Sacred and Sinister Simians Roam New Delhi’s Streets


Demigods shouldn’t have to suffer the indignities that India’s monkeys do these days.

More than 5,000 monkeys roam the streets, and trees, of this capital city, and to the country’s Hindu majority, each one is sacred--although it’s getting harder to tell with so many Indians bad-mouthing them.

Monkeys may be the earthly legions of the Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, but they are also marauding gangs accused of stealing everything from food to sensitive government files, pulling off women’s clothing, and even killing people.


It’s all quite upsetting for one of India’s leading primatologists, Iqbal Malik, who blames humans--especially the species sitting behind government desks--for letting New Delhi’s monkeys get hooked on the good life.

“That is when gods become pests,” Malik, 49, said. “And that is when people begin thinking: ‘What to do with them? Kill them. Shoot them. Stone them.’ That starts an aggressive reaction [from the monkeys], a vicious circle.”

Relations between man and monkey got really bad in 1999, when the government hired men with trained langur monkeys to chase hundreds of slightly smaller rhesus monkeys away from government buildings, where they were sneaking into offices and pilfering Foreign Ministry files.

A year ago, a monkey was accused of killing a New Delhi resident by dropping a flowerpot on his head.

Things got worse last week, when rumors about a half-man, half-monkey attacking people in their sleep caused a panic among the poor of east Delhi’s crowded slums.

Newspapers and TV jumped at the chance to report on something more gripping than the usual fare of corrupt politicians, constant blackouts, various insurgencies and the 115-degree heat.

Drawings compared the police version of the monkey-man--a4-foot-6 creature covered in dark hair--to witness descriptions that put him closer to 5-foot-6, with long steel claws, black clothes and a motorcycle helmet.

Because the monkey-man reportedly attacked only sleeping people in the dead of night, actual sightings were hard to come by. One man who claimed that he had looked the monkey-man straight in the eye said the beast immediately turned into a cat and ran away.

Leading Hindu nationalists insisted that the military intelligence agency in Pakistan had sent the monkey-man in a sinister plot to destabilize India. Several members of Parliament demanded that the government send in crack paramilitary units to catch the ape-man.

The normally staid Times of India joined in Wednesday with a front-page headline that screamed: “Monkeyman’s Reign of Terror in Capital Growing Daily.”

New Delhi’s police force has deployed 1,000 officers, many of them posted on rooftops, in a special operation to trap the monkey-man. Unofficially, police insist that he is just a figment of the imagination.

But officially, police spokesman Ravi Pawar said there is something more to it, because people are turning up with scratch marks.

“It’s a mischief-monger,” Pawar said. “We are sure to get him.” Police arrested more than a dozen pranksters calling in sightings of the monkey-man over the weekend and are offering a reward exceeding $1,000 for the capture of the monster--or the guy in the monkey suit.

So many residents are convinced that the monkey-man is real, at least two people have died trying to escape him: In the latest incident, a 21-year-old pregnant woman fell down a staircase to her death Tuesday night when a reported sighting of the monkey-man set off a stampede.

In a front-page analysis of the monkey-man phenomenon, the Hindustan Times suggested that it’s all about poor people fed up with daily blackouts lasting 10 hours and running water that’s on only an hour each day.

According to the rapidly developing lore, light wards off the monkey-man, and a splash of water on his chest drains his power to leap.

For years, government officials have done little to fix the supplies of electricity and water, but now that they are supposed weapons against the monkey-man, there suddenly is a steady supply of both throughout the night in the slums where the monkey-man is said to prowl.

Malik sees the roots of Delhi’s monkey craze in the ruin of India’s environment.

The trouble started in the late 1980s, when a combination of shrinking forests, water shortages and the illegal trapping of wild primates for medical research set off a steady migration of monkeys to the city.

Twenty years ago, only 30% of India’s monkeys lived among people in cities, Malik said. The number is closer to 60% today, she said. New Delhi’s rhesus monkey population quickly climbed past the sustainable level of about 2,000.

The monkey god, Hanuman, is one of the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon, and devout Hindus often feed monkeys in the belief that the animals will give them good luck, heal the sick or help overcome any obstacle.

Although an adult monkey has the intelligence of a 2-year-old human, the animals are smart enough to know a good thing when they see it. So they take up permanent residence in the city and, before long, start to push their luck.

“They all want to climb the social hierarchy,” Malik said. “One way is to show to peers they are smarter, or can do things other monkeys can’t do--like pulling off a [woman’s] sari. It’s just showing off.”

Shyam Nath, an ex-tailor now in the monkey management business, used his gray-and-black langur monkey, Raju, and a cane, to scare off about 500 monkeys that were running amok in a government complex. Now he hopes for a call to take on the monkey-man of east Delhi.

“If he’s a monkey, I’m ready for him,” Nath said, as Raju chewed on a leathery fistful of leaves.


Siddartha Barua in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.