The Gangs of Swayambhu

Features Issue 160 Mar, 2015

Bali’s lieutenants are on sentinel duty. They pace up and down to look for an opportune moment to strike Sughriv’s gang. While, members of the Sughriv gang are savoring food they are getting from the visitors, Bali’s comrades have little to eat.  It is only a matter of time before the hostility gives way to a full-fledged confrontation.

For movie buffs, the situation would seem to be straight out from the movie The Gangs of New York, but for zoologists like Dr Mukesh Chalise, a more fitting title for the story would be the Gangs of Swayambhunath.

Walking up the Swayambhu hill, located in the north-east part of the Valley, on a chilly morning, Dr Chalise asks a question: “Why do you think the monkeys here have a red bottom?”

“When the monkey warrior Hanuman ravaged the demon king Ravana’s kingdom Lanka by setting it on fire, he came back to Sita to assure her that her husband Ram was on his way, and she would be rescued soon. 

“ ‘Oh, that’s good news. Let me give you a reward for your bravery’,” Sita told Hanuman. She went inside and got Hanuman a paan. The bajrangabali was expecting something more valuable than a paan. So after Sita went inside, he vented his anger on the paan by wiping his behind with it. 

“That is why many people believe that monkeys, especially the rhesus ones have a red behind,” says Dr Chalise, who has been monitoring monkeys in the Kathmandu Valley for over 20 years. “But looking at the description of Hanuman in the religious texts, we can easily say that Hanuman was a langhur, not a rhesus (the species found in Pashupatinath and Swayambhu),” says Dr Chalise.

The rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), are monkeys that are distributed around the Old World (particularly Asia). The monkeys are known to be highly adaptable to their environment, and the species is considered least likely to become endangered. 

They live in different kinds of groups. A group may have one male and many breeding females and another may have many breeding males and females. Similarly, there are groups that consist of monkeys of the same age group. The most distinct of all the groups is the vagabond (or the jogi) group.

Even as Hanuman was much bigger and stronger than his ‘incarnations’ in Swayambhu, one thing that both the residents of Lanka and Swayambhunath area would agree is that monkeys are by nature very disruptive and are curious about everything. “They also fight fiercely to defend their territory and their gang,” says the primatologist sitting on a bench near the “wishing pond” (the pond where people try their luck by throwing a coin into a pot).

Just then, a gang of monkeys walks towards the waterfall that leads up to the Stupa area; we follow them. Two of the members of the gang remain near the pond as they spot food. Their targets are two tourists carrying a bag of oranges. They snatch the oranges and off they go.

The pond area is attractive for the monkeys because a lot of people come there. More people, for the monkeys, means more food.
It seems to be one of those lazy days when we humans would love to sit in the sun and enjoy the beautiful weather. Near the Stupa upstairs, the gang is doing the same. The chief male of the Stupa gang (we name him Sughriv) is getting pampered. The females of the group take good care of him; they are picking lice from his body. 

Sughriv, like any other chief male, stands out from the rest of the gang. He is well-built and walks with an air of confidence. To add to that, wherever he goes, his entourage follows him. “Another distinct feature of the chief male is its erect tail,” says Dr Chalise. “Do you remember the dadas (goons) in Nepali movies? The chief male walks around just like the dada.”

It was in the Satya yuga that the most powerful monkey warrior brothers of the time, Sughriv and Bali were fighting each other. According to legends Bali had such a power that he would absorb energy from anyone who would dare enter into a duel with him. It would take a prince from Ayodhya to eventually slay the powerful monkey king. 

The little ones of the members of the modern day Sughriv’s gang are playing with one another. They wrestle each other so that they remain fit and also learn through play. The ‘kids’ are unaware of the tense situation that the adults of the group are facing.

“Maka ko bare ma pani kura garne? (There’s no point talking about the monkeys),” says 75-year-old Krishna Maharjan from Kilagal, who comes to Swayambhu at least twice a year to attend bhojs organized by friends and family. 
“They are very restless creatures. Whenever our children become restless, we tell them not to act like a monkey,” he says. “But one thing I like about them is that they care for others in the group. For example, if one of the members dies, the other members of the group form a circle around the body and ‘mourn’ the death.”

Krishna’s friend Hari says that his dad used to say that if a monkey falls off a tree, then it becomes an outcaste, and has to circumambulate the entire valley before it can join the group.

A few metres away from the Stupa, towards the Manjushree temple, another gang (the Anandakuti gang, we name the head of the gang ‘Bali’) is resting after the morning meal, so it seems at first glance. 
But the members of Bali’s gang are actually preparing for an assault on Sughriv so that they can lay claim to the Stupa area, from where food is just a few meters away.
“Monkeys are not restless creatures, they just want to test everything,” explains Dr Chalise, who has counted nine different gangs of monkeys in and around what tourists like to call the ‘Monkey Temple’. “Curiosity is second nature to them.” 

