spectacle to behold, but it’s also about having a good time.
Dussehra, an annual Indian festival, celebrates the victory of good over evil. And during this special time on the Hindu calendar, in the village of Tappal in Uttar Pradesh, 56 miles from the capital of New Delhi, residents attend a much-anticipated day-long celebration: the equine version of So You Think You Can Dance.
Horses are a big deal here already — they’re a status symbol — but the annual competition, which is locally known as the Ghoda Nritya Pratiyogita (roughly translates to “horse dancing competition”), draws excited crowds from neighboring villages who come to watch dozens of the beautifully costumed animals dance.
According to local legend, some 30-odd years ago a mysterious man visited the village with a horse who could dance. This has since spurred villagers to start training their horses — almost every household has them — to fouetté and pirouette.
On the day of the event, the atmosphere is electric. Loudspeakers blare Haryanvi (local dialect) folk songs. During the most recent competition, crowds heard Teri Aakhya Ka Yo Kajal by local celebrity Sapna Chaudhary (who catapulted to national fame after her Big Boss reality show stint in 2017). Horses, including foals, are dressed up in the finest costumes, often draped in colorful flowers and bedecked in silver and brass anklets. Each horse has seven minutes to showcase its moves, and points are awarded for each. To avoid biased results this year there were six referees from neighboring villages overseeing 60 performances. The prize: 6,100 INR ($86), and perhaps more importantly, bragging rights as the best in show.
This is an event that provides joyous entertainment during a festival that celebrates the triumph of goodness. Watching the horses kick up plumes of dust in the ring is a little bit like witnessing a circus, except that the horses here are treated like part of the family. The spectacular display is free and brings together people of all genders from all communities. There is a palpable feeling of happiness and excitement in the air.
Those who can’t make it to the ring or simply like to watch from a distance (some women prefer to be away from the crowds of men) climb up trolleys or watch the annual spectacle from their rooftops. For hungry patrons, food carts around the ring serve up chow mein and jalebi (a deep-fried dessert made with maida flour batter and sugar syrup).
In recent years, more and more youngsters from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are taking interest in horse dancing — mainly because they can. Their parents, who have been selling land to the government for the construction of highways, have more disposable income to buy things like expensive cars and horses. “It doesn’t matter if you have a buffalo or not, but it is a must to have a horse,” one villager told me.
At the end of the day, after the winners are announced and spectators are treated to an encore performance from the winning horse, the crowd disperses. Food-cart owners wrap up their business, people climb down from the rooftops and trolleys and horses are loaded back in the trucks. The dust settles into contented quiet. The lights are turned off. And everyone returns home in a happy daze.
- Vijay Pandey, OZY Author Contact Vijay Pandey