Alagar Koil: Monkeys and Loose Plans


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Asia » India » Tamil Nadu » Madurai
October 25th 2019
Published: October 25th 2019
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I needed a local adventure, so off I went in the auto rickshaw with my friend Anand driving. The destination was Alagar Koil, an important temple dedicated to Vishnu situated at the base of the Alagar hills. I planned to walk to the top where I would see a temple dedicated to Murugan.

And as plans go, everything got changed around.

We had to have tea, of course, so we stopped at an upscale stall where I drank tea with the guys reading newspapers. It was a rural road, pleasing with paddy fields and coconut palms here and there, and houses spaced far enough apart to assure me that we weren’t in the busy city.

It was still busy enough. Friday is market day. Goats, hundreds of them, clustered in a mass huddle with their owners shouting and pushing and haggling for a sale. I didn’t want to stop and join the bedlam. Everyone was stocking up on their goat for slaughter for the special Deepavali meal, an important holiday fast approaching.

But we did stop at the chicken market. I couldn’t resist. Piles of the poor birds huddled along the road, awaiting their fate in someone’s briyani dish. But then there were the beautiful roosters.

“Those are different,” said Anand. “Fighting birds.” Men were strutting around with handsome birds tucked under their arms. Proud and formidable they appeared, clearly an extension of their owner’s manhood.

“A country chicken for eating sells for 400 rupees. The fighting bird sells for 5-10,000 rupees. They make money for their owners in the fighting.”

I was swept up in the aggressive, manly energy pervading the air. The men gathered in a circle, making comments and laughing and hooting. Two bird owners faced each other with their birds, who were craning their necks and parting their beaks. The owners stroked their backs and patted them, then set them down for a fight. The two birds rushed each other, their neck feathers all fluffed, and kicked and scuffled. The owner deftly grabbed his respective bird and tucked him underneath his arm, no harm done in this show-off fight.

So that’s how they set them to fighting, which apparently is a big attraction in the area, where bets are placed and deadly spurs are attached to the birds’ feet so one of them doesn’t make it out alive.

The practice is illegal in India, as it violates the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, but it remains popular. And the illegality may not even be known to many of the owners, or brushed off as just a bothersome rule.

Farther down the road is Alagar Koil, which seems to be home for hundreds of monkeys waiting to snatch a bag and raid picnic baskets. Anand parked, eyeing the monkeys ready to rip apart his auto. He walked me to the trail.

“Do you have your passport in you bag?” He asked.

“No, just money.”

“Money is ok, you don’t want to lose your passport. Maybe they’ll jump on you and open your bag.” He had me suitably freaked out about the monkeys. And I had seen several already, climbing the buildings and scanning peoples’ possessions.

The pilgrims we met who had just returned from the top said there weren’t many monkeys. But some of them carried sticks. To fight off the monkeys. And it was very difficult walking. But since I had shoes, they assured me I would be alright. They had climbed the rocky path with bare feet.

A pilgrim surrendered a stick to me. That made me feel safe, yeah sure. (Don’t monkeys leap from trees?) I said what felt like my last goodbye to Anand.

The trail skirted the outside granite wall surrounding the temple. Remnants of the Pandyan era (AD 1200’s and later) fort still surround the temple, where monkeys scamper. The initial trail was easy, but my journey was cut short.

I remembered the priest under the big banyan tree. In 2007 when I had met him, he had adopted the tree, and was blessing people and their wishes there. He still had the same spot, same tree, and was wearing the same thick glasses. His hair was longer and grey now.

“No, don’t go. You don’t want that way. Don’t go.” I couldn’t understand. The other pilgrims had just come down from the same path, and I was determined to climb. But he kept warning me not to go. He seemed agitated when I started walking further in the direction of the trail.

I turned around, actually relieved, because the forest beyond seemed kind of lonely. And filled with monkeys.

”Monkeys?” Anand was surprised to see me so soon. We walked to the place where pilgrims could ride a bus up to the top instead of walk, which I thought was a good idea. But after being directed to the queue where no one was waiting and knowing that I’d be waiting for another 25 minutes for enough people to ride the bus, I abandoned my idea of going to the top and instead thought I’d just enjoy being outside the temple at the bottom.

Anand suggested having tea. He does that, maybe five to seven times when we go out. Tea, coffee, badam milk. He showed me the vendors’ carts all covered and snugly tied with rope so the monkeys wouldn’t raid them.

I got distracted by the tattoo artist sitting on the ground, waiting for victims. A man approached him, asking to get his wife’s initials tattooed to his arm. Nearby a woman was putting her daughter’s hair in pigtails. She explained that the tattoo on her arm was her younger sister’s name, who had died. Nearby, guys were selling slices of cucumber and green mango. Oh my excitement when I discovered the guy with a large bag of puffy cucumbers. I bought three, then he threw in one for “free,” then I bought a green mango from him. He tried out his English on me, then offered a slice of green mango sprinkled with a heavy cover of salt and red chili powder. I couldn’t refuse, and managed a few tough salty bites, then gave the rest to the monkeys lurking nearby.

Anand and I chatted with everyone and took photos. I didn’t enter into the temple at the bottom or climb the hill. Sometimes I just want to hang with the people and see what life is about.

A coffee at the same tea place on the way back ended my perfectly lovely morning doing things I hadn’t planned to do at all.


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25th October 2019

Juvenile delinquents
Monkeys may be cute, but they are really just furry juvenile delinquents. And I think monkeys around temples are bolder, probably because they figure not one will hurt them.
25th October 2019

JD Monkeys
Yes they are deities here. People feed them also. The population at this temple seemed to be way out of control.
29th October 2019

As plans go...
I'm very curious about the warning from the priest. I adore monkeys, but the macaques in India were particularly aggressive...so I can totally understand your hesitation. I fell in love with the green mango with salt and chilli snack in Thailand - but I have to wash off about 50% of the salt first :)
3rd November 2019

Priestly warning
I was curious about the warning also! I don’t think it was about monkeys. As for the mango, the salt completely overpowered any flavor from the mango, which was about as hard as a rock!

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