I had been enlisted as the man guide for a day of adventuring with Marie and Michelle. We planned to brave danger, chart new territories, and go where no tourist has ever gone before. So I call up my rickshaw walla friend, Jonti. He and I go way back. I met him about three weeks ago, and this long history has earned me the title of “brother” in his eyes. He picks me up at quarter past eleven, embraces me in a hug, and we take off to Raja park, where we park and wait for the ladies. Two cups of tea, a cigarette, and half an hour later, they show up and we are off and rolling again. The day is still young, the sun is hot, and we are ready to see the unseen. We are young, fearless, and looking to fill in the blanks left behind by the authors of Lonely Planet. So naturally, we head for the monkey temple.
We cruise ten kilometers down dusty highways, past camels and elephants, busses full of pilgrims (they probably weren’t, but it sounds cool), motorbikes transporting as many as four souls, and many stray dogs. Traffic thins; we roll of the road onto unpaved ground. The rickshaw put, put, putters as we struggle up an incline. Ah! This is what I was looking for! We’re off the beaten path now! An orange (not pink!) sandstone gate rises above the earth in the distance. Still the machine struggles for altitude. Jonti, works his way through the gears, easing on and off of the clutch. The man is a genius, if anyone can make that old metal girl move he can. And he does, for soon enough I see the monumentous rock of human creation standing over me like a giant doorway through which we cross into the Planet of the Apes. As we do so, I stare up at the mountainous pile of land which we must ascend to reach the noble temple. It stares back down at me, as I bake in the mid noon sun, a dust covered man surrounded by the nothingness of the desert, with sweat in his eyes and the fear of god in his heart.
But I must be strong, for I am the protector of the women on this journey into the wild. So I step out of the rickshaw, and greet the challenge. I give Jonti some cash and ask him to wait for us. It is agreed. Men call to me from the steps of the concrete shacks which line the dirt road, right up to the base of the mountain. They try to sell me water, trinkets, and monkey food. They are trying to capitalize on my impending doom. This is the dog eat dog world we live in, and though principles beg for me to discourage this behavior, the harshness of our voyage does not allow for principles. So I exchange thirty rupees for a bottle of water and a package of peanuts. If we get lost, we can eat the nuts. If lower primates try to eat our faces off, we will distract them with food. It is fail proof.
So we begin the ascent. As we do, a young Indian man, about my age tags along. “The monkeys are dangerous” he tells me as if I needed to be informed. “I will show you how to feed them”. Not a bad idea. So I allow his company. We are walking up a poorly cobbled road which ascends into the wildness. As we are about to round the first switchback, a herd of monkeys surrounds us. Our companion tells us to remain calm, as he takes a peanuts in his fingers and reaches out to the nearest red faced, furry, humanoid beast. The monkey hurriedly grabs the protein pack and cracks the shell in his hands. Our friend tells us not to put the nuns in the palm of our hands, since the monkeys will scratch us in an attempt to snatch the stash. I obey his command, since rabies is not on my “must experience in India” list. After snapping a few photos, and feeding the vermin, we are ready to move on to the next daring feat.
Our guide points to the temple on the hill, which we understand to be the famed “monkey temple”. He asks us, do we want to take the easy route or the difficult route. I tell him that we come from the land of the free where the motto of the young is “YOLO”, so naturally we want to push the limits of mankind’s ability and cheat death in the most daring of directions imaginable. So, we leave the cobbled path, and begin down a barely blazed trail through the bush. The way is steep, the vegetation is thick and prickly, tugging at our loose clothing and the long hair of the ladies. Our friend casually tells us to watch for snakes, and I flash back to a fun fact that there are over 100 species of poisonous reptiles in India. Michelle is not pleased by this trivia. “Never fear” I tell her, “the value is found in the survival of hardship”. Onward and upward we climb, until after a grueling seven minutes, we reach the humble summit.
