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Holy monkey! India’s sacred animals claim their rights
19 November 2007 Gośka Romanowicz

Monkeys, cows, elephants - many of India’s animals are sacred for Hindus. As the human population explodes, it is getting increasingly difficult for people and animals to live side by side as they have traditionally.

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Hanuman, the half-man half-monkey god.

The day we arrived in Delhi, we read in the local free daily that monkeys had killed the city’s vice-mayor. Or maybe they just made him lose his balance. No-one knows the full story apart from the late SS Bajwa himself and the monkeys in question. What we do know is that the mayor fell from his first-floor balcony after being attacked by a group of macaques, and died the next day.

Like most Indian cities we have been to, Delhi is full of monkeys. Climbing up walls, jumping across rooftops, hanging off electric wires, you can spot them even in the city centre. When we first saw a family of monkeys by the roadside in the foothills leading up to Dharamsala we excitedly took lots of pictures, but we soon realised we were not as lucky as we thought to get this close to monkeys in India. Most locals feel lucky if they manage to keep them at a distance. We soon felt the same way when one monkey showed us his teeth thrusting his head forward just like a thug wanting to start a fight.

Monkeys are seen as a manifestation of the monkey god Hanuman by many Hindus, who feed them and are prohibited from killing them by their religion. The SS Bajwa incident provoked heated debate all around India: are the urban monkeys getting too arrogant? Are too many coming to the cities, attracted by easy meals? One response has been to ban feeding monkeys, but tradition is proving stronger than the law – people continue to feed them because their parents and grandparents have. Another attempt to get rid of the monkeys (killing them is out of the question) is training big Langur monkeys to chase the smaller Macaques out of residential areas. Overall, all this doesn’t seem to be working – we have seen groups of monkeys everywhere, on Delhi’s central Connaught Place, on the walls surrounding the Taj Mahal, climbing up the temples and terraces of Varanasi...

But the monkey invasion cannot be blamed on feeding alone. While Indians have been feeding feeding monkeys for generations, there have never been so many Indians before. Uninhabited areas are shrinking as more houses are built, depriving monkeys of their natural habitats, especially around cities. Cycling out of Delhi and beyond into Uttar Pradesh we experienced this urban expansion first hand: an unbroken succession of buildings that used to form separate towns and villages; now the only thing that changed was the name.

In fact there is not much difference between an Indian town and village apart from the size, and Indians are much more used to living in close proximity with animals than Westeners. In Delhi as in Khajuraho, animals are everywhere, and not just monkeys. Goats, cows and geese are everywhere in the centre of Varanasi, a city that counts over 1 million human inhabitants. Enormous bulls lie in the middle of busy roundabouts chewing on fruit peel or other rubbish, and won’t even consider moving to let traffic pass. Cows are considered holy, and so get special treatment: nice food and no killing. Varanasi is home to the country’s biggest Goshala, which functions as a sort of retirement home for cows. Back in Khajuraho a cow came to our restaurant asking for food, was lightly rapped on the nose with a newspaper, didn’t budge, and only went away once it got its chappatis.

Other animals are abundant in Indian cities – goats are not sacred as far as I know, but live very close to humans. There is an old man near our city-centre hostel here in Varanasi who sleeps every night on the same stone bench surrounded by 6 or 7 goats, one lucky goat always sharing the bench with him. The main reason for so many animals in cities must be food, or rather paneer (Indian cheese) – the staple protein of Indian cuisine, much of which is vegetarian. Cities, even the capital, remain big villages – people still tend livestock, drink cow and goats’ milk, dry their dung for fuel, and grow vegetables where they can. People and animals living so close to each other makes Indian cities what they are – crazy, colourful and full of cows. In the case of monkeys, at least we can be sure that neither macaques nor langurs will be menaced with extinction in India for some time to come.

You can see more monkey pics in "India: Urban apes, in pictures".

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