Where did the monkeys go?

Ravi M Singh

Ravi M Singh

Where did the monkeys go?

A few weeks back, on a Saturday, I was at the Bajrabarahi shrine—a 12th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the avatar of Goddess Asta Matrika with the head of a sow, Varaha (barahi in Nepali)—bajra stands for a legendary weapon of thunderbolt, or lightning. The sacred site is just eight kilometers southeast of Lagankhel, Lalitpur.

Other notable Barahi temples include Nilbarahi (Bhaktapur), Dhumbarahi, Shwet Barahi (Bade Gaun, Lalitpur), and Tal Barahi (Pokhara).

What characterizes the two-tiered pagoda-style structure is the lack of a Gajur (spire) or pinnacle, quotidian with the architecture of nearly all temples of Kathmandu. And what strikes visitors most is the dense forest, close to 18.5 hectares, which hugs the shrine around.

An idyllic setting for birdies, ornithologists, and dendrologists, the forest is home to a wealth of flora and vertebrates—29 species of birds and as many genera of trees, including flowers. A legend board hung right at the entrance classifies in detail the species of birds and the flora for the ease of the respective buffs. For bird watchers, weekdays are best suited as weekends are bustling and noisy.

Ours was a family picnic following a long hiatus. Not just my nuclear family, though. It was a large gathering of extended family members—the Singhs from the Newar town of Dolakha, some 135 km northeast of Kathmandu.

Redolent of a family tree, the cluster included brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and what have you. The getaway organized each Nepali New Year at Bajrabarahi, initiated almost 15 years now, targeted at congregating the scattered members of the Singh kinsfolk residing in Kathmandu to spend time together and share thoughts amidst cheerful bonhomie and that feel-good vibe.

Past traumatic happenings die hard in our minds; nothing could be more life-like. The moment I stepped into the shrine’s entrance, old memories of the incident eight years ago rushed back, and I shuddered intuitively.

The annual outing of the Singhs abruptly came to a grinding halt on the sinister day when the devastating earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck the country at 11:56 on Baisakh 12, 2072 (25 April 2015), a Saturday.

Guess what! We all were at the shrine for the picnic when the petrifying quake took place, and, needless to write, utter pandemonium broke out. Shell-shocked, we felt desperate, vulnerable, and defenseless.

The picnic turned into absolute shambles. And so was the entire premises crawling with the picnickers as everyone in panic was scurrying around helter-skelter to find a safe shelter, frantically trying to help their kith and kin and save their dear lives. Outright chaos!

It looked, albeit still reeling under the shock, the country seemed destined to further dire circumstances as India imposed an over 5-month-long Nepal blockade, crippling daily life.

Before long, the Covid-19 pandemic followed, causing abject misery for the Nepali people, which took an uglier turn, triggering panic, untold tribulations, life-threatening situations, and even loss of lives. With frequent lockdowns, life seemed to come to a standstill. And our annual picnics slipped into dormancy for eight long years.

This year, the outing went well, and the turnout was quite a surprise, 50 family members, including the kids. Given the warm and cheerful ambiance, everyone looked like they had missed out on the yearly weekend hangouts—for ages.

I was in for a surprise this time, though. First, the shrine premises looked mighty tidier. My eyes combed through the site, the paved path, the nook-and-crannies, the spots allocated for picnics, and the vicinity for filth and rubbish, mainly empty plastic bottles, plastic bags, and the like—but there seemed hardly any.

“Wow, how come?” I asked myself. Did the management of the shrine minister do that? Or should I take it for granted that the Kathmanduuite citizenry has taken a turn for the better from littering public places and recreation parks? Highly unlikely! If you care to observe all getaway spots people frequent at weekends in the outskirts of the valley, the trash strewn around speaks volumes.

That reminds me of a friend who is an avid bike-packer and loves camping. On every trip, he ensures he collects his trash to dispose of at a proper garbage dump. And, what is more, he rounds off scraps and junk bestrewn by others, too. Unbelievable!

As our group unwound themselves, some in a game of cards, others chatting, and a few just hanging around, I strolled along the paved path through the beautiful forest surrounding the temple.

Albeit, the blaring loudspeakers belonging to the picnickers belted out a cacophony of music, playing havoc to the serenity of the woods, the intermittent lusty calls of the koel (cuckoo), the chattering of the parakeets, the red-vented Bulbuls, black drongos, the common mynas and a few others could not be mistaken a little in the far reaches. It struck me then something was missing, though.

Suddenly, it flashed across my mind—primates or monkeys! The Bajrabarahi temple premises and the surrounding woods are home to troops of those arboreal anthropoids. I saw none. Weird! My curiosity drew me deep into the woods on the single tracks but a cropper—not one of those critters crossed my path. In my haste to retreat, I slipped on the tinder-dry leaves and landed on my butt—nothing to fret about, however.

Back at the temple premises, I stopped to talk to an elderly lady selling puja trappings about the mysterious disappearance of monkeys. “Well, a week back, a Srimad Bhagavat Katha Saptah (a week-long puja ceremony) was staged at the temple. From that day on, the monkeys, unawares, vanished from the entire shrine premises and the woods, but they’ll be back soon,” she said.

Most likely, the blaring loudspeakers all over the environs and the hordes of devotees milling around the entire area had scared them off—I mused. But where did they go to take refuge? I wondered as I rejoined my kinfolks.

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