And is it true that the outcast can return to the group only if they go around the city? Well, it has not been established scientifically, says Dr Chalise. It might be an urban myth that was exaggerated over generations. 

“Being able to jump from one tree to the other is a quintessential quality of a monkey. If a monkey cannot do just that, then how can we call it a monkey?” The myth may have started from that, he says. 

Meanwhile, as female members of the gang surround Bali and caress him, his generals run to the top of a tree that leans towards the ground. 

“Do not look straight at them; just pretend that you are looking at something else,” Dr Chailise says. “It’s best when they feel that you are least bothered about them.”

The tree is strategically important as it gives a vantage point for Bali’s generals, who have taken up sentinel positions near Anandakuti area to monitor the activities of Sughriv’s gang.

The elders of the gang make sure that the children do not sense the imminent threat of an all-out assault. They encourage the children to be immersed in their own play.
“Play is an essential part of a young monkey’s life. It keeps them fit, and helps them learn much-needed survival techniques needed especially at a place like Swaywambhu.”
Suddenly, Sughriv’s foot soldiers launch a blitzkrieg on Bali’s territory. Attack is the best form of defense. In a matter of minutes, the Anandakuti area becomes a battle ground. 

Things were different when Bali and Sughriv’s ancestors were living on the Swayambhunath hill. They could easily roam the surrounding forests and find food for themselves. But as houses sprang up around the area at the cost of the forests, the monkeys of Swayambhunath became confined to the hill – they could not move freely to the surrounding forests. But those monkeys that remained in the forests, such as the ones found in Shivapuri, have a different food habit; they do not eat food that humans give them.

This meant that the primates became heavily dependent on food handed out by humans, most of whom consider it punya to feed a monkey. But food is scarce. Not everyone gets to eat as much as they want.

“More than 50 percent of the food that a monkey eats in a day comes from humans. The rest comes from plants at the temple premises, and some even eat bugs,” says Dr Chalise.

Various studies conducted on the population of rhesus monkeys in Swayambhunath have found that the number of monkeys has neither increased nor decreased in the last few years. The number is believed to be around 450. This has been attributed to low birth rates and slightly high infant and adult mortality rates. 

Krishna says he has seen the diet of the monkeys change over the years. “If we go back just a few years, I clearly remember that the monkeys here did not eat meat. But one day, I saw a monkey eat eggs. It was only a matter of time before I saw them eating meat. Maybe that explains why they have become more restless these days.”
The resident primates of Swayambhu have become addicted to human food as they get to taste different spices that humans add to their food.

Back at the area near Anandakuti, where Bali’s gang holds territory, monkeys from rival gangs pounce on one another. 
As tourists watch in awe, three young soldiers from Sughriv’s gang pounce on a senior general from Bali’s gang; they bite him and beat him. He falls off a wall, and his genitals are hurt. 

The quest for food has brought many changes in the way monkeys live at Swayambhunath. Krishna says they have become more violent than in the past. In addition to that, visitors can see monkeys drinking fruit juice with a straw – things that were unimaginable in the past.
“There might come a time when the monkeys will go to a shop nearby to buy food,” an onlooker comments. “But that will not be possible during our lifetime,” adds Dr Chalise.

He says he is glad that the jogi gang is not around. The jogi gang (as Dr Chalise calls them), is an all-male group that roams the area. “You may ask why I call them the jogi group,” he says. Well, they live up to their name.

A jogi group has male monkeys who have become outcasts. Dr Chalise says he once followed a group of the jogi monkeys, who he believes were forced out of their gang because they were involved in incest. They used roam around the Bhagwan Pau area of Swayambhu; they used to live a relaxed life.

But there are times when the members of jogi group attack another gang. They know that if they can defeat the cheif male of a group, they can take his place as head of the gang, a position that commands respect and gives authority. When the male leader of a gang is defeated in battle, he has to leave the group, and then join the jogi group.
Back at the Anandakuti area, Sughriv’s soldiers retreat, sensing that the objective of the raid has been completed. Bali’s ambition of moving to the Stupa area is dampened, at least for now.

As all this plays out in the Andandakuti area, the other gangs of Swayambhu mind their own business. It seems as if there is an omerta among the gangs to stay out of each others’ business.

The fallen general lies wounded, and his fellow gang members come to see him. “He’s not going to make it,” says Dr Chalise.
It’s times like these that Bali would wish to have powers that the Bali from Satya yuga possessed.