Politics is usually another name for horse-trading. When elections are held for the Senate or National Assembly, news about horse-trading dominates the media. Why should the noble animal horse be used to explain the low activity of buying and selling candidates? If you investigate the Urdu word ‘siyasat’ (politics), you will realise that politics was once considered a noble profession.
Bernard Lewis, in his book The Political Language of Islam (OUP), tells us how horse-riding came to mean privilege in all parts of the world, including the world of Islam. The word ‘siyasa’ or ‘siyasat’, used by Muslims in their different languages is derived from an ancient Middle Eastern word for ‘horse’. In classical Arabic, it means to ‘groom the horse’ or to ‘train the horse’.
The word in Urdu for the groom of the horse is ‘saees’, but we don’t connect it to siyasat. It is a tragedy that siyasat today has a pejorative aspect and Urdu sometimes uses it as an insult. The implication that men of siyasat ‘ride the people’ rather than the horse is quite strong.
The horse became the symbol of power, bravery and status all over the world. The horse entered the territory of the camel from Central Asia. The Arabs bred the best horse and today, the most sought after racing breed is called Arabian.
In Hebrew, the word for horse is ‘soos’. This relates directly to ‘siyasat’. But in Arabic, the word for horse is ‘faras’. Hence, the other epithet of praise derived from the horse is ‘furusiya’ meaning ‘being knowledgeable about the horse’. Its derived meaning is ‘being gifted in intellect’. The Urdu word we use to describe intellectual gift is ‘farasat’ (horse-sense). The epithets are rooted in the Arabic word for horse, ‘faras’.
Horse used to imply dignity. There was an entire dynasty in ancient Persia that named its best sons after the horse. The Persian word for horse is ‘asp’. The ancestor of Zoroaster was Haechadaspa, (one who sprinkles the horse with water). It is from him that the ending ‘–asp’ became fashionable. Zoroaster, however, means ‘yellow camel’, Zartusht.
The Kayani dynasty had many kings with the horse suffix. Gushtasp (having an alert horse), was the Kayanid with whom Zoroaster began his mission. The son of Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavids, was Tahmasp (owner of a strong horse). In Pakistan, many Kayanis are still named with the horse suffix; for instance, Lahrasp.
In India, because of the Aryan background of the Hindu religion, the name Ashvini recalls the link with Persia. ‘Ashva’ (horse) in Sanskrit is a changed form of Persian and Avestan ‘asp’. ‘Ashvin’ in Sanskrit means ‘mounted on horseback’. It is also the name of the Zodiac sign Gemini, and one month in the Hindi calendar is Ashvina, known in Punjab as ‘Assu’. Ashvini also means ‘wealthy’ because of possession of horses.
In Europe, horse not only bestowed respect, but also gave rise to a code of decent behaviour called ‘chivalry’. Chivalry is derived from ‘cheval’, which is French for horse. The original Greek ‘kaballes’ was considered alien (more familiar was hippos) but in Latin, it took root as ‘caballus’ or ‘packhorse’.
Roman soldiers made the word respectable by using it for horses as a slang word. The Italian version of the name is ‘cavallo’ from where another English word ‘cavalier’ is taken. If ‘chivalry’ is attention to good manners, a ‘cavalier’ attitude may mean a disregard for form. ‘Cavalcade’ and ‘cavalry ‘are the other derivatives where horse may no longer be in evidence. Cavalry today, is made up of tanks.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2012.