“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”
Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’
We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it… this is also a Monkey Temple.
A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.
“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”
I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’
“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”
“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.
Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.
Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.
Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore… I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.
After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.
“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.
In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.
“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.
“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”
“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”
“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.
The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.
“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.
“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.
I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.
Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India… “If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.”
‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.
A young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.
I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.
“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.
“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.
“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!
“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.
“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.
The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.
“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”
After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.
I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.
“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.
Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”
Well now that’s an understatement…
But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.
Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.
Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’
Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”
The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”
They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.
It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.
The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.
So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.
For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.
But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…