Monkey God Has Real-life Incarnations

Symbolizing the epitome of loyalty, courage and strength, the monkey god Hanuman  is highly revered in India (and Southeast Asia).  Probably the earliest mention of a godlike monkey entity is found in hymn 10.86 of the Rigveda, the ancient religious text compiled between c. 1500 and c. 1000 BCE.  And the oldest known temple – and statue – dedicated to Hanuman (c. 922 CE) is found at Khajuraho, in central India.  Although best known as the loyal monkey chief/hero of Valmiki’s “Ramayana”-an epic poem dating from c. 400 BCE – Hanuman is also mentioned in the epic “Mahabharata”, and in the Puranas – an ancient collection of tales of (traditional) myth, cosmology, and ritual practice.  Hanuman also appears in the mythology of the Jains, the Sikhs and the Buddhists.  As the guardian of villages and settlements in India, images of Hanuman – often holding a mace and one hand or both arms raised in a gesture of protection – are often located at the entrance to a community – sometimes, at the base of a tree.  Images of the god at roadside shrines allow travelers to make offerings.  Figures of Hanuman can be found guarding the main shrine of a temple, and also in courtyards used by wrestlers, since Hanuman is the patron of acrobats and wrestlers because the god was credited with superior strength.  Beginning around the 1850’s, Hanuman was often depicted alone or with other gods in the brightly-coloured watercolour paintings or patas produced by the folk artists or patuas of Bengal.  These Kalighat/bazaar paintings were sold as icons at the Kolkata (Calcutta) temple dedicated to the goddess Kali.  These images, whether realistic or totally abstract, are not considered art objects, but a guard against evil and a means of communicating with the divine.  The important Hanuman festival – the Hanuman Jayanti – is celebrated each year, in different months, in India.  Important shrines dedicated to the monkey god are found in northern India near Badrinath and at Ayodhya (city of Lord Rama), at Banaras in central India, at Hanuman Dhara, north-central India, and at Kishkindha in the south.

Monkeys in India have long been considered sacred because of Hanuman – many are found at temple sites.  A few examples are the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), the Hanuman langur (Semnopithecus entellus) and the long-tailed or crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis).  Rhesus macaques are found especially in northern India and in some parts of central and western India.  The Hanuman langur is widespread across the subcontinent, and the long-tailed macaque is found on three islands in the Nicobar chain – a territory of India in the Bay of Bengal.  All three types of primates have adapted to a variety of habitats, ranging from primary forests, to plains, to coastal forests of palm and mangrove.  And all are found in or near urban areas.  Serious threats have prompted and aided in the diversity of range.  Major is the loss of natural (forest) habitat due especially to timber extraction, intensive grazing and agriculture, as well as the expansion of transport routes and building development.    And in some parts of India, primates are also a food source.  Because monkeys have had to adapt to habitats which have brought many into closer contact with human populations, significant problems have been the result.  Many people now consider monkeys pests, especially citing their crop-raiding and damage, general nuisance activities, and, at times, aggressiveness.  So now, human retaliation is a threat.  In some instances, the management of monkey populations – through the relocation of primates away from villages and towns – is supported.  At the moment, most of these primates are not seriously endangered, and in some areas are still considered sacred.  But will the reverence and the connection to the traditionally important monkey god Hanuman help to protect these real-life incarnations in future?

Gabrielle

See also:

India: A Sacred Geography, Diana L. Eck, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012.

Pathway Icons: The Wayside Art of India, Priya Mookerjee, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

The Earth Mother, Pupul Jayakar, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.

“Status and Distribution of Macaca fascicularis umbrosa in the Nicobar Islands, India”, April 2003, Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 281-293, International Journal of Primatology,  Mewa Singh, G. Umapathy, and S. M. Mohnot.

“A God Becomes a Pest? Human – rhesus macaque interactions in Himachal Pradesh, northern India”, June, 2015, Vol. 61, Issue 3, pp. 435-443, European Journal of Wildlife Research, R. Saraswat, A. Sinha, S. Radhakrishna.

Hanuman Langur:  Primate Info Net – https//: http://www.pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/gray_langur/taxon

 

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