FMLM – Monkey Business While Traveling- Sohini Sen

A TWIST IN THE ‘TAIL’

The phrase ‘monkey business’ was clearly etched in my head in early childhood, when a considerable chunk of my little cousin’s arm was bitten off by one such primate. She bore the pain of her injury bravely, but was reduced to tears by the daily anti-rabies injections administered for almost a week. I decided around then that while paying respects to my dead ancestors was fine, I would make it a point to stay as far away from their living representatives as possible.

Naturally, when I began travelling to beautiful destinations as an adult, I made it a practice to find out if there were any monkey-infested zones on my itinerary, and carefully strike these out from the list.

But there were surprises in store.

On a deputation to #Chennai, I chose one tiring evening after client-site work to hit the #MarinaBeach by myself. I found a relatively quiet spot on the sands, away from the food vendors and noisy families, sat down, took off my slippers and stretched my legs. Homesick. Lost in thought and the sound of the waves.

Not for long. Someone was tugging gently at my right big toe. A monkey. Wait, on a beach? Didn’t they live on trees and around temples? And I was not even carrying food!

While I glared at it, it gazed at me fondly. Like I were its long-lost child. Held my toe tighter. It was then that I noticed the dhoti-clad man waiting in the distance. He caught my eye, grinned wide. Bad teeth. Worse intent.

‘’Instead of holding on to the Biblical view that we are made in the image of God, we come to realise that we are made in the image of the monkey’’, said Chinese novelist and philosopher Lin Yutang. I could not agree more as a 10-rupee note passed from my hands into the monkey’s, then to the man’s. My toe and my immediate family tree were free from primates again.

Most Hindus consider monkeys as images of Hanuman, the Monkey God. And tales of the ‘tail’ abound. 

The Ramayana says that Ram sent Hanuman the Monkey God to find Sita. Hanuman discovered her in the demon Ravan’s kingdom, Lanka. Hanuman had a word with Sita, and then allowed himself to be captured by the demons. The demons wrapped Hanuman’s tail in an oil-soaked rag and set fire to it. Hanuman raced through Ravan’s palace, setting the whole building on fire. 

He then flew to one of the snowy Himalayan peaks to cool his burning appendage. 

And that was how #Bandarpoonch (The Monkey’s Tail), the majestic peak seen from #Mussoorie, got its name.

This divine connection makes the primates roam the ramparts of temples with elan. A lady friend and I had gone for a darshan of the #Jyotirlingam at #KashiVishwanath temple, #Varanasi. We had no plans to offer an elaborate worship. A priest coaxed us into buying a pack of sweets as offering and chant some mantras after him.

We stood just outside the sanctum, near a short wall. My friend held the sweets in her folded palms. Both of us closed our eyes to pray. The next instant, I heard her scream. I opened my eyes to see a huge male monkey summarily landing on her from atop the wall. The offering had been ‘accepted’, though far from the way we had imagined it would be. 

After the initial shock, the priest and I burst into laughter. Having barely escaped serious scratches and a far serious heart attack, my friend was definitely not amused.

The Varanasi experience on our minds, we decided not to walk across the #LakshmanJhula — at #Rishikesh — to the 13-tiered #Tryambakeshwar Mahadev Temple with its many divine residents. The stairs would be daunting, was what we told each other. But our decision was reinforced by the monkey couple on the Jhula. One of them was carrying out a free bug-removal service for the other. Just back to plains from high altitudes and not having bathed well for a while, we had no desire to seem prospective clients.

But all of these experiences were in India, a nation of the devout. Caught in the hustle and bustle of #Kathmandu a few years later, I had forgotten all about our fear of primates. On a beautifully sunny morning, my friend and I climbed up to the pristine white #Swayambhunath temple and its sprawling complex. To discover that there was also a temple to #Saraswati, a goddess sorely neglected in India.

I went in to get a photograph. My friend decided to wait outside.

A minute later, I heard a high-pitched, urgent whisper.

‘Sohini… Sohineeeee….’

I came out to find her rooted where I had left her, clutching my tripod and a Coke bottle with our drinking water. She was bug-eyed with fear.

A large male Rhesus Macaque had his arms firmly around her leg. He looked at me and flashed a healthy set of teeth.

I assessed the situation. Did not make any sudden moves, just urgent, guttural shooing noises. The monkey released his hold, and started circling around my friend, fixing her with his stare. Then, in a swift move, he snatched the Coke bottle. Unscrewed the cap with deft, experienced fingers, gulped down the water, threw the bottle at our feet, and strolled away.

Given its lordly predators, Swayambhunath is — we were told much later — also called the Monkey Temple.

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