Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter XXII

Monkeys.–Hindoo opinions of their Nature.–Instances of their sagacity.–Rooted animosity of the Monkey tribe to the snake.–Cruelty to each other when maimed.–The female remarkable for affection to its young.–Anecdotes descriptive of the belief of the Natives in the Monkey being endowed with reason.–The Monkeys and the Alligator.–The Traveller and the Monkeys.–The Hindoo and the Monkey.

The Natives of India, more particularly the Hindoos, are accustomed to pay particular attention to the habits of the varied monkey race, conceiving them to be connecting links in the order of Nature between brutes and rational creatures; or, as some imagine and assert, (without any other foundation than conjecture and fancy), that they were originally a race of human beings, who for their wicked deeds have been doomed to perpetuate their disgrace and punishment to the end of time in the form and manner we see them, inhabiting forests, and separated from their superior man.

I have had very few opportunities of acquainting myself with the general principles of the Hindoo belief, but I am told, there are amongst them those who assert that one of their deities was transformed to a particular kind of monkey, since designated Hummoomaun,[1] after the object of their adoration; whence arises the marked veneration paid by Hindoos of certain sects to this class of monkeys.

The Natives firmly believe the whole monkey race to be gifted with reason to a certain extent, never accounting for the sagacity and cunning they are known to possess by instinctive habits; arguing from their own observations, that the monkeys are peaceable neighbours, or inveterate enemies to man, in proportion as their good will is cultivated by kindness and hospitality, or their propensity to revenge roused by an opposite line of conduct towards them.

The husbandman, whose land is in the vicinity of a forest, and the abode of monkeys, secures safety to his crops, by planting a patch of ground with that species of grain which these animals are known to prefer. Here they assemble, as appetite calls, and feast themselves upon their own allotment; and, as if they appreciated the hospitality of the landlord, not a blade is broken, or a seed destroyed in the fields of corn to the right and left of their plantation. But woe to the farmer who neglects this provision; his fields will not only be visited by the marauders, but their vengeance will be displayed in the wasteful destruction of his cultivation. This undoubtedly looks more like reason than instinct; and if credit could be given to half the extraordinary tales that are told of them, the monkeys of India might justly be entitled to a higher claim than that of instinct for their actions.

Monkeys seem to be aware that snakes are their natural enemies. They never advance in pursuit of, yet they rarely run from a snake; unless its size renders it too formidable an object for their strength and courage to attack with anything like a prospect of success in destroying it. So great is the animosity of the monkey race to these reptiles, that they attack them systematically, after the following manner:–

When a snake is observed by a monkey, he depends on his remarkable agility as a safeguard from the enemy. At the most favourable opportunity he seizes the reptile just below the head with a firm grasp, then springs to a tree, if available, or to any hard substance near at hand, on which he rubs the snake’s head with all his strength until life is extinct; at intervals smelling the fresh blood as it oozes from the wounds of his victim. When success has crowned his labour, the monkey capers about his prostrate enemy, as if in triumph at the victory he has won; developing, as the Natives say, in this, a striking resemblance to man.

Very few monkeys, in their wild state, ever recover from inflicted wounds; the reason assigned by those who have studied their usual habits is, that whenever a poor monkey has been wounded, even in the most trifling way, his associates visit him by turns, when each visitor, without a single exception, is observed to scratch the wound smartly with their nails. A wound left to itself might be expected to heal in a short time, but thus irritated by a successive application of their sharp nails, it inflames and increases. Mortification is early induced by the heated atmosphere, and death rapidly follows.

The monkeys’ motives for adding to their neighbour’s anguish, is accounted for by some speculators on the score of their aversion to the unnatural smell of blood; or they are supposed to be actuated by a natural abhorrence to the appearance of the wound, not by any means against the wounded; since in their domestic habits, they are considered to be peaceable and affectionate in their bearings towards each other. The strong will exercise mastery over the weak where food is scarce, but, in a general way, they are by no means quarrelsome or revengeful amongst themselves. They are known to hold by each other in defending rights and privileges, if the accounts given by credible Natives be true, who add that a whole colony of monkeys have been known to issue forth in a body to revenge an injury sustained by an individual of their tribe; often firing a whole village of chupha-roofs, where the aggressor is known to be a resident, who in his anger may have maimed or chastised one of their colony.

