As we drove from Coimbatore to Ooty, high in the Nilgiris Hills of India, among one of the most beautiful landscapes of deep hills and valleys that one could ever imagine, the road was narrow, winding, and steep.
In certain places along the roadside were bands of Bonnet macaques, standing, watching the cars pass by, and clearly waiting for a handout. This was sad because the monkeys have learned this behavior over time from people in cars who give them food.
Perhaps the people are only trying to help the monkeys, but this is the opposite of help. It trains the monkeys to engage in behavior that risks their lives. They are in danger from the cars.
Instead of playing and swinging in the trees, eating the fruit that nature intended for them to eat, they spend their days standing in car fumes, begging for food that is most likely junk food, bad for their health, and growing ever more dependent on humans for their livelihood.
On the other side of the Nilgiris Hills, in the national forest of Mudumalai, there more monkeys moved along near the roads and in among the trees—Langur monkeys and, I think, if I remember correctly, Rhesus monkeys. The langur monkeys ran along in groups, and some spent time up in the trees.
The Rhesus monkeys though seemed more likely to approach the cars asking for food and even in some cases, banging on the windshields. Generally, when animals make a nuisance of themselves around humans, this does not bode well for the animals.
The situation of monkeys is one of the sadder aspects of man’s war on nature. As the earth’s human population grows, the forests and the natural habitat for monkeys diminish year by year. Now most of the monkeys and great apes on earth are endangered.
This is not how things used to be though.
From time immemorial Indian people have related to monkeys with fondness and respect and have seen the forests and all of nature as sacred, as an abode of divine beings.
Historically, the monkeys of India have been regarded with great reverence. Hanuman is one of the great heroes of Indian myth—most often he is associated with Langur monkeys, but sometimes also with Rhesus monkeys, he appears in both of the great epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
In her book, “Sacred Animals of India”, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, tells the story of Hanuman, who was a loyal devotee of the hero Rama. Rama was one of the great incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
When the demon Ravana kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita, the loyal and heroic actions of the army of monkeys, led by Hanuman, were key to the defeat of Ravana, and the return of Sita.
As one can imagine, it is a really long, intricate, and complex story, filled with enchantment and drama.
On a personal note, at the age of eight, I came across a beautifully illustrated child’s version of this tale in a local small-town library in South Carolina—a highly improbable place for such a book to be. I found this book spell-binding, and a life-long fascination with India dates from this event.
Anyway, Hanuman was sent to go off to look for Sita, Rama’s wife, known to have been taken to Sri Lanka, the domain of the demon, Ravana. Hanuman got to Sri Lanka by growing to his full size. No longer a little monkey, he became thirty yojanas long, a yojana being a measurement that dates back to Vedic times and is thought to have been six to fifteen kilometers (4 to 9 miles).
So when he was perhaps 150 miles tall, Hanuman simply stepped easily across the water channel between India and Sri Lanka. There he found the whereabouts of Sita who was in a grove of ashoka trees, one of the sacred trees of India.
Various events transpired, and at one point Hanuman let himself be captured and tied up. During the course of this his tail was set on fire, but he escaped.
At last the army of monkeys was victorious, defeating the evil represented by the demons. Dr. Krishna writes, “The true hero of the Ramayana is Hanuman, who is flawless with superhuman skill which he uses for the triumph of truth and goodness.”
Hanuman exemplifies devotion and loyalty, and the power of goodness to prevail in the end.
Sacred Animals of India by Nanditha Krishna was published by Penguin Books in 2010 and is available on amazon.com
Top photo: © Wong Chee Yen / Dreamstime.com
Second photo: Sharon St Joan