The Quest For Calm At The Monkey Temple
“So apparently there’s this crazy monkey temple in the hills that I’ve been meaning to hike up to. It’s called Galtaji. Are you guys in?” asked Sam. She’d been living in Jaipur for the past month or so and was already well versed in the main tourist attractions: the Hawa Mahal, Amber Fort, City Palace, etc . . . Those no longer held much allure for her, so when she met up with Jen and me in the old city, she was already devising a plan to escape the bustling center and explore Jaipur’s periphery.
Jen and I were in town for a long weekend. It was my very first trip out of the insanely crowded and bustling capital, and I was ready for an extra-municipal adventure that didn’t involve crossing five lanes of manic traffic or choking down billowing exhaust fumes from all manner of motorized vehicles. I was definitely in.
The previous day, the two of us had explored Jaipur on our own. Compared to New Delhi, we had found it to be rather calm and approachable. The scale of the buildings, the pace of the traffic; it all seemed like life in India had been dialed down a few notches. But, still, it was an Indian city, which meant that there was at least a hint of frenetic energy lurking beneath the surface. In fact, we had arrived in Jaipur for the express purpose of celebrating Holi, the festival of colors.
Basically, Holi consists of gangs of young men roaming the streets in search of prey (read: young women) on which they descend to smear their faces and bodies with colored powders. It was a rather intense experience and proved that Jaipur, no matter how low-key it seemed after Delhi, was still capable of Delhi-level madness. So in spite of Jaipur’s comparatively bucolic vibe, both Jen and I intrinsically knew that a day out of the city would do us good. The decision was made to take a chance on the Monkey Temple.
Since Sam lived in a town just outside Jaipur, she had become a master of the public bus system, something I had never dared to brave in Delhi. The system in Jaipur consisted of hundreds of rattling mini-buses that slow down (but don’t completely stop) at unmarked, yet apparently predetermined stops, while a man on the bus shouted out the major destinations on the route as passengers ran alongside and hopped on.
Once on the bus, the same guy who yelled out the stops came around every so often to collect fares. The trick, according to Sam, was to have a rough idea in your head of how much the price of your journey should be and then simply give that amount to the collector, ignoring his almost guaranteed attempts to charge you more for being a foreigner. Naturally, I let her take care of this, while I looked obliviously out the window at the city passing me by.
For me, the bus ride in itself was a great part of the adventure. It’s rare for a foreigner to be in such close proximity with the types of people you find on buses such as these. Across from me were a group of poor women, with a baby or two on their laps. Each was dressed in an intensely vibrant sari, the bones on their faces were sharp and wide-set, giving them a very distinct appearance. I found myself staring at them consistently throughout the journey. They looked neither happy, nor sad. For them it was just another day of their lives, but I found them to be unceasingly interesting to watch. The way they stared listlessly out the window, barely saying a word to one another.
After about 30 minutes of riding along in the bumpy bus, we arrived at our stop on the edge of town. The first few minutes of our walk took us through a typically grungy, fly-filled road rife with men trying to sell us provisions for the hike, but soon enough the city broke away and we found ourselves climbing up a steep hill, swimming upstream against a current of goats, dogs, pigs and the occasional cow. From the heights we had climbed to, we had an incredible view of the city, which was spread out before us like a smoothed out roadmap. From above, Jaipur looked calm and logical. At that moment I knew we had made the right decision.
As we climbed ever higher, the number of monkeys increased proportionally to the altitude, until we reached the summit and the Sun Temple. I know, I know. I said we were going to the Monkey Temple, so what’s this about the Sun Temple? It turned out that there were two different temples to be seen on this hike, and the Sun Temple was just a stop on the way to our ultimate destination.
Set at the peak of the hill, with an amazing view of the city beyond, the Sun Temple serves both as a place of worship and as a playground for the countless monkeys populating the summit. They chase each other, clatter across the aluminum rooftops, tight-rope walk across thin branches, swung down from vines and take naps in the sun. I enjoyed watching the monkeys more than the visiting the actual temple, which was small and similar to other Hindu temples I had already seen.
But we had not come for the Sun Temple, so we backtracked until we reached a fork in the road which led to the backside of the hill. Of course, we had no map to follow. It was all a big guessing game at this point. We could see nothing in the distance that signaled a monkey temple beyond, so we decided to amble down a set of stairs and see where that led us.
We passed by a gated shrine with speakers blasting some kind of religious melody, and snaked our way down the road. Near the bottom was a man squatting on top of a stone wall who was either a poor villager or an ascetic. Either way, he greeted us with a smile and a friendly “Hello, where are you from?” shaking his matted locks to and fro.
We pressed on, and sure enough after a few more twists of the road, we saw what looked like a cluster of old, possibly religious buildings. We had arrived.
What started as a deep cistern in a courtyard opened up into a waterfall sprouting from the mouth of a cow, flowing down into terraced pools that descended into a green valley filled with ancient temples. This was one of the Hindu pilgrimage sites, and the water springing from the cow’s mouth was said to be holy, so naturally there were some people bathing in the pools, splashing themselves with the blessed water and enjoying a respite from the hot, arid climate.
For me, the most remarkable thing about Galtaji was its serenity. Yes, there were monkeys flying across the rocky hills and chewing on bananas offered by human visitors. And yes, there were other people, both Indians and foreigners, who had somehow also found their way to this hidden gem. But compared to the bustle of Delhi, or to the hum of Jaipur, this place was a haven.
I enjoyed lazily ambling from one old decrepit building to the next, exploring the complex, taking in the impressive architecture and delighting in watching the monkeys at play. For the first time since I had arrived in India, I felt a bit of the mental and emotional calm that others might label as spirituality.
But of course, we couldn’t stay there forever. After a half hour or so, the three of us reluctantly climbed back up the path that the waterfall had just led us down, reentered the courtyard with the placid pool of water, and waved goodbye to the beckoning Hindu priest. A group of boys followed us, begging us to stop and take a photo with them, as if Galtaji wasn’t quite ready to let us go just yet.
But we stubborn women pressed on and hiked up the twisting road, past the dreadlocked ascetic and the musical shrine, and then descended the opposite side of the hill, this time swimming in unison with the stream of animals lazily meandering down into the city. We were back in Jaipur, back to India as we knew it. The Monkey Temple had been good to us, and I now look for a little Galtaji every time I’m traveling in this country. But in order to better appreciate its calm stillness, I needed to take a step back into the madness of everyday India.
By Lauren Goldstein
About the Author
Born in Toronto and raised in Silicon Valley, Lauren took her first flight at the age of one month and hasn’t been able to stay in one place since. When not traveling, Lauren can be found sprawled on a park bench with a good book in hand or consuming pastries at the nearest bakery, dreaming about landing a job that allows her to see the world. More of her travel articles can be found on ThisBoundlessWorld.com.
Posted on September 10, 2012 by Matt Stabile