The peacock, India’s national bird since 1963, is not just a bird, it is a blue iridescent dream that has captivated the imagination of Indian writers, poets, sculptors, painters, dancers, singers, craftsmen and actors for thousands of years. The peacock is the most enduring symbol of the Indian civilisation that has manifested itself in Indian art in myriad forms.
सदा मनोज्ञम् स्वनदुत्सवोत्सुकं
प्रवृत्तनृत्यम् कुलम् अद्य बर्हिणाम्॥
(This cloudy weather fills the heart of peacocks with joy. Displaying their plumage, and impulsively kissing peahens, the peacocks commence their rain dance.)
This is how the greatest romantic poet of India, Kalidasa, describes the monsoon season in his epic, Rutusamhara, through the eyes of the peacock. Kalidasa describes the peacock with the words ‘विकीर्णविस्तीर्णकलापशोभितम्’, meaning adorned with extended, fan-like, expansive plumage.
Peacock in Literature
How important a peacock has been to the Indian mind can be understood from the multiple names used for the bird in Sanskrit literature. A peacock is called अहिरिपु (Ahiripu) because it is the enemy of snakes, चित्रपत्त्रक (Chitrapatraka) because it has painted feathers, मेघानन्दिन् (Meghanandin) because it rejoices in cloudy weather, चित्रबर्हिन् (Chitrabarhin) because it has a painted tail, नर्तनप्रिय (Naratanapriya) because it loves dancing, कलापिन (Kalapin) because it has an expansive plumage and many other names.
Peacock In Sandesha Kavya
Sandesha Kavya or doota kavya is a genre of Sanskrit poetry in which a love-lorn hero sends a message to his estranged beloved using a messenger or a doota. Such poetry is usually written in the mandakranta metre as it is slow moving and lyrical. There are three examples of Sandesha Kavya in Indian literature, where a peacock is used as a doota.
The Mayura Sandesa of Udaya, the Mayuradoota written by Muni Dhurandhara, a Jain monk and the more modern Malayalam classic, also titled Mayurasandesa, written by Kerala Varma Valiya Koithamburan, belonging to the royal family of erstwhile Parappanad princely state in Mallapuram, Kerala in 1894. This was based on his real life story, where he has used the peacocks from the Haripad temple in Alapuzha as a device to send messages to his wife, based in Thiruvananthapuram.
Peacock in Sanatana Dharma
In both, the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, the peacock is mentioned as a mystical bird that has the power of protecting from poison. In the Ramayana, Rishi Valmiki mentions the peacock several times, in different contexts. Shri Rama laments his separation from Ma Sita when he sees the peacock dancing with its splendid plumage with a peahen. In the Mahabharata too, the peacock is mentioned several times.
There is an interesting Puranic story that explains the beautiful plumage of the peacock. The story goes that when Ravana, the powerful king of Lanka, armed with Lord Shiva’s blessing invaded Lord Indra’s kingdom, Lord Indra sought refuge under the feathers of a peacock. At the time, the peacock was a plain-bird with dull feathers. When Ravana returned to Lanka, Indra gave a boon to the peacock saying that just as he, Lord Indra is Sahasraksha, or thousand-eyed, the peacock too shall get a plumage of a thousand iridescent eyes.
The peacock has found its place in Hindu iconography as vehicle of Shri Kartikeya, Lord Shiva’s son, and the general of Indra’s army. The story about how the peacock got to be Kartikeya’s vahana is very interesting. Skandapurāna says, Kartikeya was born to vanquish the demon Tarakasura. As he got ready for battle, so onerous was his task that all Gods gathered to help him get ready. His father, Bhagwan Shiv gave Kartikeya a locket while Indra gave him a string of pearls. Agni gave him a spear, the Guru of the Devas, Brihaspati gave him a club, river Ganga gave him a kamandala full of rejuvenating water and Garuda, the vahana of Shri Vishnu, gifted Shri Kartikeya, his son, the peacock as his vahana. The name of Kartikeya’s peacock is Paravani.
Shri Kartikeya is described in the following words;
महामतिं दिव्यमयूरवाहनम् ।
(One with six faces and a complexion that is as red as kumkum, possessing a great intellect and riding a celestial peacock)
There are many Murtis of Kartikeya where he is shown seated on the peacock. According to Shri Gopinath Rao, an expert on Hindu iconography, the seated figure of Subramanya may be depicted on a Padmasana or on a peacock. But if Skanda is shown seated on a lotus, the Murti should have only two or four arms. But if he is shown seated upon a peacock, a Skanda Murti may have two, four, six or even twelve arms.
The peacock is also a vahana of Devi Saraswati, the patron deity of learning, arts and wisdom.
