Behind the motif: History and symbolism of the peacock in Indian art & textile

L to R: Taūs (mayuri); Akbar Shah II on the Peacock Throne. Pic credits: The Met Museum, Wikimedia Commons, The Met Museum

In 1903, when the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, hosted a coronation ball to celebrate the succession of King Edward VII, the opulent spectacle was overshadowed by one woman and her ensemble — the Vicereine Lady Mary Curzon and her gown. Recorded in history as the infamous 'Peacock Dress', the gown was a stunning feat of elaborate gold and silver metalwork that highlighted the motif of peacock feathers. Approximately 10 pounds in weight (the size of an adult bird), the zardozi dress panels overlapped like peacock feathers with a blue-green beetle wing marking each centre eye.

Pic caption: Lady Curzon in her peacock gown. Credit: National Trust Collection

The significance of the peacock does not begin with this opulent display of 1903 or the crowning of the peacock as India's National Bird in 1963, for that matter. It is part of a larger cultural past that has unfolded in the Asian continent, spanning many millennia. This magnificent bird has inspired many artists and artisans across many different cultures. Peacock as a symbol has long been in commission for sacred and secular use — from sacred burial urns used by the Indus Valley Civilization and Yaudheya Gana's (a warrior clan mentioned in the Mahabharata) punch-marked coins dating 5th Century BCE to the 17th Century jewel-encrusted throne of Shah Jahan.

Pic caption: L to R: Kumara Riding a Peacock; Buddha, possibly Amitabha, on a peacock. Credit: The Met Museum

A prolific icon in Hindu mythology, the peacock takes on multiple roles of mighty steed and protector. There's Paravani who serves Kartikeya — the Hindu god of war, and the son of Shiva and Parvathi — as his vahana. In the epic, the Ramayana, Indra takes shelter under the wing of a peacock and as gratitude for the peacock's protection, he blesses the bird with ‘a thousand eyes’. Another famous iconographic association of the peacock is with lord Krishna who embellishes his headband with a feather. Buddhism also features the tale of Mahāmāyūrī or the 'great peacock'. In Gandhara art, Buddha is even depicted as riding the peacock.

However, one of the most interesting metaphoric representations of the peacock comes from Hindu mythology and the bird’s symbolism with time. Created from the feather of Garuda (Vishnu's vahana), the peacock or the Mayura is often depicted as killing a snake – a symbol of the cycle of time. This legend perhaps best represents the enduring charm and patronage that the peacock has had throughout history. It has remained a symbol of beauty; transcending time and reinventing its allure with every passing era, every new cycle of life. 

Given its deep-rooted significance in the subcontinent, it is little wonder that the peacock is among the most quintessential motifs in Indian textile. After all, motifs across art serve dual roles – aesthetics and the meditation of their symbolic appeal.

The 'mayil chakaram' of Kanchipuram carries this value when woven into the silk. The peacock (mayil) paired with the circle of life (chakram) plays the role of a guardian across the cycles of birth and rebirth. The mayil is woven in intricate detail on the border and pallu of the kanjivaram or as small motifs all over the body. 

In the Paithan saree of Maharashtra, the peacock motif occupies a pride of place. Among the most intricate motifs designed on the weave is the bangdi-mor or the peacock inside a bangle. This design traditionally consisted of 36 elements including four peacocks and a central flower. In the brocades of Banaras, the peacock is among the few favoured animal motifs used for its beauty, grace and magnificent plumage.

Heritage and culture remain pivotal to our understanding of the contemporary world. At Dakshinam, we believe they are the cornerstones of our ideas, our emotions, our perspectives – and we aim to infuse this spirit into each of our weaves.

Behind the motif is a blog series by Dakshinam exploring the histories and symbolism of motifs and patterns that are a part of India’s design vocabulary.