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Following the Trail of a Peacock, from Northern Iraq to Singapore and Beyond (part 2)06 Aug 2018
In this blog series, MEI Visiting Research Fellow Martin van Bruinessen writes about the curious significance of the peacock across cultures from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. This second part explores the ubiquity of the peacock in Tamil Hindu communities.
How and why did an Indian lady with a peacock lamp end up on a wall in Northern Iraq?
The only obvious connection of Yezidism and India that I could think of was constituted by Zoroastrianism. Many elements of the Yezidi religion appear derived from old Iranian religion (and many other elements have clearly Islamic origins and are very similar to Sufi teachings). Kurdish nationalists have often proclaimed that Yezidism was the original Kurdish religion, that is was in essence a form of Zoroastrianism, and that Zoroaster or Zarathustra, the founder of that religion, was in fact a Kurd. In Iraqi Kurdistan there was in the 2000s a marked revival of interest in Zoroastrianism, among Muslims as well as Yezidis and other religious minorities. When the district of Afrin in North-western Syria, which has a substantial Yezidi population, was controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the PKK’s sister party), the canton administration erected a statue of Zarathustra in front of a newly embellished Yezidi shrine. (The statue was allegedly torn down immediately upon the occupation of Afrin by Turkey and its jihadist allies in February 2018.)
Statue of Zarathustra in front of a Yezidi shrine in Afrin, erected by the PYD
canton authorities. Screenshot of a video clip posted on YouTube in Feb 2018.
There are still a few surviving Zoroastrian communities in Iran, mainly in Yazd and Tehran, but the largest Zoroastrian community today are the Parsis of Bombay and their diaspora, a prosperous trading community represented all along the Indian Ocean and South China Sea littoral, including in Singapore. A Google search revealed that Parsi media have shown some interest in the Yezidis and their possible Zoroastrian origins. Dismissing the fact that I did not find any mention of peacock-shaped lamps in the literature on the Parsis, and that sari the woman in the painting was wearing was rather unlike those seen on photographs of Parsi ladies, I assumed that the most likely explanation of the painting was that it originated in a visit by Parsis to Lalish.
But then last year, when I was reading the manuscript of a book that an old friend had sent me, I suddenly saw the connection that had eluded me. Peter Wilson, whom I had met in Tehran in the 1970s, when he was translating Sufi poetry, has a long-standing interest in the esoteric and heterodox sects on the margins of Islam. In this text, he offers an interpretation of Yezidism as an expression of resistance against established religion. I found it hard to agree with everything he reads into Yezidism, but found the text thought-provoking enough to continue reading. And then I hit upon this passage, in an aside:
“In recent times Hindus who worship Murugan (Sanat Kumara), the Son of Shiva in the form of a Peacock Angel have been accepted as related to the Yezidis; and that an Order of the Peacock Angel has appeared to take in those “strangers” who wish to worship Malek Ta’us” (Peter Lamborn Wilson, Cauda Pavonis: Esoteric Antinomianism in the Yezidi Tradition, forthcoming).
That passage brought back a recent memory: when I attended Thaipusam at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur last year, I had seen peacock-shaped oil lamps in the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, where the Thaipusam procession started and on the following day ended. I had been struck by their shape and had taken several photographs. Like the Thaipusam festival itself, the peacock lamps appeared to be associated with the worship of Murugan.
Sri Mahamariamman temple, Kuala Lumpur, February 2017
Sri Mahamariamman temple, Kuala Lumpur, February 2017
Peacock feathers were much in evidence in the Thaipusam processions. Most of the elaborate kavadis carried by devotees are decorated with (real or imitation) peacock feathers. The peacock appears closely associated with the cult of Murugan, for in Tamil Hindu iconography, as I learned, Murugan’s mount is a peacock. However, I did not notice any apparent special devotion for the peacock – unlike for instance the veneration of Shiva’s mount Nandi.
Kavadi, Thaipusam, Batu Caves, February 1982
On arriving in Singapore in June this year, I spent a few weekends visiting Hindu temples and strolling through little India, looking for peacocks. The only temple so far where I found peacock lamps was the Chettiar temple on Tank Road, where Murugan is worshipped in the form of the deity Thendayuthapani.
Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, Singapore, 23 June 2018
The other temples did not have such peacock lamps, but I found the same lamps on display in completely secular settings, inside or in front of Indian restaurants on Race Course Road, including the one that had been my favourite restaurant on previous visits to Singapore. They seemed to serve a purely decorative purpose.
Gayatri restaurant, Race Course Road, Singapore, 23 June 2018
I asked the restaurant personnel what they knew about the peacock and what it represented, but they were not able to tell me more than that it was imported from India, was believed to bring good luck and was an auspicious sign to welcome guests. The association with Murugan did not appear to come to mind, and I doubt how important the peacock symbol is to the average Murugan worshipper.
To be continued in part three.