Bright eyes look down from atop a boulder. I smile at the mischief glinting in them. They take it as an invitation and in a flurry of swishing tails and graceful limbs, the monkeys leap from one precariously perched rock to another. Standing where I am at Hampi in Northern Karnataka, it is not hard to imagine that this could be the birthplace of one of their most famous mythical ancestors – Hanuman. For Hampi, the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, is also supposed to be Kishkindha, the land of the monkeys in the Ramayana.
In the epic, Kishkindha is the monkey kingdom ruled by the brothers Vali and Sugriva. Rama reaches here, en route his quest for his abducted wife Sita. He and his brother Lakshmana meet Hanuman who leads them to Sugriva, the ousted king of Kishkindha. Sugriva takes them to a cave where he shows them a set of jewels that Sita threw down from the flying chariot or the Pushpak Vimana Ravana abducted her on. Later on, Rama kills Vali and restores Sugriva to the throne. Rama and Lakshmana then take refuge in Kishkindha while Hanuman flies across to Lanka to search for Sita.
In the minds of the locals here, there is no doubt that Kishkindha and Hampi are one and the same. Hampi is the Kannada derivative of the ancient name Pampa Kshetra, and Pampa the olden name of the River Tungabhadra. The Pampa Sarovar mentioned in the Ramayana is none other than this, they say. How else could you explain a proliferation of sites connected to the Ramayana in the area?
The first site is a cave, near the south bank of the Tungabhadra. Known as ‘Sugriva’s Cave’, this is where the overthrown monkey king hid Sita’s jewels and garments. Sita’s garments are said to have made the streaks and smears on the rocks near the cavern.
To the east of the village, rising proud and tall over all the other hills in the region, is the Matunga Hill. Named after the Sage Matunga who cursed Vali from ever setting foot there, this is also where Sugriva took refuge when his brother drove him out. Nearby is the Malyavanta hill where Rama and Lakshmana took sanctuary while Hanuman scoured Lanka, looking for Sita. The story is also alive at the Raghunatha temple atop the hill where the deity is shown without his bow and arrow, anxiously waiting for any news of his beloved.
However, few sites in the region are said to be as hallowed as Anjaneya Hill or Anjaneyagiri. The legend goes that this is where Hanuman was born. Folklore says that the nearby Rishyamukha hills are where he met Rama and Lakshmana for the first time. A short distance away at the Nimbapuram village, lays a mound of ashes. This massive pile is said to be the cremated remains of Vali. Walk down the river to the humble Kodandarama temple, and you will be told that this is where Sugriva was crowned after Rama killed Vali.
In the vicinity of Sugriva’s cave is a pool named Sita Sarovar, after Rama’s wife. Tourist guides also point out the place where Jatayu the eagle fell, wounded after his tussle with Ravana, in his attempt to rescue Sita. No matter which way you turn, there’s a boulder Rama touched, rested upon or passed by.
Today, Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site that attracts thousands of tourists from across the world. Visitors gape at the fantastically carved monuments that tell the story of an ancient empire. But are the ruins trying to tell us something more? There are etchings of monkeys in various poses on almost every edifice. Could Hampi really have been the kingdom of the monkeys?
Locals insist that there is no need to suspend disbelief while pondering the answer to that one. The confusion is because of the way the word ‘Vanaras’ was interpreted, they say. While it is widely accepted that ‘Vanaras’ meant a tribe of monkeys, the locals say that the actual reference is to those who lived in the ‘Van’ or literally forest dwellers. They claim that the Vanaras were an ancient tribe that held sway over the dense forest that extended over the region in the Treta Yuga when the Ramayana is set. To Rama and Lakshmana, who came from the North, the indigenous tribe with their dark skin and unique gestures could have seemed so different that they could not think of them as human. And so the tribe could have been deemed the status of our species’ closest relative, they say. Yet others argue that the tribe was very much human and that they used the image of the monkey as their main motif.
Could it be that the memories of this tribe remained in the region’s collective unconscious? Is that why the master craftsmen of yore used them liberally to adorn Vijayanagar’s structures?
I look at the monkeys lounging around with a know-it all air, and I wonder.
Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a bestselling author and a freelance travel journalist. Before dedicating her life to writing, she was Communications Officer with Greenpeace India and Correspondent with CNN-IBN. The New Indian Express, One Philippines and Geo (Indian edition) have published many of her travel columns. Her non-fiction pieces have been featured in Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul, Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul – On Friendship and also in CBW’s India’s Top 42 Weekend Getaways eBook. Her short fiction has been published in Indian Voices- an anthology, Australian Women Online, Single Solitary Thought, Pothiz, Damazine and the Asia Writes Project. Her first novel Coming Up On The Show… The Travails of a news trainee sold more than 10’000 copies within the first two months of its release in April 2011. She blogs on life as it happens at http://simplyspeaking.blogspot.com/ You can read more about her life and work at www.shwetaganeshkumar.com