23 September 2008

Moral of the Monks

Its been a long time since I posted a story about one of my favourite topics – ANIMALS. So am now posting a wonderful narrative by Apeetha Arunagiri who is currently involved in an Arunachala Greening project. Apeetha first visited Arunachala in the 70’s so has a wealth of information and stories about a slower, slightly different Tiruvannamalai. Her story is about a group of Bonnet Macaques who used to reside at Arunachala (and as Bonnet Macaques often reach the age of 30+ perhaps some of the younger monkeys of her story are still alive!).

You can learn more about the macaque genus of which the bonnet macaque is a species at this link:

The Story - Moral of the Monks

They used to sit lined up ear to ear huddled together very still on a low branch during the heat of the day: Grandpa, King, Old Uncle, Grandma and all the mothers from the ashram family. Those mothers on the ends of the line intervened if necessary in the gamboling of the young ones down on the ground below, using the characteristic ‘Watch it!’ face - eyebrows way up, eyes popped, mouth in an open O. Hot hours passed every day like this, with activity below and occasionally on the edges. Tails hung down straight behind, their eyes were closed, the blue lids still. I used to spend the heat watching them and meditating myself. There’s nothing like the great heat to keep quiet the monkey mind.

The monkeys who lived in the old forest at this time were even more quiet and harmonious than these members of the ashram family. I used to watch the way they interacted with one another; if I remained still they soon forgot you were there. I was much impressed by their communicativeness; they talked to one another a lot. I admired their innately ethical behaviour; their pecking order was remarkably just. Quarrels seemed to work themselves out without the scapegoating and false accusations that you can’t help but notice among suburban monkeys.

At ashram mealtimes the monks sat up at the window bars of the dining hall and we would take them handfuls of food that long fingers quickly conveyed to simian food-pockets in their cheeks; very puffed those cheeks would be by the end of a meal. There were sixteen ashram monkeys at that time: rhesus bonnets, they were. Their king was young strong and very handsome. Old Uncle had a tick in his facial muscles and his lower lip hung down with a depraved look; a bit of a crook he seemed to be although the young boys were all very fond of him. Old Uncle had the look of a sleaze too: once he won the heart the king’s favourite queen. The showdown happened on my roof where I was sitting so I saw the whole story unfold with all the facial expressions - particularly the chagrin of the king. The outcome was that he just had to get used to old Uncle with Queenie - they remained a steadfast couple from then on.

Grandpa was an unusually calm long skinny monkey with a very long thin face. He was undoubtedly a wisemonk, his wife also. I came to know them both very well. Grandpa was so quiet and calm that we seemed to take part in staring meditations when the young ones were otherwise occupied and nothing much else was happening. These would continue for so long with neither of blinking that one of his eyes would remain alone in my visual field, articulated in a shifting optical sea of gold/green light in my head. He was very attentive to the needs of the young ones, old Grandpa. If very little monks happened to be gamboling unawares in the path of oncoming men, he would calmly step over between men and kids, so that the men’s shouts and perhaps stones thrown at him would send the youngsters scampering up safely away. The men I’m speaking of were not nice; given the chance they’d catch a baby monkey sell to a beggar.

Once Grandpa and a couple of boys suddenly dropped over the stone wall at the back door of the little tunnel room where I lived in those days, to find a couple of iddlies left for them on the bench. The boys sat respectfully not too near Grandpa as he nibbled contemplatively on the windfall, watching humbly. When Grandpa had eaten some of one, he casually tossed the remainder behind to one side of the bench, toward one little boy, who happily dusted it down and began on it, while his brother quietly crossed to the other side of Grandpa and waited while his honourable elder nibbled at the other iddly. Then Grandpa tossed the remainder of that to the other side for the waiting grandson, who pounced on it with an appreciative look. Grandpa then turned his back, put one foot up on the wall, leaned an arm on his knee, and thoughtfully savoured the iddly after-taste. He was a dignified elder. He died before a terrible affliction blinded and finally killed Grandma.

Sometimes showdowns between the ashram monks and the rabble mob from the fields behind the back stone wall would erupt in that huge compound, and very much a rumble that was. Mothers, Grandma and kids would stay up big trees and heckle, while the men would rouse up a big commotion and show of teeth around the edge of the central clearing, and if the worst came to the worst, which it often didn’t, there’d be a fast scruffle or two in the clearing, sometimes resulting in wounds and always ending with a lot of bravado as the entire ashram clan chased those marauders over the back wall right back to the fields where they belonged. These showdowns only happened during drought but they were worth climbing up on the roof to see. The aftermath would always be embellished by expressions of righteous indignation and exclamations of reassurance to polish up the enhanced group solidarity in victory.

I’d been away in the mountains some time when Grandma fell afflicted. The day I returned she was walking around and around the ledge that rims the inside of the big ashram well. She must have climbed down the ladder but because of her blindness, once she began her walk around the inner rim she missed the slightly recessed ladder each time she passed it and she’d been walking around all day - this I was told by one of the ashram watchmen leaning over the side of the well watching her. There were no other monkeys about, nor dogs, so I climbed down the ladder and when she came by again I quickly picked her up, she clung to my chest immediately and didn’t stir as I climbed back up talking softly to her. We headed straight home the back way as inconspicuously as possible.

She and all her family used to come to my house most every day so I guess she knew where we were heading. Once inside my little room I sat down with her still clinging to my chest and we breathed long and deep while I wondered what would happen next. Her eyes were two huge pitiful sores. A month ago - before I had left for the hills, she’d been her usual self: an exceptionally beautiful monkey with the softest face, the clearest calm eyes.

