My first close look at a bonnet monkey was an experience that I still remember. I was five then and was at Courtallam, at the main falls, and my mother had given me an athirasam to eat — a flat, circular, fried cake made of boiled jaggery and finely-sifted, pounded rice flour. My mother’s culinary skill was justly celebrated and even at that tender age I could appreciate its quality. It was as I was enjoying my athirasam, taking little bites off its periphery to make it last till my father got back from his bath at the falls, that the sweet was suddenly snatched from my astonished hands. And there, barely a yard in front of me, was an enormous bonnet monkey squatting on its haunches about to stuff my athirasam into its capacious check-pouch!
I was not specially terrified by the experience, but behaved as if I was — with the result that I got two athirasams for the half-eaten one of which I had been deprived. Wasn’t it Wordsworth that wrote a long poem about the superior perceptions and philosophy of childhood?
Last year, I had occasion again to study the bonnet monkeys of Courtallam, at various waterfalls. They were no longer aggressive plunderers and had, in fact, become positively retiring and shy, nor were they there in anything like their former numbers. Considering how much Courtallam and our attitude to monkeys have changed, this is not surprising.
Courtallam, with its dense semi-evergreen hill forests and cascading falls, has long been celebrated for its bonnet monkeys. The Saivite saint, Thiru Gnanasambandar, who lived some 12 centuries ago, refers to the monkeys at the falls in his day. Till about 25 years ago, as I myself can testify, a feature of the place was its large troops of robust bonnet monkeys. What attracted the creatures to the falls was the human tendency to mark a picnic, especially a bath at a waterfall with a repast. The monkeys could always depend on the carelessness of picnicking humanity, and its tendency to bring children along and leave the eats in their charge — and all monkeys are invariably very bold in dealing with women and children, being expert at gauging fright reactions.
Well, those conditions obtain no longer. Courtallam has lost its wild beauty and is an organised health resort today. There are stalls at the more popular falls where one can get refreshments and coffee; changing rooms and security measures are among the amenities offered to the bathers and the crowding humanity leaves little room for the monkeys. A fellow-naturalist pointed out a great, vertical rock-face, about a furlong from the Five Falls, and told me that a large troop of bonnet monkeys lived in the jungles on top of the hill, and that he had often seen them scrambling up the sheer smooth rock — a most impressive sight, he assured me.
The man point of this note is not limited to Courtallam and its bonnet monkeys, but has application to all monkeys all over India that have any truck with humanity — as much to the rhesus of the North as to the bonnet monkey of the South. Several foreigners who know our wildlife well (Britishers who served in the Indian Army, most of them) have pointed out that while monkeys were strictly protected in pre-Independence days, they are no longer privileged or tolerated. It is true that here, in the land of the Ramayana, monkeys were exceptionally privileged and suffered, and that in recent years, with the great increase in our population and the consequent food supply problem, monkeys raiding crops and plantations have been sternly discouraged, and at times shot down mercilessly.
However, I think that even today the traditional, semi-religious tolerance of monkeys is very much in evidence in many parts of the countryside, particularly in the neighbourhood of shrines — actually, this feeling for monkeys is not something prescribed by religion, but is puranic and folklore. Occasionally this feeling has been grotesquely misunderstood abroad. The following quotation, from a recent and otherwise meticulously verified book by two scientifically educated authors, will bear out my view — and needs no comment:
“Few benefits conferred by man upon other forms of life can compare with granting immunity from human interference. The broadest benevolence of this kind ever devised seems to have arisen in India about the fifth century BC as the Brahman priest caste pressed the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation to its logical extreme. As recently as 1958 the Indian government yielded to religious pressure by banning the export of rhesus monkeys for medical research in Occidental countries. No shortage of monkeys was cited; reincarnated souls were at stake.” — from The Balance of Nature by Lorus J and Margery Milne.
This was published on 12 may 1963 in the sunday statesman