All photos courtesy of the Museum of Art and Photography
“The magnificent peacock is the glory of God.”
For more than 2,000 years, peacocks have roamed the arts, architecture, legends and religions of India. From Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne, where two peacocks face each other topped with columns of emeralds for the 17th century Muslim Emperor who built the Taj Mahal for his deceased wife, to the Peacock Gate of the City Palace of Jaipur in Rajasthan, where peacocks, beautifully deployed tails, atop an 18th century gate leading to a courtyard, to a peacock-tail shaped temple in southern India, peacocks predominate.
The most beloved Hindu god, Lord Krishna, wears a peacock feather in his crown. Legend has it that the peacocks were so enchanted with his flute playing, that they laid their feathers on the ground in front of him, and he promised to wear them forever. The Hindu god of war, Kartikeya (also called Murugan or Skanda), uses the peacock as a vehicle in many performances in southern India. Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom and music, is often depicted with a peacock in southern India (a swan elsewhere).
Another legend explains the origin of the magnificent plumage of the peacock. When Indra, the Hindu god of rain, thunder and lightning, was fighting a demon king named Rayana, a peacock raised its tail to form a shield to protect it from sight. As a reward, the peacocks received glorious blue-green feathers.
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âThe magnificent peacock is the glory of God,â says a Sanskrit verse. “In a land of pageantry and color, it is only fitting that the peacock has been officially proclaimed the national bird of India,” wrote EP Gee, a British wildlife photographer to Indian wild life in 1964.
âThe peacock has been a powerful symbol in Indian art through different periods, genres and mediums, from its earliest traces in prehistoric painted rock shelters and carvings of the Indus Valley civilization [2,500-1,500 B.C.] to Mughal miniature paintings today, âexplains Kamini Sawhney, director of Museum of Art and Photography in Bangalore (Bangalore). “Peacocks are in Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Rigveda, the oldest sacred text in India [written around 1,500 B.C. in Sanskrit]. “
A Hindu dynasty whose emblem was the peacock was even named after the bird. The Maurya Empire, founded in 322 BC. AD by Chandragupta Maurya, was called the greatest empire of ancient India; it once stretched from Afghanistan to Bengal and Kashmir to the Deccan plateau. Mauryan himself was bred by peacock tamers, according to some sources. The last Gupta dynasty depicted a peacock, and the king feeding a peacock, on gold and silver from the 4th and 5th centuries coins.
Once you start looking for peacock art and monuments in India, you find them everywhere. Okay, Shah Jahan’s peacock throne is gone. Encrusted with diamonds, sapphires and pearls, the seven-year masterpiece found its way to Persia, stolen in 1739 by the conqueror Nadir Shah along with other palace treasures when he sacked Delhi, transported by elephants and camels. Later it was destroy, chopped for its precious stones. But don’t worry: the peacock patterns are endless.
Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bangalore
“In South India, Basadi Betta temple in Karnataka, Kartikeya mounted on a peacock on a temple wall at Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai [in Tamil Nadu], and the ruins of Hampi in Karnataka stand out. Kartikeya is revered mainly in southern India, so depictions of him on his peacock are very popular there, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, but also in Kerala and Karnataka, âexplains Monisha Bharadwaj, author of Indian style, a delivered on design, and owner of a cooking school, Cooking with Monisha.
The peacock-tail, aqua and gold-shaped Basadi Betta Temple is in the rural hills of Mandaragiri, a two-hour drive from bustling Bengaluru; it is designed to resemble the peacock feather fans worn by monks of the Jain religion. Sri Meenakshi is an exuberant and colorful example of South Indian Dravidian-style architecture, where the god of war sits astride a peacock in profile against a bright blue wall. The impressive ruins near the village of Hampi are those of Vijayanagar, once the capital of one of India’s largest Hindu empires until 1565, when it was conquered.
âSome legends claim that the Buddha was a golden peacock in a previous birth, so the bird is also considered sacred to Buddhists. There are stone carvings of peacocks in the Sanchi stupas commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, âshe adds. The Sanchi Towers, one of the oldest stone structures in India and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a Buddhist complex built by Emperor Mauryan Ashoka, a devout convert, near Bhopal in the State of Madhya Pradesh. Buddhism originated in India: The Buddha was a Hindu prince who achieved enlightenment after sitting under a Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya.
Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bangalore
To see a potpourri of peacocks in one place, the Museum in Bangalore, the technological capital of India, is a great place to start. His collection ranges from a painting where Krishna beats a demon bull and peacocks partying, to lamp tops and painted textiles used in shrines to saris and brocade skirts. âPeacocks are associated with royalty and greatness, so you often encounter their imagery in many Indian textiles,â says Sawhney.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has both a peacock-shaped lute, popular in 19th-century royal courts, and a Mughal miniature painting of a peacock and peacock (female birds lack the glorious plumage).
Today, peacocks are a popular motif for rangoli (artistic designs on the round ground adorned with colored sand or flour) during Diwali, the Hindu festival of autumnal lights to welcome Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), into homes. The bird is also a favorite motif for flower petals rangolI called pookalamâCreated for Onam in Kerala, one of the biggest celebrations in India’s southernmost state.
If you’re in the mood for real, over 130 peacocks frolic in the gardens of Rambagh Palace, a luxury Hotel and former royal residence in Jaipur. One of them, named Sultan, is said to have taken a liking to a staff member and sought him out daily for cashew and almond snacks. The Taj Hotels Rajasthan property also features a Peacock Suite, adorned with peacock designs, marble inlays, and delicate mirrors and stones. Peacocks also roam the countryside and villages, and are so loved, the Prime Minister of India shared a video Last summer, he hand-fed the birds at his official home in Delhi and recited a poem about them. This prompted critics to say he chose peacocks for the pandemic.