Shalihotra: He Wrote The Book on Horses

Shalihotra: He Wrote The Book on Horses

In ancient India, when sages, astronomers and philosophers were trying to figure out the mysteries of life and the universe, one man was busy writing the first manual on horse care.

Actually a lengthy treatise on the care, management and treatment of horses titled Shalihotra Samhita (Encyclopedia of the Physician Shalihotra), it was penned by a man named Shalihotra, considered the founder of veterinary sciences in India.

The Shalihotra Samhita is believed to have been written in the 3rd BCE and is based on the system of Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine rooted in the medicinal properties of plants.

Consisting of around 12,000 shlokas or verses in Sanskrit, the Shalihotra Samhita is highly acclaimed and has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Tibetan and English too.

We don’t know very much about Shalihotra or his life but it is said that he lived in present-day Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh. Opinion is also divided on when exactly he lived. According to some, he lived in the 3rd BCE, but others suggest it was at the end of the 1st CE.

A Manuscript of the Shalihotra - 1700-1750 | Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund - Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

But why would someone care so much about horses 2,000 years ago? At the time, human existence was much more intimately tied to the lives of animals than it is today. Livestock was crucial for domestication, and powerful animals like horses and elephants were critical for travel and in times of war. Naturally, humans, who benefitted greatly from these beasts, developed a system to care for them.

In fact, ancient Indian literature such as the Vedas, the Puranas and the epics contain abundant information on the healthcare of animals, which suggests that animal medicine in India goes back 3,000-4,000 years.

But it is Shalihotra’s work that laid the foundation of veterinary medicine in India. Apart from the Shalihotra Samhita, his other seminal work, titled Asv Ayurveda Siddhanta (Complete Ayurvedic System for Horses), is also considered foundational to veterinary medicine in India.

Others, such as Haya Ayurveda, Ashvaprasna (In Praise of Horses) and Ashvalakshnashastra (Treatise on the Marks of Horses) are also highly regarded.

One of the pages from the Manuscript of the Shalihotra - 1700-1750 | Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund - Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

These texts focus on the different breeds of horses, how to tell their age, which animals were suited to serve in royal families and kingdoms, how to transact in horses, as well as details on diseases and how to treat them.

Later scholars on the subject revised and amended the Shalihotra Samhita. For instance, there is a manuscript at the Dundlod Fort in Jhunjhunu in the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan based on Shalihotra’s work.

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