Nestled in the Aravalli hills of the Indian desert state, Rajasthan, about ten kilometers outside the city boundaries of Jaipur lay the ancient Hindu pilgrimage site known as Galta ji, or to the surrounding locals, “The Monkey Temple,” which was built by Diwan Rao Kriparam, an attendant to Sawai Jai Singh II, in the eighteenth century.
My encounter with this holy site had been quite accidental. My roommate Mallory and I were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon wandering around Bapu Nagar, near the heart of the city of Jaipur. We had planned on a day of window shopping and discovering our new home that day. Having only arrived the week before, we hadn’t realized that most of the shops were closed on Sundays. Dejected, we wandered into an old park and called up our friend Vinay, who we met a few days ago at a BMW launch party with our host family.
Vinay picked us up in his white Santa Fe SUV near a shining lacquered jewelry store on Tonk road. I climbed in the back seat and felt the rush of manufactured cold air blast against the trickling sweat rolling down my back under my kurta. Vinay insisted that we go to this wonderful “natural” place right outside the city.
Rolling along the streets of Jaipur, I notice the scenery beginning to change. Dusty cows eating trash by the road, bullock carts selling fresh fruits, honking cars and traffic jams make way for winding gravel mountain passes lined with lime green flora and short glimpses of towering mountains. A woman in a neon pink sari and sun leathered skin balances a sheet-wrapped basket upon her head. Vinay beeps casually in her direction. Even the foot traffic becomes sparse as we near closer to our destination. As the tangled branches fly by the car window, I catch a glimpse of a male peacock spreading his feathers wide; his glimmering blue body stands bright against the monotone green.
We arrive in front of the temple complex, and a cluster of brown, black and white cows mingle in front of the car aimlessly, as Vinay beeps louder than ever in their direction. We park, hop out of the car and stroll down the road laden with puzzle piece cobblestones. I crane my neck upward to take in the splendor of my surroundings. Jagged mountains dip and slope down toward rows of magnificent dusty ochre temples leading all the way up a mountain just before me. The painted walls, Islamic arches and rounded onion domes look minuscule against the imposing natural elements hovering above. The afternoon sun casts an orange glow upon the mountains below a baby blue cloudless sky. Monkeys swing and straddle columned stone banisters and stare at the passerby, which are mostly Indian pilgrims and a few western tourists.
We hike up the sloping road until we reach a set of stairs crawling with swarms of rhesus monkey families and tourists ogling at them and snapping photos. Potbellied Hindu ascetics with streaks of orange vermillion between their brows solicit tourists into their shrine to Ram, Shiva, Hanuman or Ganesh. Ascetics of this kind have been retreating to this site since the early 1500s, before the complex was even built.
Bare-chested boys splash in the turquoise water as others marvel. An endless stream trickles from a “gaumuk” or cow’s head through the mountain and into the pool. The temple complex was built in this specific crevice for the natural spring that flows here. We climb the steps to the first of the seven water tanks known as kunds and make our way up to the holiest of the seven pools, the Galta Kund. It is magnificently still and strangely free of pilgrims, although it is considered auspicious to bathe in the only water tank in the site that has never gone dry.
Galta Kund’s auspicious nature comes from the legend of Saint Galav, the temple’s namesake. He came to this site and performed tapasya, which is a form of deep meditation to achieve self-realization, for one hundred years until the gods took notice of his deeds and granted him a limitless natural spring of eternal flowing water. The water is also known to have curative powers. Monkeys linger on the fence idly and stare at us. The water is flat as glass and reflects an intricate mirror image of the carved temple molded into the ancient mountain. For once this busy site is serene and still.
Alexandra Kamakas is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire and studies English Literature and Art at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. She will be graduating from St. Lawrence in December of 2014. On her semester abroad in India, she is conducting a semester long creative writing project on the different concepts of yoga in India compared to her experience with yoga in the United States.