I started faintly drumming a beat on her back and she went to sleep. She must have been exhausted. When she woke up much later I carried her over to my food supplies and gave her some fruit. She was ravenous. There wasn’t much in my room; there was a high shelf up on which I kept my belongings which wasn’t much. There was a long wooden bench used as a bed in the rains which I pushed across below the window at one end of the tunnel-room and this became her place to sit, she seemed to like it there although it was sad to see her: hunched, listening. If I began drumming softly on one end of the wooden bench, she’d gradually come nearer and nearer to the sound until she’d be hunched up against me listening. My impression was that she loved leaning on me while I drummed so quite some time was spent like this every day, it was better than meditating. If I started to cut vegetables she’d come over and lean on me while I prepared the food. After a short while in her almost constant company, dogs in the street suddenly began barking at me when I passed.

I knew a boy named Ravi who had a way with animals. Ravi was a thief, ostracized by most people, but he had a great gift - one which few people ever appreciated or even realized. When Ravi saw Grandma he immediately went out to an old man he knew in a village several kilometres away, who was an herbalist who also had a way with animals. The herbalist recommended human milk to treat Grandma’s eyes. He thought that provided the disease had not progressed too far, then twice daily bathing with human milk would cure it. So Ravi hunted up a woman who had too much milk and twice daily he’d bicycle out to her village and return with a small quantity of balm for Grandma. He’d help me hold her and apply the milk; he was very gentle and patient and entirely in command of himself, fearless.

But Grandma’s eyes remained diseased; it had spread down into her throat so I had to feed her softer and softer, and then only liquid foods. She remained hungry for solid food I know, because she’d hold a piece of carrot or other vegetable from my chopping board in her cool little long-fingered hand; she’d clutch it until she went to sleep. After giving up on mother’s milk we foolishly – on the Vet’s advice - administered inter-muscular broad-spectrum antibiotic but Grandma couldn’t be saved, her body became more and more frail. I began to stay home with her all the time; Ravi brought me vegetables every few days. At first I’d sit with her when she was outside the tunnel, except when her family came as they did every day first thing in the morning. They began to stay around later and later and I had difficulty keeping them out of the kitchen and found it better not to eat while they were there unless I had enough for them too. The other women monkeys and young girls and boys also would clean her and chatter with her and the mothers would all sit very close to her. A crow who used to hang about in the park began to take a lot of notice of us and stay reliably near to Grandma after the family had gone. After a short while I found that I could attend to other things knowing that if Grandma wandered blindly too far away, the crow would kick up a big fuss. It was summer time and hence no rain so I’d carry her up on to the roof to sleep with me. If her family arrived very early before I woke the young ones would wake me by pulling my clothes – a habit they continued after she was gone.

She seemed to be quite happy during this time. One mother gave birth to her baby up there early one morning, all the other mothers were there and some of the young girls - no men and no boys. I’d hardly woken up when I realized what was happening. There was no fuss. The newborn crawled straight up to a nipple. The mothers and girls all stayed around for an hour or so and then they all went off.

I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that on the day that she died, all the monkeys remained much longer than usual. We had climbed downstairs; it was mid morning when they arrived and probably mid afternoon when they left. I remember distinctly how the mothers were with her that day - stroking her head and ears, putting their mouths to her forehead. They eventually took their leave of her and we sat on the smooth earth under the coconut leaf lean-to in the shade of a big Etty tree: she on my lap, her arms about my middle. I drummed my fingers gently down her spine and hummed and chanted, her breathing became very slight, her body very still. I remember the image of a beautiful big lizard returning again and again to my inner eye. It was about sunset when she died and I didn’t feel like moving for some time. Ravi came and sat with us in silence and then simply left, returning with a crowbar and spade. He dug a grave right there in the middle of my rammed-earth verandah. Then he went to get flowers and incense and other things - some bananas which she loved, for us to eat in gratitude for her. We made a puja: we sprinkled water, lit oil lamps, rang bells, waved incense. We sung a song. The grave was a little mound of sweet smelling flowers. It was early morning when I walked up on to the hill. I sat watching the clouds up until the next sunset, being much honoured by this passing.

The monkey family didn’t return to my house at all for many weeks. Ravi died before he was thirty. [To be Contd.]


You can find many monkey postings by checking out the ‘search facility’ at the top left of this page. Of particular interest is the latest update of the small family of monkeys current residing at the animal sanctuary here at Tiruvannamalai. I also have a personal story about the sad tale of the death of a Bonnet Macaque which occurred whilst was visiting the Animal Shelter.

You may also be interested to read of the views of some local politicians and their ideas of how to deal with what they consider to be the ‘monkey menance’ at Tiruvannamalai District and other areas of Tamil Nadu.

To complete this posting you may enjoy looking at some very sweet photographs of a bonnet macaque working his way through a very large watermelon.


Veronica said...

Wonderful story by Apeetha. Have looked at her website that you linked - so interesting.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful but sad story about Grandmother monkey.

Divya said...

Such a sweet and touching story, thanks for posting it. :-)

Meenakshi Ammal said...

I have more animal stories (especially re monkeys) from Apeetha that I will be posting both on Arunachala Grace Blog and upcoming Arunachala Grace Newsletters.

Meenakshi Ammal said...

I have more animal stories (especially re monkeys) from Apeetha that I will be posting both on Arunachala Grace Blog and upcoming Arunachala Grace Newsletters.