The female monkey is remarkable for her attachment to her progeny, which she suckles until it is able to procure food for its own sustenance. When one of her young dies, the mother is observed to keep it closely encircled in her arms, moaning piteously with true maternal feelings of regret, and never parting with it from her embrace until the dead body becomes an offensive mass: and when at last she quits her hold, she lays it on the ground before her, at no great distance, watching with intense anxiety the dead body before her, which she can no longer fold in her embrace, until the work of decomposing has altered the form of the creature that claimed her tender attachment. What an example is here given to unnatural mothers who neglect or forsake their offspring!

I shall here insert a few anecdotes illustrative of the opinions of the Natives on the subject of monkeys being possessed of reasoning faculties. They shall be given exactly as I have received them, not expecting my readers will give to them more credit than I am disposed to yield to most of these tales; but as they are really believed to be true by the Natives who relate them, I feel bound to afford them a place in my work, which is intended rather to describe men as they are, than men as I wish to see them.

In the neighbourhood of Muttra is an immense jungle or forest, where monkeys abound in great numbers and variety. Near a village bordering this forest, is a large natural lake which is said to abound with every sort of fish and alligators. On the banks of this lake are many trees, some of which branch out a great distance over the water. On these trees monkeys of a large description, called Lungoor,[2] gambol from spray to spray in happy amusement: sometimes they crowd in numbers on one branch, by which means their weight nearly brings the end of the bough to the surface of the water; on which occasion it is by no means unusual for one or more of their number to be lessened.

Whether the monkeys told their thoughts or not, my informant did not say, but the retailers of this story assert, that the oldest monkey was aware that his missing brethren had been seized by an alligator from the branch of the tree, whilst they were enjoying their amusement. This old monkey, it would seem, resolved on revenging the injury done to his tribe, and formed a plan for retaliating on the common enemy of his race.

The monkeys were observed by the villagers, for many successive days, actively occupied in collecting the fibrous bark of certain trees, which they were converting into a thick rope. The novelty of this employment surprised the peasants and induced them to watch daily for the result. When the rope was completed, from sixty to seventy of the strongest monkeys conveyed it to the tree: having formed a noose at one end with the nicest care, the other end was secured by them to the overhanging arm of the tree. This ready, they commenced their former gambols, jumping about and crowding on the same branch which had been so fatal to many of their brethren.

The alligator, unconscious of the stratagem thus prepared to secure him, sprang from the water as the branch descended but instead of catching the monkey he expected, he was himself caught in the noose; and the monkeys moving away rather precipitately, the alligator was drawn considerably above the surface of the water. The more he struggled the firmer he was held by the noose; and here was his skeleton to be seen many years after, suspended from the tree over the water, until time and the changes of season released the blanched bones from their exalted situation, to consign them to their more natural element in the lake below.

On one occasion, a Hindoo traveller on his way to Muttra, from his place of residence, drew down the resentment of the monkeys inhabiting the same forest, by his inattention to their well-known habits. The story is told as follows:–

’The man was travelling with all his worldly wealth about his person: viz., fifty gold mohurs, (each nearly equal to two pounds in value[3]), and a few rupees, the savings of many a year’s hard service, which were secreted in the folds of his turban; a good suit of clothes on his back; a few gold ornaments on his neck and arms; and a bundle of sundries and cooking vessels.

’The Hindoo was on foot, without companions, making his way towards the home of his forefathers, where he hoped with his little treasury to be able to spend his remaining years in peace with his family and friends, after many years’ toil and absence from his home. He stopped near to the lake in question, after a long and fatiguing march, to rest himself beneath the shade of the trees, and cook his humble meal of bread and dhall. I ought here, perhaps, to say, that this class of Natives always cook in the open air, and, if possible, near a river, or large body of water, for the purpose of bathing before meals, and having water for purifying their cooking utensils, &c.

’The man having undressed himself, and carefully piled his wardrobe beneath the tree he had selected for shelter, went to the lake and bathed; after which he prepared his bread, and sat himself down to dine. As soon as he was comfortably seated, several large monkeys advanced and squatted themselves at a respectful distance from him, doubtless expecting to share in the good things he was enjoying. But, no: the traveller was either too hungry or inhospitable, for he finished his meal, without tendering the smallest portion to his uninvited visitors, who kept their station watching every mouthful until he had finished.

