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Monkey Business

Hanuman, The Monkey God

Hanuman, The Monkey God

…”Continued” from Peepal Gods Journal

The traffic of people, circling around the tree eventually slowed and was replaced by about twenty men, all holding drums, from which hung two balls attached to strings. Two men, around the age of thirty, dressed in formal attire, with “Brahmin rat tails” hanging from the back of their heads, were moving quickly back and forth, putting the drummers in position. They met in the corner of the temple to prepare a couple of lamps and offerings. The temple was humming with conversation. One of the Brahmin’s hollered to a young boy, who had the same dress and hairstyle as they did. Upon command, the boy began rapidly ringing a bell that hung from the ceiling. The three of them then yelled in unison “Hanuman AYYY!” to which the entire community within the temple replied the same. The drummers immediately began twisting their drums back and forth so that the balls swung and hit the skins on either side. The temple was filled with the erratic banging of drums and the ringing of the bell. For the next twenty minutes, the drummers kept drumming, their muscles bulging and faces sweating, my ears ringing, while the Brahmans performed puja; lighting incense sticks stuck into bananas, offering coconuts, fruits, nuts, and flowers to the large image of the Hanuman; the main deity of the temple, and waving camphor and incense before the countless other photos and sculpture of various deities that were scattered about the entire temple.

When they were finished with the camphor lamps, the drumming increased in pace and the drummers arched their backs, faces twisted, the veins bulging from their necks, and the Brahmins yell “HANUMAN AYYYY!” To which they replied with a deafening scream which drained the air and energy from their bodies and the temple slowly fell silent. People rushed to wipe camphor smoke over their bodies, as the drummers ringed their hands, some taking cloths from their pockets to clean the blood from newly formed blisters.

As people slowly left the temple to join the live concert of Bhakti music that had began outside, I turned to my new friend, still standing next to me and asked him to tell me something about Hanumn. “Hanuman is the god of strength and power” he began. “In the Ramayana, he is a devotee and aid to Rama. He helps Ram to defeat Ravana. He is a great warrior. There is one story in which Rama writes his name on giant boulders and Hanuman lifts and throws each of them into the Ganga. Ram’s name on the rocks allows them to float, and it creates a bridge that the army crosses on their way to Lanka.” I asked him why there were some many drummers at this puja, and he responded that “this type of drumming is very exhausting and requires a lot of strength to do for a long time, and it is believed that Hanuman must aid the drummers, and so this brings his presence here”

~  ~  ~

                  On another occasion, Abbie and I wandered by the akara. I stared into the window for a couple of moments, not sure how to approach the situation, watching five young men swing big rocks on sticks around their shoulders, or lifting weights on the two pieces of real gym equipment that occupied the dirt floor room. One of them saw me, and he walked up to the window and said hello. I asked him if this was a gym, and he said “yes. Indian gym”. I asked him if I could come in. He smiled and pointed me toward the door. When I got inside he instructed me to remove my shoes, and began to show me how they swing the bats and rocks around their heads. The rock that he was swinging was between the size of a basketball and a beach volleyball (like the two foot round, pool play things.. the big one). After he showed me this, he removed a smaller one (maybe the size of a small cantaloupe) from the row of bats that lined the wall. He handed it to me and smiled. So I took my position, in front of the mirror like the others were doing, and I swung the bat down over my back, and up over my right shoulder, back over my back, and up over the left shoulder, as I had been instructed, though with much more difficulty and far less grace. All five of the guys in the room smiled and talked to each other in Hindi in a way that suggested that they were holding back laughter.  I get uncomfortable in American gyms where I recognize all the equipment, simply because my insecurity is on display for all those who choose to show up for the pissing contest that is body building. So, I decided to put down the bat.

On the wall there were photos of hanuman, holding his club, much like the ones that we were swinging around our heads. I asked my lifting partner “Do you lift for the ladies, or for Hanuman?” He laughed and said, “No! This is not for ladies, this is for Hanuman Ji.” Then he put his arm on my shoulder and walked me to the far wall of the akara and showed me a small, orange painted sculpture of Hanuman, covered in flowers. He bowed to the image at his waist, and then stood and said, “He is our Baba. Very strong. So, he makes us strong, and we become strong for him.” “I see”.

I decided to see if I could lift the bat again. It was just as silly as the first time, so I put it back. Abbie, who had been standing in the doorway, asked if she could try, and three of the men quickly said that this was not an activity that was appropriate for women. To which she tried to explain that she had spent the summer carrying over one hundred pounds up and down a mountain. They neither seemed to care or act impressed. We shared a couple more words, as they tried to figure out what this scrawny white kid was doing here, and then I thanked them and went to leave. As I did, my lifting partner said “you can come back tomorrow if you like. Maybe every day I am here at 5 O’clock. It makes you very strong. I thanked him, and said that maybe I would come back. But I never gathered the nerve to do so.

– Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013

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