Think national or state symbols, and memories come flooding back – of school projects, cutting and pasting pictures, learning up dry facts...all a bit ho-hum. But what purpose do these symbols serve? Do we need them?
State emblems give a nation its unique identity and engender a sense of pride and oneness with the land.
India’s national symbols are the tiger, the peacock, the lotus, the mango and the banyan tree. Strangely, its national emblem, the Sarnath Lion Capital, is only regarded as the official image of the government. How and why did the founding fathers of the country home in on these choices?
For one, they’re present in most parts of the country. They’re interwoven into the religious and cultural matrix of the land. Think lotus, peacock or tiger and ”calendar art” images pop into the mind, of the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati placed on pink and white lotuses, the lotus emerging from the navel of Vishnu, of Lord Kartikeya and his peacock, of Krishna’s hair adorned with peacock feathers, of Goddess Durga riding her tiger.
The mango, peacock and the banyan tree permeate Indian literature, mythology, painting and crafts. The classic lovers’ rendezvous in romantic poetry and art is the mango grove. Hindus use its leaves in religious ceremonies. Parsis plant a young mango tree in a pot during weddings. And the mango motif is internationally known as the paisley, adorning fabrics in all its elaborate beauty.
Peacocks are frequently found in Indian temples. They remain protected thanks to the religious sentiments invested in them. Classics like Kalidasa’s Meghadoota and Kumarasambhava mention these fabulous birds. The banyan tree – a familiar sight in rural India – derives its name from the banian worn by the Hindu traders of old, carrying on their business in its shade. In mythology, it’s the ”wish fulfilling tree” or kalpavriksh. The banyan is said to have sprung from a twig chewed by the 15th century saint, Kabir. Apart from religions and literature, the art and tales of tribal India, too, speak of these symbols.
State symbols reflect a nation’s qualities and aspirations. The tiger symbolizes power and strength as well as independence and dynamism. Quite appropriate for the India emerging as an economic power today. But in the past, the animal most often associated with her was the good old elephant – large, wise, dependable, but slow!
The lotus represents purity and peace. Its lifecycle, from humble beginnings in muddy waters till the time it grows and flowers out of the water, symbolizes the path of spiritual enlightenment that we must follow. The peacock is grace, beauty and joy, while the mango symbolizes fertility and plenty. The banyan, with its aerial roots, represents eternal life.
American states each have their own flag and symbols – they feature in popular culture and are a source of state pride. How would a similar system work in India? Would it make us more clannish than we already are?