We step back onto the cobblestone path which leads up to the iron gate. The temple is surrounded by a sandstone wall, on which hangs a blue and white sign, decorated with bird droppings. The sign lets usknow that this is a protected monument Built by an envoy to the Mhugal court and any attempt to alter, destroy, deface, remove, or otherwise screw with said monument is a punishable offense. Why I wonder, was a temple to an embodied deity built by the Mhugals, who were known for their destruction of such Hindu temples? Regardless, my devious intentions are checked at the gate where I leave my trusty Tevas, and as we enter, I wonder if it will be the wrath of man or god that would reprimand such blasphemy. The temple is not too remarkable; it is smaller than others that I have seen. But the location gives it character and authority. It has the classic shape of a Hindu temple, with a single marble tower of four steep rising sides rising about ten meters into the sky. The base is ornately carved, with two tiger shaped creatures guarding the entrance. It is less than average in size, compared with all other temples more formidable than a roadside shrine. But the contrast of the rising spire against a backdrop of the buzzing, beeping city in the not so distant valley gives a sense of importance to this place.
Two girls come out of the doorway of the temple to greet us. One looks to be about seven years old, and she is slim and smiling. The other looks to be about thirteen or so. She is plump and wears thick rimmed “hipster” glasses. Both are barefoot, but the latter appears to be wearing cleaner clothes than the former. They greet us with a “Namaste” and a bow of the head, which we return, and they beckon us into the temple. We follow their lead. There are metal doors on the far wall, and the inner left wall of the temple. Both sets of doors are rusty and dented. The girls hurriedly split up to each unlock one set of squeaky doors which they theatrically throw open before jumping out of the way to reveal the contents. Where I expect to see the orange figure of Hanuman, god of monkeys and strength, I instead see the above image facing me. The older girl sees a pensive look on my face, and explains “the doors keep the monkeys out”, though I was less confused about that aspect. `
I ask the younger girl who the god is that was looking back at me on the far side of the temple. She smiles, and turns her head away from me. The older girl explains that her sister does not speak English, and then begins introducing me to the deities in residence. The one on the far wall and the two occupying the nook to the left are the Sung god yet again, and his wife by his side. She then tells us to sit down on the mat in front of the nook to the left, and so we obey. She takes a brass bowl of sandalwood paste and gives each of us a small bindi between the eyebrows. Then she whips out a ball of red and yellow string, and begins cutting off short pieces. This is good luck she explains as she wraps one around Marie’s left wrist and ties it off, and then Michelle’s, and then she comes to me. She wraps the string not once, but twice around my right wrist. The girls are upset. “Why does he get two wraps rather than one? Why does he get more luck than us?” Because I’m a dude I think to myself… No, it’s not patriarchy, its just that girls like boys… Duh, health class 101. But I am smart enough not to allow these mental utterances to become anything more than that.
I ask our guide, who sits next to us, if he prays to the Sun God. He says that he does, every day. I ask why, and he says that the sun allows him to see, it keeps him warm and allows plants to grow so that he can eat. I agree on this point, but I have never prayed to a sun god, and so I ask him if he believes that the sun would fail to rise if he did not pray. He looks confused. “I pray every day, and the sun rises”. I am still not sure if this reflects a causal belief, or if it simply reflects reverence for a natural and independent phenomenon. But when I pus further, he says that “the sun gives us gifts, so we pray”. There seems to be a switch in meaning if one over analyzes this statement when compared to the former. But It seems that I am not going to get any further with this conversation, so I drop it.
As we are about to stand up, older girl asks for a donation. Marie and Michelle think that is unnecessary and exit the temple. I pull out a fifty (the smallest bill I have) and give a donation on behalf of the group. The girl scrunches up her nose in disapproval. I apologies, say “this is what I have for you”. She decides to take it rather than leave it. As we exit, I ring the bell which hangs in the doorway sending my prayer to the sun god.
Later that day, when I am sweating buckets and the sun is hotter than H, E, double toothpicks, I am wishing that I had given a larger donation.
– Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013