AND GOD SAID, LET THERE BE MONKEYS
by Pamela Constable
September 21, 1998
If you arrive at the Tughluqabad ruins even one minute after sunrise, you’re too late. Group leaders Hukka Singh and Ram Singh have already moved their troops out of the 13th-century fort and headed to a nearby military shooting range for breakfast.
The drill continues all day, with scheduled stops at various roadside banana stands and markets. Then, precisely at dusk, the group of wild rhesus monkeys lopes back to the ruins, scrambles up the parapets and starts settling down for the night amid the crumbling 700-year-old tombstones of King Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq and his family.
The monkeys of Tughluqabad are among the last of a breed that once roamed India’s forests by the millions. For much of this century, they were voraciously hunted and trapped for export, while their habitats were squeezed by urbanization. By 1983, according to animal activists, there were fewer than 200,000 left.
Today, despite a 1978 ban on exporting monkeys, thousands are still trapped each year for domestic medical and commercial research. They are widely used to test eye shadow and lipstick, rabies vaccines and birth control pills, as well as chemicals.
Yet many Indians revere the monkeys, and dozens of devotees come each day to Tughluqabad, just east of the old section of the capital, New Delhi, to feed the monkeys bread, nuts and bananas.
The visitors are worshipers of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god who is believed to bring strength and good luck. In the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s great epics, Hanuman lifted a mountain to find a special herb that could save the life of his master, the god Rama.
“I come here for peace of mind,” said Ashook Jain, 38, a school principal who has been feeding the monkeys every day for 15 years. As he approached the ruins at dawn one recent day, he called out loudly, “Ough, ough,” and a dozen monkeys bounded down the walls. “These are bad times in India, and we need to have a powerful god on our side,” Jain said.
Just down the road, three men hopped off a motor scooter and began throwing bananas to another group of monkeys. They said they work in a shoe shop and make offerings on days when they are facing unusual business problems.
“Everyone has their favorite god, and the monkeys were our ancestors, too,” said the shop manager, Umesh Kumar, 23, as a chittering pack eagerly surrounded the scooter.
The Tughluqabad monkeys have full-time protectors, watchmen who sleep in the ruins and make sure no one harms them. They also have an influential champion in Iqbal Malik, a primatologist who spent years studying them. Often she took her son Vijay along, raising him, she said, “like a monkey mother, with lots of body contact but an instinctive sense of how much freedom to allow.”
Today Malik, 40, devotes most of her time to promoting animal rights, and she has arranged for thousands of urban monkeys to return and readapt to forest life. She also acknowledges that the monkeys can become a nuisance in densely populated areas.
“They get so used to being fed that they become aggressive. If you don’t feed them they will invade your house, raid your fridge, turn on your water tap,” she said. “If you try to kick them out, they may tear your clothes. They are extremely strong.”
They are also territorial. The five bands of Tughluqabad, totaling about 300 monkeys, have separate feeding areas and sleeping places. Within each band, members are highly sociable and respectful of rank, yet males often fight over food, choice sleeping places and females who defect to rival bands.
The monkeys also are spoiled rotten. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, which Hindu devotees say are auspicious times for making offerings to Hanuman, the Tughluqabad monkeys have been fed so many bananas and nuts by morning that they usually vanish to spend the rest of the day snoozing in the trees around the ruins.
“There is no point coming here those days,” cautioned Nanak Chand, a former watchman at Tughluqabad who used to sleep with monkeys curled around him and often returns to visit. “They won’t even bother to come down.”