The Aśvamedha: in the context of early South Asian socio-political development

  • Saikat K. Bose (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


The several spectacular congregational sacrifices or yajñas known from early first millennium B.C. South Asia, viz. the rājasūya, vājapeya, gavāmayana or atirātra, included numerous rites, rituals and customs with magical connotations, and also had significant political implications like reasserting a monarch’s positions or promoting him through several stages of kingship. One such sacrifice, the aśvamedha, often referred to in the context of empires and metropolises c. 8–7th century B.C., was rather spectacular, involving the letting loose of a horse, its military peregrination for one year, and its subsequent immolation in a rite involving mock necrophilia and bestiality. The many studies of the rites, procedure, and symbolism of aśvamedha are marked by two apparent gaps. The first of these is that most studies, apart from some notable works like of Puhvel or, more recently, Witzel, are preoccupied with the mature form of the aśvamedha and do not adequately consider the evolution of the rites, procedures and symbolisms. The second gap is that most studies, including the ones referred to above, concentrate on the various ritual symbolisms of the sacrifice, usually overlooking its ‘military’ aspect, i.e. the ritualised military context of the yearlong circuit, that had actually made the sacrifice so spectacular. The aim of this paper is to go beyond the ritual and ceremonial aspects of the aśvamedha as known from its mature form, and seek the roots of its politico–military procedure far back in time in the nomad world of endemic warfare.