’The meal concluded, the traveller gathered his cooking vessels together and went to the bank of the lake, in order to wash them, as is customary, and to cleanse his mouth after eating; his clothes and valuables were left securely under the tree as he imagined,–if he thought at all about them,–for he never dreamed of having offended the monkeys by eating all he had cooked, without making them partakers. He was no sooner gone, however, than the monkeys assembled round his valuables; each took something from the collection; the oldest among them having secured the purse of gold, away they ran to the tree over the very spot where the man was engaged in polishing his brass vessels.

The Hindoo had soon completed his business at the lake, and unconscious of their movements, he had returned to the tree, where to his surprise and sorrow, he discovered his loss. Nearly frantic, the Hindoo doubted not some sly thief had watched his motions and removed his treasures, when he heard certain horrid yells from the monkeys which attracted his attention: he returned hastily to the lake, and on looking up to the tree, he discovered his enemies in the monkeys. They tantalized him for some time by holding up the several articles to his view, and when the old monkey shook the bag of gold, the poor man was in an agony; they then threw the whole into the lake, the coins, one by one, were cast into the deep water, where not a shadow of hope could be entertained of their restoration, as the lake was deep and known to be infested with alligators.

’The man was almost driven mad by this unlooked-for calamity, by which he was deprived of the many comforts his nursed treasure had so fairly promised him for the remainder of life. He could devise no plan for recovering his lost valuables, and resolved on hastening to the nearest village, there to seek advice and assistance from his fellow-men; where having related his unfortunate adventures, and declaring he had done nothing to anger the creatures, he was asked if he had dined, and if so, had he given them a share? He said, he had indeed cooked his dinner, and observed the monkeys seated before him whilst he dined, but he did not offer them any.

’"That, that, is your offence!” cried the villagers in a breath; “who would ever think of eating without sharing his meal with men or with animals? You are punished for your greediness, friend."–"Be it so,” said the traveller; “I am severely used by the brutes, and am now resolved on punishing them effectually in return for the ill they have done me.”

’He accordingly sold the gold ornaments from his arms and neck, purchased a quantity of sugar, ghee, flour, and arsenic, returned to his old quarters, prepared everything for cooking, and, in a short time, had a large dish filled with rich-looking cakes, to tempt his enemies to their own ruin.

’The feast was prepared in the presence of the assembled multitude of monkeys. The Hindoo placed the dish before his guests, saying, “There, my lords! your food is ready!” The old monkey advanced towards the dish, took up a cake, raised it to his nose, and then returning it to the dish, immediately ran off, followed by the whole of his associates into the thick jungle.

’The man began to despair, and thought himself the most unlucky creature existing; when, at length, he saw them returning with augmented numbers; he watched them narrowly, and observed each monkey had a green leaf in his paw, in which he folded a cake and devoured the whole speedily. The man expected of course to see them sicken immediately, for the quantity of arsenic he had used was sufficient, he imagined to have killed twenty times their number. But, no: his stratagem entirely failed; for the leaf they had provided themselves was an antidote to the poison put into their food. The traveller thus sacrificed even that little which would have carried him on his journey, had he been satisfied with his first loss; but the Hindoo cherished a revengeful disposition, and thereby was obliged to beg his way to his family.’

The next monkey story is equally marvellous, the Natives believe that it actually occurred; I am disposed, however, to think all these stories were originally fables to impress a moral upon the ignorant.

’Near a small town in the province of Oude there is a jungle of some extent, inhabited by monkeys. A certain man of the Hindoo class, residing in the town, resolved upon enjoying himself one day with a bottle of arrack he had procured by stealth, and since it is well known that spirits or fermented liquors are prohibited articles in the territories governed by Mussulmaun rulers, the man betook himself with his treat to the neighbouring jungle, where in private he might drink the spirit he loved, and escape the vigilance of the police.

’Arriving at a convenient spot, the Hindoo seated himself under a tree, prepared his hookha, drew from his wrapper the bottle of spirits, and a small cup he had provided; and if ever he knew what happiness was in his life, this moment was surely his happiest.

’He drank a cup of his liquor, smoked his hookha with increased relish, and thought of nothing but his present enjoyment. Presently he heard the sound of rustling in the trees, and in a few minutes after, a fine sturdy monkey, of the Lungoor tribe, placed himself very near to him and his bottle.

