Wednesday, March 9, 2011

No Monkeying Around

Hanuman Statue in Trinidad and Tobago
(Photo by Kevin Rajeev Persad)
 Over the ages, Hindus have interpreted and explained complicated divine forces through a vast, colorful array of forms, probably none more so than Hanuman, a flying warrior monkey-god with followers even today.

Hanuman’s most notable role takes place in the religious and literary epic, Ramayana, which scholars believe the poet Valmiki wrote around 450 B.C. In it, Prince Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped and held captive for 14 years by the multi-headed demon, Ravana, from Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). While Rama and his brother go searching for Sita, it’s Hanuman, Rama’s trusted bodyguard and devoted servant, who discovers where Sita’s been taken and goes to rescue her. Sita ultimately refuses his help, insisting only her husband can come avenge the insult on her honor, so Hanuman has to go back and notify Rama. Before he does, he wreaks havoc on the tiny island, thus beginning a long and ugly war between the two sides.
A dancer's mask of Hanuman
in Thailand (Photo by Saerin)

There are numerous stories about his origin, but Hanuman’s generally considered an incarnation of Shiva, the god of destruction. He’s the lord of the planet Mars, and is said to control the planets with just his tail. In popular retellings, he’s often depicted looking like a muscular nobleman, wearing a round, gold crown. He may be shown holding his palms together, to indicate his selfless devotion to Rama, who’s believed to be an incarnation of a god himself, or carrying an umbrella or a heavy club. Often, he’s portrayed flying to and from Ceylon or else taking on a giant form and stepping across the ocean to reach the little island. In another depiction, he’s shown as having five heads and ten arms, a form he supposedly took on at one point during the war so as to kill a particular rakshasa, a demon who practiced a kind of black magic. 

Hanuman is still a huge iconic figure in Indian culture and folklore. Believers pray to him for strength as well as modesty. There are large statues of him all across India as well as other countries where the Ramayana is well known, including Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. One statue in Trinidad and Tobago is said to be the largest outside of Asia, at around 24 feet high and 12 feet wide. Within India, there are plenty of them triple that size. Numerous Hanuman temples abound, especially in North India, where he may be the most revered.  

The Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu, Nepal, is the entrance gate
that protects a 16th century palace complex from the Shah
dynasty. (Photo by Manjariz)
Across India, it’s a common sight to see monkeys lingering along the walkways that lead to temple entrances. I’m not sure how they get there, but their presence has always made me more than a little nervous. These are wild monkeys, sometimes cute and gentle but also often hungry and a little unnerved by humans. Temple-goers try not to bother them though. These monkeys are supposedly there to ward off evil forces and serve the gods, just as Hanuman himself would do.


  1. I'm afraid I'm repeating myself when I say it's amazing how cultural nuances travel, but I just can’t help it – the dancer’s mask of Hanuman looks Japanese to me and so do the Nepalese buildings. Meanwhile, the legend is Indian. By the way, the word Hanum (or Khanim) is used to politely and officially adress an older woman in Turkish and Tatar (like, you would be called Supriya-Hanum.) Don't think there's a connection, but just can't help myself -- always comparing, thinking, guessing...

  2. oh, and about monkeys in India - I read that wild monkeys were a problem in the Olympic village. So the local police resolved to training a certain species of monkeys to ward off others. Sort of like the Northern cultures trained their dogs to keep an eye on wolves. Isn’t that amazing?