Stray Notes on Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The ubiquitous presence of the peacock in Indian art and religious iconography is seen across the last two millennia and dates back to the Mauryan period. Peacock motifs are even seen on Indus vases and pots. From temples carvings, bronzes, sacramental and cosmetic adornment, to thrones and miniatures, the peacock has a quite a prominent place in the subcontinent. (See Christine Jackson’s Peacock for further reading). It is fabled that St. Thomas the Apostle visited India and was accidentally killed by the arrow of a peacock hunter outside his hermitage in Mylapore, the ‘land of the peacock scream’. PeacockNightMayil in Tamil or Mayura in Sanskrit is the mythological vehicle (vahana) of the god Karthikeya or Muruga – the son of Shiva. San Thome Basilica is popularly believed to be the original burial site of the saint.

Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night forms part of a Ragamala manuscript of Deccani miniatures of the 16th century. Some confusion persists as to a precise provenance, but both the medieval Bahmani sultanates of Ahmadnagar (see Taarif-i Hussain Shahi) and Bijapur are suggested, Mark Zebrowski writes in Deccani Painting (1983). In particular, the Bijapur sultan Ibrabim Adil Shah II was known not just as a connoisseur of the arts, but as an accomplished musician, poet, calligraphist and painter himself, besides being well versed with Islamic and Hindu mystical traditions. His book of poems, Kitab-i Nauras, (read here) Zebrowski writes, “is strongly Sanskritic in vocabulary and contains numerous descriptions of ragas and raginis, with accounts of their moods, activities, and attributes”. Zebrowski further suggests that since the nine remaining Ragamala paintings (it is speculated that there are more) bear ‘crude Sanskrit inscriptions’ and a few equally ‘crude’ translated Persian words, it is difficult to ascribe them entirely to either one of these sophisticated schools but they seem instead to indicate ‘a provincial milieu’ and perhaps are linked to a larger Persianate style across Northern Deccan, western Gujarat and southern Malwa, with some regional variations.

The fragmentary Peacock In A Rainstorm At Night, remains a fine example of this era of Deccani miniatures and is evocative of monsoons, for it is the onset of the rains that signals the peacock’s mating season and as depicted in this particular work, Zebrowski writes, “…a male flies from tree to tree shrieking his mating cry, startling tiny birds roosting in delicate new foliage. Long, white raindrops coldly fill the black sky. As rains and peacocks are poetic symbols of unrequited love, the missing portion of the page may have contained a lovesick lady, waiting for her lover who has not come”.

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