Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Of my Grandma, Varanasi, and the Monkey King

Today I was thinking of Varanasi or Banaras. Since my grandmother from my father's side lived and died in the city, we used to visit it pretty often during Summer breaks while I was in school.
She passed away when I was in college, thus breaking my regular link with perhaps the most interesting city in India. But, the images that I carry from my childhood refuse to go.
Banaras is a city that has preserved so much of the old that it is difficult to believe that it is a part of modern India that flaunts huge glass-fronted office buildings and soulless malls. Here, there are temples in every crack and crevice and cows and bulls rule the narrow lanes foraging for food as if it was their birth right. No one messes with them even if they hogged the entire lane making people walk around them or jump on the porches to give them a wide birth. Make no mistake, these are the holy cows!!!
I was always fascinated by the jams that occurred due to back to back cycle rickshaw traffic! People would shout and curse and finally, get down and start walking. I've been told that things have not changed much even now.
My favorite area to browse used to be the lane through Vishvanath gulley to the Dashashwmedh Ghat. I covered  it everyday I would be there. 
The lane is so narrow and full of colorful and kitschy shops that you can spend hours just photographing them or gaping, like I did as a child. The hippies and the cult of Krishna, all white skin and ocher robes vie for space with the ash-smeared, scantily-clad Shivaites who believe Banaras to be the abode of Shiva, the destroyer, the loving husband and a most beloved deity of many contradictions and ambiguous benevolence. If you can wake him up from his sadhana and get him to notice you, he'll grant you anything, however, he is a very taxing God to pray to. A colorful and mystical divine, a dancer and lover as well as a father and a  saint...
I can still spend days just sitting at the steps of the ancient burning and bathing ghats and see life troop by as if in an ancient, forgotten world. As a child, I saw the ghats as a microcosm of a long-forgotten world, like a trip to Jurassic Park of what India was.
There are always crowds at the ghats. More people than imaginable. They are mostly tourists, from India and the world, in search of Moksha. But, there are also as many plying their various trades and vocations including, wrestlers, palm and face readers, beggars, yogis and sadhus, teachers, pupils, barbers, singers, tea sellers, wooden toy seller, the monkey trainer, the flower sellers, the conch shell wielding babas, who jostle for space and your attention.
But, what stands out most vividly in my mind when I think if Banaras are the monkeys. They rule the city. Every house has an iron mesh protecting the terrace and any other open areas. The monkeys spend the days jumping and swinging on the mesh and making faces at humans. To a child, they looked and behaved like soldiers on warpath and my grandma would never lose the opportunity. She told me stories of their valor as soldiers in Rama's army against Ravana in the epic, Ramayana, each time they passed jumping and wildly gesticulating overhead.
Moving in packs they are thieves and pilferers of the first order. They flinch anything they find abandoned, clothes on a line, drying veggies during winters, toys left around by kids, books forgotten at a balcony... They often get angry and if you happen to fall in their way, trust me they'll reassure you that they don't like humans as roadblocks.
They slap and bite and even latch on to your dress if they are in bad mood or hungry or just want to play! I know the last one because, a baby monkey had once latched on to my frock at the Annapurna temple. I was so scared that I just went around running and shouting at the top of my lungs while the baby, holding on to my dress jumped about chattering and enjoying the free ride - no different from a professional water skier!
Soon, the mother and her cronies joined from the balconies and parapets and started making menacing noises in my general direction while moving in towards the area I was circling like a headless chicken. Most of the tourists and even my cousin who had come with me, moved back and started shouting for help. 
The help came from a young priest at the temple, dressed in white with a glowing red tikka on his forehead. He came out of the sanctum and just harrumphed once! Loudly! All the primates melted away. The smallie who was enjoying a ride clutching my frock, ran pell mell to its mother who caught it tight and melted up in the temple's dome.
Today, as I spent the day rehashing all those memories, about my grandmom and the peaceful-turbulent Ganga. I smiled many times thinking of the monkey packs of the city and their stupid antics and legendary tales of their attacks like, when they had bitten my granny for no reason but, that she was in the way and unarmed and had left her bleeding at the terrace. They seemed no better than the thugs and goons of the city who were a staple topic for lunchtime conversation.
And then, I came across this story from the Jataka Tales about the Boddhisatva who was also the wise monkey king. It made me think that we never know who is the monkey, and who, the king! So, I decided to share it here with everyone...
There was once a kingdom of monkeys in the forest. The king of the monkeys was very large, He was also,  very kind and wise. One day, the king was strolling through the forest and he noticed mango trees along a riverbank. He also noticed a human castle downstream. He then ordered the monkeys to remove all the mangoes from these trees, "or there would be disaster". The monkeys did not understand the king's intention, but they did as told anyway. All the mangoes were taken off these trees except one. This one was hidden behind some bushes and brambles.
One day, a ripe mango fell into the river from the hidden tree. It flowed downstream where the human king was having a bath. He noticed the mango and asked the prime minister what it was. The prime minister told him it was a mango, a fruit of wonderful taste. The king then ordered that the mango be cut into small pieces and he gave a piece to each of his ministers. When satisfied that the mango was not poisonous, he ate the rest of it and realized how tasty it was. He craved for more.
The next day, the human king, with his troops, went upstream to search for more of these fruits. There were lots of mango trees, but also lots of monkeys. The human king didn't want to share the mangoes with the monkeys, so he ordered all of them to be killed. A massacre started.When the news reached the wise monkey king, he commented, "The day has finally arrived". The thousands of monkeys were chased all the way to the edge of the forest. There was a deep cliff at there and a bamboo forest at the other side of the cliff. The monkey king saw that if his subjects could cross over to the bamboo forest, they would be safe.With his huge body, he formed a bridge over the cliff and thousands of monkeys trampled over him to reach the safety of the bamboo forest. He endured the pain without a word. One monkey, who did not like the king, saw this as an opportunity to get even. As he was crossing over the king's body, he pierced a spear through the king's heart. The king screamed in pain but endured until all his subjects were safely across. Then he collapsed.The human king had witnessed the whole drama. He was so touched that he ordered the monkey king to be saved. When the monkey king recovered his consciousness, the human king asked him, "You are their king. Why did risk your life for them?". The monkey king replied, "Because I am their king". After that, he died.The human king was so touched that he decided to be a good king from that day and he ordered that the monkeys in the bamboo forest be protected from harm forever.


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