"Be careful of the monkeys," our guide told us as we arrived at our ashram in the small city of Vrindavan. We had just gotten off the bus after a 30-mile bus trip that took 2 1/2 hours. "They will steal your glasses if you're not careful," he said. Thieving monkeys, it turns out, are the city's scourge.
Vrindavan is an ancient city, and a sacred one, believed by Hindus to be the birth place of the god Krishna. It is a crazy, raucous, gaudy, and blaring melange of temples, holy men, beggars, pilgrims, monkeys, cows, and street vendors. Garlands, trays of rose blossoms, and plates of sweets--all intended as offerings to the gods--are sold from tiny stalls and shops. Incense wafts down the the narrow streets, and the sound of singing and temple bells rings out over the town. "What's going on?" one of my students asked as chanting and drumming from a nearby temple echoed over our heads. "Oh, just the usual afternoon worship," I told her.
In Delhi and Agra, we stayed in fairly nice hotels--"three star" they're called here. The students saw tourist shops and upscale stores and had a chance to experience the modern side of Indian life. Everything in India has changed, I thought to myself, as we passed pizza restaurants and computer schools. But in Vrindavan, I thought, everything is the same.
Vrindavan is the India I lived in as a young woman. It is part of the timeless India, an India inexpressibly different from the West. It's hard to link this India with the one of call centers and international conglomerates. Tradition colors everything here, and religion--especially the ecstatic and devotional sects of Hinduism--pervade the place. You cannot find a corner that doesn't seem tied, somehow, to the worship of the Hindu gods.
Our accomodations at the Bindu Sewa Sansthan Ashram are nothing like those of the Hotel Siris in Agra or the Hotel Afrika Avenue in New Delhi. Our rooms are furnished only with simple cots. The walls are bare. The food is delicious but basic--vegetables, dal, chapatis--and we eat sitting on the floor. There is no heat and, although the weather is fairly mild, the rooms get cold at night. We've been issued space heaters, but after someone was shocked plugging one in, we've stopped using them.
Yet, we've been able to do things here we would never have done in modern Delhi or touristy Agra. We've taken bicycle rickshaws down alleys no wider than five feet across to visit temples buried deep within the old city. We've stood on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River. We've taken part in the elaborate fire ritual conducted every evening, which entails towers of flame, dozens of tiny oils lamps which are floated on the river, the recitation of all 108 names of the goddess Yamuna, the tossing of milk and rose petals into the water, and continual, loud, incessant singing.
And, sure enough. One evening, as I was listening intently to our guide explain the history of a temple, a large monkey came out of nowhere, leaped onto my face, tore my glasses off, and dashed high up a scaffolding. There he sat, chewing on my glass frames pensively, until our guide bribed him with a nice banana. Then he threw my glasses on the ground, and they were retrieved in perfectly good condition except for the monkey tooth marks, as indelible as the sensation of monkey paws scraping my eyelids.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...