New Delhi, India
At the crack of dawn, we fly over New Delhi. I am delighted at the thought that I will meet Rajender again, the kind gentleman who is waiting for us at the airport. The fourth journey to India almost feels like a homecoming. The same fascination that made me study comparative Eastern Religions and Mythology keeps attracting me back to this land that Mark Twain once called ”the grandmother of legends”. Walking towards the car, I notice a slight haze and a burning smell that lingers in the air.
“Has a fire broken out somewhere around here?” I ask, but Rajender promptly answers: “No Mam, yesterday was Dussehra and everywhere in India we have burned the effigy of Ravana, the evil king of Lanka who kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. You know? The Ramayana!” “Of course I know, silly me”. With a welcoming smile he says: “ I am glad that you came back at such an auspicious time, Lord Hanuman will protect your journey”.
Where else in the world, I wonder, would someone so candidly incorporate me, an outsider, in his belief system? I enjoy silencing my agnostic mind in India and let a symbolic reading of life take me over. In the car, driving through the large tree-lined avenues of the city, I recollect the information I have on Hanuman, the monkey god who will shower our travel with blessings.
He is a bachelor who has dedicated his life to Rama and Sita, a symbol of total devotion. In Hindu mythology, he is the embodiment of dharma, the right way, which ensures the welfare of all living beings. He is a model of humility, unaware of his amazing strength that he uses only in the service of truth. Valmiki, in his magnificent epic poem the Ramayana, describes how Hanuman led the army of Vanaras, the monkeys that followed him to Lanka, to rescue Sita. To reach her, they built a bridge of floating stones from Rameshvaram to Lanka, thus allowing Rama to defeat the wicked king Ravana and his army of Rakshasas, spiteful demons often depicted in miniatures.
We decide to make Hanuman and his army of monkeys the leitmotif of our journey and we head off to visit the Hanuman Mandir, the oldest temple in India devoted to the worship of the monkey god as Balan, a child. In the heart of New Delhi, near Connaught Place, the building is unpretentious, but exudes from its walls a mindboggling fervor. Since 1964 the faithful have been chanting the mantra “Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” without interruption, 24 hours a day. This has earned the temple a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In spite of so many questions bubbling in my mind, I keep a respectful distance from our guide Vijay, a practicing Hindu, while his gaze is turned inward during the darshan, a glimpse of the deity. A visit to the temple for him is an occasion to see and to be seen by the God who will grant his wishes. The fascinating time spent observing the wide variety of people around ends when we look at each other acknowledging our desire to go.
After the darshan, Vijay, as if coming back from a far away place, proposes a cup of tea at The Imperial, a beautiful hotel with a charming lawn, an oasis in the centre of town. Around a cup of tea elegantly served, Vijay shares with us his affection for the monkey God, particularly dear to the warrior clan he belongs to.
He says that the grey langur, or Hanuman langur, lives in large groups dominated by an alpha male who posses the harem of females. If an attack by the bachelor pack is successful and the alpha male is killed, a power struggle ensues to determine the next leader of the pack. “Valmiki was obviously a good observer of natural life”, he says, “and knew the behaviour of monkeys when he wrote the Ramayana.”
Vijay explains to us that in India, no one would dare harm a monkey, a symbol of Hanuman and his qualities, even though it has become a pest in certain areas and a risk to public safety.
“When the President of the United States, Barack Obama, came on a an official visit to Delhi in 2010, one of the threats to his security considered was… an army of monkeys!”
We can’t help but burst into laughter while Vijay reassures us that we have nothing to worry about, because Lord Hanuman will keep his army in check for us.