Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lampooning the baboon in Shimla

Hanuman is the Monkey god of Hinduism, and the character immortalised for an entire generation of Australian youth in the 80s thanks to the ABC's regular afternoon showing of the Japanese TV series, Monkey Magic. You may recall the often comedic antics of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy as they blundered their way through an East Asian medieval epic of political intrigue, lust, supernatural shenanigans and considerable confusion over their feelings for their “master”, the hermaphrodite Buddhist monk, Tripitaka (who just happened to be played by Masako Natsume, one of Japan’s more successful female models of the time).

Monkey Magic, icon of a generation. Source: Google Images.

Well, in addition to Monkey, Hanuman has been portrayed in many other different ways, the most recent being an animated Indian feature film about the great hero of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. In this Disney-esque interpretation, Hanuman is portrayed as a cute, cuddly dwarf who looks and sounds a bit too camp for a great supernatural warrior, but not surprisingly, in religious crazy India, the movie was a brilliant success.

Despite being "as gay as a row of tents", Hanuman was a big hit in India. Source: Google Images.

Y’see, despite the often comedic portrayal, Hanuman is one seriously respected dude around these parts, and modern interpretations aside, most Hindu and Buddhist temples between India and Thailand feature pictures of legions of armoured, spear-wielding apes following Hanuman into battle to save one deity or other. These pictures must surely have been the inspiration for the classic Franklin J. Schaffner production of Planet of the Apes, and possibly influenced the Wicked Witch of the West’s legions of winged monkeys in Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic!

While travelling to the Himalayan hill station, Shimla, last weekend, I was accidentally handed an opportunity to pay my respects to Hanuman, “Great Sage and King of Heaven”. We’d been out wandering around the hills, and had gotten a bit lost while trying to get back to a coffee shop. We ended up on a rather exposed ridge in the middle of a white-out, and when it finally cleared (somewhat suspiciously, in a “being led-like lambs to the slaughter” kind of way), we found ourselves at the bottom of a very steep flight of stone steps, descending which were hundreds of pilgrims who informed us that they had been worshipping Hanuman at his Jakhu Temple, all the way up there in the clouds.

Being great adventurers, and always up for an exciting challenge, we attacked those steps with gusto, and would have been there in no time, if not for the fact that in addition to being great adventurers, we were also uncoordinated, weak, completely un-fit fatties, so it took a bit longer than anticipated to reach the dizzying heights. But slow and steady wins the race, and after about an hour of having to stop for a 5 minute break after every ten steps, we reached an imposing gate which was guarded by a couple of gigantic, heavily armed statues of monkey-soldiers dressed in fierce helmets and chain mail. Despite their menacing appearance, we were warned by a friendly vendor at the gate that they were unable to protect us from trouble up at the temple, and that we should each hire a lathi (a fighting stick or staff) from him.

Talk about red rag to a bull. I hail from a long line of incredible tight arses, and I know a scam when I see one. I was like, “Yeah right, who do we need protection from up here? Have the Islamic extremists finished with Heathrow and turned their sites on the hilltops of Shimla to attack Hindus and travelling Donkeys? No way am I gonna need a weapon all the way up here!”. So I ignored Mrs Donkey’s qualms, “Maybe we should just get a stick, just in case”, and headed on through the gate.

Now I know that I have been occasionally, justifiably accused of exaggeration on this here Blog, but I assure you I tell the absolute, God’s own truth (any god … you take yer pick) when I say that I had only taken one step through the gate when a very large, ferocious-looking monkey came bounding from beyond my peripheral vision and latched onto my torso, bearing sharp, white, butcher’s knife teeth and scrambling at my pockets. It might have been the last you would have ever seen or heard of Donkey if not for the afore-mentioned friendly vendor who was there in a flash, swinging his lathi and sending the aggressive primate on its way.

“Sir, you will need a lathi,” said my rescuer with a mocking smile, “please take this one and pay me five rupees when you return … and take off your glasses and hat … the monkeys will steal them!”.

So, in a futile attempt to maintain my shredded dignity, I took the lathi and agreed to pay the AU$0.15 hire charge (hey, I told you I was tight arse!), and with my metaphorical Darwinian tale between my legs, I headed up to the temple, wielding my lathi at the armies of monkeys that rushed at us from all angles.

The temple was like many other Hindu shrines, except with the added challenge of having to protect yourself from marauding, sacred monkeys, whose aggressive attacks, be they upon each other, tourists like us or the devoted pilgrims who looked upon their attackers with adoration, must surely have provided the inspiration for Hanuman’s great armies in the Ramayana.

We took turns guarding each others shoes with lathis and the odd Monkey Magic-like staff spinning/martial arts manoeuvres, while we payed our respects to the Great Sage inside the temple, and then we got out of the place and down the mountain as quick as our evolved hind-legs could carry us. As we sat in the warmth of the coffee shop an hour or so later, sucking down on our long blacks and iced teas, I listened to the conversations of the wealthy Punjabi holyday makers around me, as they pushed their way past the queue to be served first; as they complained that their lattes were too milky; as they demanded table service from the busy, low-caste serving staff; and ass they argued with each other about who would get the last piece of chocolate cake, and I wondered wether Darwin had in fact been a little wide of the mark. Whether the aggression of the monkeys up the hill had stemmed from some kind of animal preservation instinct, or from the divine influence of an all-powerful deity, it struck me that they were not all that further down the evolutionary scale than the rest of us … civilisation is only a hairy tale away from big, purple arses and swingin’ in the trees!


Sally, lathi in hand, and ready for action. Photo: Hagas

1 comment:

Mrs Donkey said...

Oh sure, believe the lathi-wallah, but dont believe me! Big sticks are handy for warding off any animals...even donkeys.

love Mrs Donkey