Whenever Peacocks are the focus of conversation, the tail forms the epicenter of the tale- iridescent feathers that have a symbolic mystical eye shimmering in each one-cannot help but make the human consciousness to rise up to imagine and query its existential purpose!
Whether those fixed unseeing eyes, are the tragic eyes of Goddess Hera’s favourite spymaster Argus remain questionable. But the story, so poignant in its emotional ebb and flow, that it has for echelons of time, made people look at the peacock as bird symbolizing the transforming power of love and trust between mistress and bondman. As the story goes, Hera had posted her hundred eyed giant to keep an eye on her cheating husband Zeus indulging himself with Io, a river nymph. Zeus, clever enough to take manipulate himself into the role of the king of the God’s could easily solve this problem- he put Argus into a rich dreamy state of sleep and chopped off his head. The inconsolable Hera, placed each of the delicate eyes of Argus in the tail feathers of the peacocks that pulled her chariot. This was probably to keep his protective eye and his spirit close to her, also to remind her of his trust and loyalty, maybe also a bit about his incompetence despite his size- in the world of Gods, one never really knows!
In the Indian context, peacocks have layered and complex roles in legends and myths. The one element that remains unchanged through it all is the belief that the peacock was created from the feathers of Garuda, the giant mythical bird who is Vishnu’s mount. It’s beauty, fearlessness of snakes and power over time are traits that the peacock inherits from this mythical creation. The most interesting and metaphoric representation the peacock has in Hindu mythology is link that is it has with time- Garuda carries Vishnu through time, preserving and maintaining a balance in a cosmos that tends lapse into chaos as easily as a blink of Vishnu’s eye, as a default of being created out of Garuda’s feathers, the peacock is able break through the cyclical nature of Earthy or human time as envisaged by the Hindu Mystics. The peacock does this by devouring snakes! Yes, that is because snakes are symbolic of cyclical time in Hindu Myths. And it is absolutely true that peafowls can eat poisonous snakes with obvious disruption to their digestive system.
This Phoenix like ability to conquer time makes the peacock sacred for all; and particularly valuable creature for royalty, with their desperate desire to preserve dynastic control over land and people. Therefore, India has had an unusually large share of Peacock feathered crowns and of course the imagination grabbing peacock thrones-the stability of all of which have remained very suspect through legend and history! So we have Indra, the king of the Gods, hiding behind the elaborate peacock tail to protect himself from the all-conquering asura Ravana [ Uttara Ramayan]; using the peacock’s tail as a time capsule to preserve his kingly power. Then we have the eternal charmer Krishna, who is entrusted with difficult and rather thankless job of re-establishing the Hindu ‘Dharmic’ social order, wearing peacock feathers in his headband to prove his ability transcend time.
With its ability to control time, the Peacock becomes unconquerable and fearless, making it the perfect mount for Gods and Goddesses, who need to constantly need to travel through space and time to perform their Godly Duties. Hence, we see Karthikeya, ride the peacock into cosmic battles; but he is not alone, Kama the God of love and lust, rides his peacock as he fights to plant emotions of love to replace anger and hate throughout the known world. Most importantly, the peacock transports Goddess Mahamayuri – the peacock wisdom Queen, who is the peaceful looking wrathful Goddess of Mahayana Buddhism to remove poisons from the three worlds across time.
The almost notoriously territorial sense has made them perfect guards of royal gardens of Persian kings and their elaborate Harems. The peacock’s flamboyant plumage has captured the human imagination in a myriad ways and through human history, the peacock has adorned the world of the rich and famous as a creature of beauty and strangely a delicate morsel to grill for the table!
From its mythical creation, to its ability to dance and predict a healthy monsoon, finally, to dressed and marinated carefully for a tasty meal, the peacock has been able to bridge the chasm between myth and reality easily as a swish of its tail feathers.
Written by: SHEILA BHATTACHARYA
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