Most already know that animal motifs aren’t included in jewellery simply to beautify. So what do these animals mean? Rashmi looks at how religion and symbolism extend to South Indian finery to form a part of daily life.
Animal motifs have been consistently popular down South. I’m not just pulling this truism out of thin air, though. The timing is perfect. The folks at Saffronart Delhi are holding an exhibition, “Jewels from South India” till April 30. For those who know their South Indian jewellery, you’re already familiar with the numerous stylised animals and gods you find on necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets etc. Today, I’ll be looking at four animals, beginning with…
1. The Peacock
South Indian pendants effortlessly imbibe the motif of the peacock, and it’s not just because of the bird’s beauty and elegance. Talking about why the peacock is so important in Indian culture is almost trite—there’s no dearth of representations and allusions to the bird. In South Indian (especially Tamil) mythology, it is the vahana (vehicle) of Murugan/Kartikeya, the God of war, victory, love and wisdom. Readers familiar with the works of Raja Ravi Verma will recall his paintings of Kartikeya seated on a peacock with his two consorts, Valli and Deivayanai, and of Goddess Saraswati seated, while a peacock looks on. Known to spread its plumage at the start of spring, the peacock also gains metaphorical importance: it symbolises the blossoming of love.
2. The Parrot
In Hindu mythology, the parrot is associated with Lord Kama, the god of love. The bird is found as a motif in South Indian temples. Parrots symbolise fertility and desire—definitely worthy of imbibing in jewellery designs.
3. The Fish
The fish gains significance from the tale of Lord Vishnu’s very first avatar: the matsya. As a giant fish, Lord Vishnu saves Manu, believed to be the creator of mankind in Hinduism, by navigating his ship through a great deluge. After the deluge is over, Manu begins life afresh and propagates the race of humans. The fish is thus seen as an emblem of rebirth. The medieval temple of Koneswaram in Trincomalee, Tamil Nadu, which was destroyed in the 17th century, housed a shrine dedicated to Matsya.
4. The Elephant
Those who know their Hindu iconography know that the elephant is one of the most revered of animals. Lord Ganapati, the bringer of prosperity, immediately comes to mind. So does Airavat, the vahana of Indra, God of Heaven. Renowned historian and fine art consultant Dr. Usha R. Bala Krishnan, and writer Meera Sushil Kumar note that animals like the elephant are “…quintessential elements of jewellery design particularly in south India….[They are] regarded as an epiphany of God” (Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India, p244). The elephant is linked to royalty, abundance, richness and fertility.
These animal motifs are important as religion and symbolic references to romance are often intertwined. With other motifs, the function is more specific. Fruit and flower motifs are symbolic of romance. Motifs of Gods take on a purely religious function.
More to follow soon, so keep dropping by.