Endangered

The National Bird of India

By Samar Singh , President, World Pheasant Association - India .

The Peafowl is considered a divine creature in Indian mythology, especially as the vahana of Kartikeya, son of Lord Shiva and army commander of all the gods. It is also said that at one time when the gods took the form of various birds, Devraj Indra chose the finest form, that of a peacock, and ever since, whenever Indra brings rain on earth, all the peacocks dance in joy and merriment - a sight to behold, meant for the gods. Lord Krishna's association with the peafowl is verily legendary: peacock feathers have always adorned his headgear, popularly known as the ‘mor-mukut', and it is said that Krishna danced like a peacock to court his beloved Radha and when he played his mellifluous flute, the peacocks danced in unison with the gopis. Even now, the temples dedicated to Krishna display the peacocks prominently on the entrance gates. The famous epic Ramayan has many references to these birds and there is even a folklore that traces the birth of Sita from a peahen egg. Likewise, one Buddhist Jataka folktale, called the ‘Maha-mor', relates how Gautam Buddha was a golden peacock prior to his birth as a human being. In Buddhist mythology, the peacock is a symbol of compassion and watchfulness. Buddhist and Jain legends and folklore contain numerous references to the role and importance of the peafowl.

As for recorded Indian history, the earliest findings relate to the Indus Valley Civilisation dating back to about five thousand years. The excavations at Harappa , Mohenjo-daro and some other sites have thrown up evidence not only of the existence of peafowl at that time but also, and more importantly, of the pre-eminent role accorded to the bird by the people in those days. There was even a popular belief then that after death the human soul travels to its heavenly abode with the help of a peacock and in its form. Later, throughout India 's history, the peafowl has received state recognition, one way or the other. The Maurya and Gupta rulers conferred special status to the species and even reared these birds in their palace gardens. Emperor Ashok in the second century BC forbade the killing of peafowl for the table and some of his stone edicts displayed the peacock prominently. The famous Sanchi Stupa of around the same period also carries images of the peacock. During the Gupta period in the fifth century AD, several coins depicting the peacock were issued and it was also a favourite subject for the art and architecture of that time. This trend continued in varying forms subsequently, even during the medieval period when the Muslim rulers were dominant. For instance, the Tughlak kings were so fascinated by the peafowl feather that they adopted its design for the state emblem and prescribed its use in various ways, including the headgear of the soldiers. Moreover, fans made of peacock feathers were regularly used in the courtrooms of many rulers all across the country, including the imperial Mughals.

The memoirs of the first Mughal Emperor called the Baburnamah, carries an interesting and perceptive account of the birds of India , which appropriately starts with the peafowl. Babur described the peacock as “a beautifully coloured and splendid bird; its form is not equal to its colouring and beauty.” However, it was the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, who paid perhaps the greatest tribute to the bird, when he got the jewelled Peacock Throne made soon after assuming power. It was a unique and fabulous piece of artistic work, which took seven years to complete and its cost even at that time was computed in several millions; it is surmised that the cost was at least twice as much as that for the Taj Mahal. The dazzling structure, studded with precious gems and jewels, had a canopy supported on twelve emerald columns or pillars; on top were beautifully crafted large-sized peacocks facing each other and bedecked with gems – shining rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls. Shah Jahan was surely aware of the Islamic folklore that the peacock was the original guardian of the gates of Paradise and the Persian myth that two peacocks facing each other on either side of the ‘Tree of Life' symbolise the duality of human nature. For a century or so, the Peacock Throne became the most prestigious symbol of Mughal power and authority, and around 1648 it was shifted from Agra to Delhi , when Shah Jahan changed his capital. Then in 1739, Nadir Shah invaded India , plundered Delhi and took away this marvellous throne to Persia , along with all the other booty. For more than two hundred years, it was known to be at Teheran, but then it disappeared mysteriously and has since not been found. Now, it is no more than a legend.

However, after being deprived of the original peacock throne, the later Mughal Emperors, right till the deposition of Bahadur Shah in 1857, are said to have used a silver peacock throne, which was, of course, a mere shadow of the original one. Besides, even during the time of Emperor Aurangzeb and, in fact, to honour him in a way, a small exquisite peacock throne was made within a fabulous diorama built at Dresden in Austria . And then, about a hundred years back, King Ludwig of Germany got a peacock throne made, embellished with three life-size enamelled peacocks.

( Photograph: G.S Ranjan, taken at Dakshin Chitra, Madras )

-To be continued


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