’The Hindoo was of a lively temper, and withal kindly disposed towards the living, though not of his own species. Having a cake of dry bread in his waistband, he broke off a piece and threw it to his visitor; the monkey took the bread and sniffed at the cup. “Perhaps you may like to taste as well as to smell,” thought the Hindoo, as he poured out the liquor into the cup, and presented it to his guest.

’The monkey raised the cup with both paws to his mouth, sipped of its contents, winked his eyes, appeared well satisfied with the flavour, and to the surprise of the Hindoo, finished the cup, which was no sooner done, than away he sprang up the tree again.

’"Had I known you would run away so soon, my guest, I should have spared my arrack;” thought the Hindoo. But the monkey quickly returned to his old position, threw down a gold mohur to his entertainer, and sat grinning with apparent satisfaction. The Hindoo, astonished at the sight of gold, thought to repay his benefactor by another cup of spirits, which he placed before the monkey, who drank it off, and again mounted the tree, and shortly returned with a second gold mohur.

’Delighted with the profit his arrack produced, the Hindoo drank sparingly himself, for each time the monkey took a cup, a gold mohur was produced, until the man counted eight of these valuable coins on his palm. By this time, however, the monkey was completely overcome by the strength of his potations, and lay apparently senseless before the Hindoo, who fancied now was his turn to mount the tree, where he found, on diligent search, in a hollow place, a small bag of gold mohurs, with which he walked off, leaving the monkey prostrate on the earth.

’The Hindoo determined on going some distance from his home, in a different direction, fearing his secret treasure might be the means of drawing him into difficulties amongst the people of his own town, who had probably been robbed by the monkey at some previous period.

’In the meanwhile the monkey is supposed to have recovered from his stupor, and the next morning on discovering his loss, he set up a horrid yell, which brought together all his fellow-inhabitants of the jungle; and some neighbouring villagers saw an immense number of monkeys of all sorts and sizes, collected together in a body. The story runs that this army of monkeys was headed by the one who had recovered from his drunken fit, and that they marched away from the jungle in pursuit of the robber.

’Their first march was to the adjacent village, where every house was visited in turn by the monkeys, without success; no one ever venturing to obstruct or drive away the intruders, fearing their resentment. After which they sallied out of the village to the main road, minutely looking for footsteps, as a clue, on the sandy pathway; and by this means discovering the track of the Hindoo, they pursued the road they had entered throughout the day and night. Early in the morning of the following day, the monkeys advanced to the serai (inn, or halting place for travellers) soon after the Hindoo himself had quitted it, who had actually sojourned there the previous night.

’On the road, when the horde of monkeys met any traveller, he was detained by them until the chief of them had scrutinized his features, and he was then liberated on finding he was not the person they were in pursuit of. After having marched nearly forty miles from their home, they entered one of the halting places for travellers, where the Hindoo was resting after his day’s journey.

’The monkey having recognized the robber, immediately grasped him by the arm, and others entering, the frightened robber was searched, the purse discovered in his wrapper, which the chief monkey angrily seized, and then counted over its contents, piece by piece. This done, finding the number correct, the monkey selected eight pieces, and threw them towards the Hindoo; and distributing the remaining number of gold mohurs amongst the monkeys, who placed each his coin in the hollow of his cheek, the whole body retired from the serai to retrace their steps to the jungle.’

[1] Hanuman, the divine monkey of the Ramayana epic, who helped Rama to recover his abducted wife, Sita.

[2] Langur, Semnopithecus entellus.

[3] Now worth a little more than a sovereign.


Introductory Notes  •  Preface to the Second Edition  •  Introduction  •  Introductory Letter  •  Letter I  •  Letter II  •  Letter III  •  Letter IV  •  Letter V  •  Letter VI  •  Letter VII  •  Letter VIII  •  Letter IX  •  Letter X  •  Letter XI  •  Letter XII  •  Letter XIII  •  Letter XIV  •  Letter XV  •  Letter XVI  •  Letter XVII  •  Letter XVIII  •  Letter XIX  •  Letter XX  •  Letter XXI  •  Letter XXII  •  Letter XXIII  •  Letter XXIV  •  Letter XXV  •  Letter XXVI  •  Letter XXVII  •  Bibliography of Works

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