The peacock is also associated with Shri Krishna, who is always depicted as wearing a peacock feather in his hair. There is a beautiful Puranic legend behind this. Once when Lord Krishna was playing his flute on the Govardhana hill, all sentient beings came to listen to him. Peacocks started dancing in joy. After the dance, the king of the peacocks offered a feather to Shri Krishna with humility. Touched by this gesture, Shri Krishna accepted the gift and adorned his hair with it.
Peacock in Jainism
The peacock is seen as both an expression of nature’s beauty and a protective force by Jains. Digambara sect Jain monks use a picchi, which is a broom made of fallen peacock feathers for removing any insects in their path or for clearing a place where they sit. There is even a Jain meditation hall shaped like a picchi in Karnataka, to remind the members of the community to be mindful of all sentient beings.
Peacock in Buddhism
The peacock plays an important role in Buddhist literature. In Mahamora Jataka, the Bodhisatva is born as a golden peacock who is desired by the wife of the king of Varanasi. The king sends seven hunters to catch the golden peacock. There is a long discussion on the nature of Dharma between the hunter and the golden peacock. In another Jataka story too, the Baveru Jataka, the Bodhisattva is born as a young peacock. In the stupas of Barhout and Sanchi, there are magnificent carvings of the peacock. In Gandhara art, the Buddha is even depicted as riding the peacock.
Peacock in Indian History
The peacock has always been associated with India. It went to the western world through India. The Bible mentions that King Solomon imported the beautiful bird from India to beautify the gardens of his great temple in Jerusalem.
Peacock was one of the commodities that was exported from the ancient Indian port of Muziris in today’s Kerala. When Alexander entered India, he is said to have been so enamoured by the beautiful plumage of the peacock that he took two hundred of these magnificent birds back with him to Macedonia and bred them.
Foreign travellers to India were so dazzled by the beauty of the Indian peacock, that most of them mentioned the bird. Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian wrote a detailed account of the peacock’s habits in his book, ‘The Natural History’ dating to the middle of the first century BCE. The book mentions that a peacock is not only known for its ‘singular beauty, as its superior instinct, and the vanity it displays.’
In India, peacocks have been sacred to many dynasties. The great ‘Mauryan’ dynasty is named after the peacock. The bird is mentioned several times in the rock edicts of Ashoka as well in Kautilya’s Arthshastra. The Gupta rulers, who pioneered the ‘golden age’ of India issued gold and silver coins depicting the peacock along with Kartikeya, their patron deity.
The Islamic sultanates adopted the peacock in their art as a creature of beauty, it was shorn off all its sacred symbolism and used as a royal motif in their art as well as architecture. In Rajasthan especially, you see the peacock everywhere in architecture and paintings.
Peacock In India’s Geography
You can find the peacock’s footprint all over India’s geography. From Mayurbhanj district of Odisha to the Morvi district of Gujarat, many place names in India are inspired by the peacock. Tamil Nadu particularly, has so many places associated with the peacock, starting from the heart of today’s Chennai, the suburb of Mylapore. It derives its name from Mayilarparikumoor, meaning ‘land of the peacock scream’. It is said that Devi Parvati appeared here as a pea-hen and prayed for Lord Shiva.
Pallava ruler Nandivarman III who ruled this area in the 9th century CE was known as ‘Mylai Kavalan’ or the ‘Protector of the City of Peacocks’. The city of Mayilathudurai, earlier known as Mayuram was also named after the peacock. New Delhi’s modern suburb, Mayur Vihar, literally, an abode of peacocks, is a recent example of the peacock’s tryst with Indian geography.
Peacock in Coinage
The peacock has been appearing on Indian coins since about 600 BCE. Punch-marked coins dating to 600 BCE show other a figure of a peacock standing on a symbol representing five hills. Peacock is also seen as a motif on the coins of the Yaudheya Gana, a clan of warriors that is even mentioned in the Mahabharat. Their coins date back to the 5th century BCE. They governed a janapada independently till they were subsumed by the Mauryans. They were a war-like clan and worshipped Skanda or Kartikeya. Their coins depict Skanda with a peacock.
The Gupta dynasty kings were ardent devotees of Shri Kartikeya as well, and even had names like Skanda Gupta and Kumara Gupta after the General of the Gods. They minted golden coins that depicted Shri Kartikeya with peacocks. Kumar Gupta I issued a gold coin in which he showed himself as feeding a peacock with grapes, on one side, and Kartikeya riding a peacock on the other side.
Conclusion of Part I
The peacock has continued to maintain its place as the most popular motif in art and architecture of India over the last 7000 years or more. In the second part of this article, we will trace the journey of the peacock through India’s varied and diverse traditions of Arts and Crafts.
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