The Peacock: Of a Fabulous Tail and Fantastic Tales

The competition was tough, the prize impressive. Among the many strong contenders were influential members of the avian fraternity- the Great Indian Bustard, the Sarus crane, the Garuda and the Swan. But only one would rise above the rest and bag the top honour- the national bird status.  We all know how that story ends.

peacock national bird

In 1963, the Peacock became the National Bird of India. However, the magnificent blue bird with its exquisite plumage was an icon from much earlier and much beyond the Indian subcontinent. Symbolising flamboyance, royalty, wisdom, or even vanity, the peacock is significant to so many cultures in all corners of India.

Today, we invite you to different sort of bird-watching. Let us follow the beautiful blue bird as it gracefully glides its way into museums, art, architecture and legend.

The Peacock : A Seat for Royalty

The jewel-encrusted, opulent throne befitted the richest of the Mughal monarchs and the peacock motif added to its grandeur. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, it graced the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) in the Red Fort, Delhi. The jewel-encrusted, opulent throne befitted the richest of the Mughal monarchs and the peacock motif added to its grandeur.

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Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne | Indian Museum, Kolkata

The “Peacock Throne” gets it’s name from the two peacocks that adorn the throne.  Various jewels such as emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls and even the Kohinoor diamond adorned the throne, signifying the colours of a peacock’s feathers.

peacock national bird
Akbar Shah II on the Peacock Throne | Indian Museum, Kolkata

In 1739, the ruthless warlord Nadir Shah of Persia sacked the city of Delhi and defeated the then Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. He looted the imperial treasury, including the Peacock Throne, and it has not been found since.

Peacock : Favoured by the Divine

The peacock was a favourite with the gods. Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War and son of Lord Shiva and Parvati, uses the peacock as his steed (vahana).

peacock national bird
In this particular depiction, Kartikeya is shown with six heads (Shanmukha), reflecting the legend around his birth that he was taken care of by six mothers as a new born baby | Indian Museum, Kolkata

The most famous iconographic association of the peacock is with Lord Krishna who brandished its feather on his headband.

peacock national bird
Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā seated beneath a tree and accompanied by a white cow. Rajasthan School c.1800 | British Museum

Interestingly, the peacock finds a way to connect with Buddhism as well! Regarded as a symbol of wisdom, some depictions of Buddha feature a peacock.

peacock national bird
Buddha riding a Peacock (Ming Dynasty, China 15th century) | Met Museum

In fact,  a sculpture from the Bharhut Stupa,  represents Buddha as a peacock himself, flanked by two other peacocks on his sides referring to two of his premier disciples.

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Sculptural Piece from Bharhut, 2nd Century BCE, Indian Museum

The Peacock, a Musical Call

The Peacock is associated with  Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and music.

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Saraswati with peacock and sitar, chromolith by Raja Ravi Varma

This Mayuri Vina, a peacock-shaped, bow string musical instrument was quite popular in Indian courts in the 19th century.  The Indian Museum in Kolkata has an interesting collection featuring this instrument.

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Mayuri Vina, The MET Museum : The instrument includes an actual peacock beak and feathers

The instrument was part of a band that played to welcome the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) to Bengal in 1875. Following the event, the instruments  found home at the Indian Museum, donated by the eminent Indian musicologist, Raja Sourindra Mohun Tagore (from the same family as the poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore).

The Peacock in Design and Architecture


In some aspects of architectural design, the use of the peacock functioned as an ornament. And given how beautiful the bird is, it lent itself well for the purpose. At Sanchi, you can spot the beautiful bird on the stupa gateways, generally in landscape scenes.

The eastern gate depicts a peacock pair in profile, on a rocky landscape, with a mango tree in the background.

The Peacock makes an appearance at the City Palace Jaipur too!

peacock national symbol
The City Palace in Jaipur has four gateways, each representing different seasons. The elaborate peacock design of this gate symbolising autumn is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
Also Read : Peacock in the Desert

Minted in money

It is a testimony to the peacock’s significance that it appears so often on all that is valuable- money. On coins issued by the Gupta ruler, Skandgupta, the peacock appears on the reverse with its feathers unfurled while the Emperor was depicted on its obverse.

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The Emperor probably wanted to associate with Lord Kartikeya, also known as Skand. Image : Coin India

The peacock also appeared on notes issued by the Reserve Bank of India much before India became independent. This note issued in 1939 bears the image of King George VI with an illustration of dancing peacocks at the bottom, underneath the panel of value denomination.

We hope you enjoyed this post. If you’re keen on peacock-spotting this season, no better place than a museum!
Srishti Sood
Srishti Sood
Srishti is a recent graduate from University College London where she was studying Material and Visual Culture. A museum enthusiast, she is incurably curious with a sense of humour, sensible only to herself.

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