Batu Caves

| 08.09.2013

The golden statue of Hanuman, the noble monkey devotee of Lord Rama, towers peacefully over the base of the caves and encourages pilgrims and tourists alike to scale the hundred steps to the dark craggy mouth above. This temple is overrun by the resident macaque monkeys, who playfully chase each other in between quietly sitting and reflecting, combing the fleas from their coats. Hawkers down below sell watermelon slices, fresh coconuts with straws and fried chicken wings alongside miniature plastic Hindu statues licked with gold. A small movement stirs a flock of pigeons to life, and beating wings emanate in all directions forcing people to drop to the ground in reverence.

Deep red paint, layered thickly on the rails, decorates the steps with bright yellow and navy blue. Monkeys sit territorially on posts, eyeing up passers by who might be clutching a water bottle or some scrunchy-sounding food packet. Some pick at rotten fruit, whilst others almost unlock the secret of the screw top lid before sinking sharp teeth into plastic. Younger monkeys roll and tumble down the wide stone banisters, before shrieking and sprinting back up to higher ground to find a new game away from the irritated elders.

The entrance is framed with a golden gate, and small chipped stone elephants stand guard at the base of the columns. More opportunistic traders display their wares of hypotonic Hindi posters that have spiralling lights and holographic images of waving Gods. Light whips through the tall cavern and out to the other side, bleaching the other exit into pure monochrome and not stopping to illuminate the full height of the cave which disappears into unknown darkness above.

More steps lead you to the Hindu temple in a large spacious cavern, with sunlight streaming through cracks and the walls descending as steep rock covered in growth. The stone temple is intricately carved and painted in the same bold primary colours as the steps guiding to it. A shrine sits at the back, flickering with the fire of artificial candles. Figures of potbellied men surrounded by animals perch on the roof, staring down at the visitors with eternally bemused gazes.

The monkeys are everywhere and demand your attention away from the religious centrepiece. Dull furred macaques cling to each other’s stomachs and chase up and down the rocky walls, confidently strolling between the humans and snatching at the precious bounty of empty plastic bottles. A stray cockerel, greased in sunset reds and emerald green, saunters on to the rockface before being banished by the troop of monkeys. The last strip of light creates a shard down the inside of the mountain, and the monkeys become still and wait in groups for their nightly vigil.

A spectacled leaf monkey, looking startled in white glasses and a neat beard, sits as the large bulk of her pregnancy writhes inside her. Her appearance is striking, and she does not interact with the brown macaque monkeys below. Her curled legs hang down and she is illuminated by a backdrop of studded gold, although the tourists milling on the ground do not notice her. The statue of Hanuman locks their eyes as she deftly leaps up and proceeds to drag her heavy stomach along the ledge and out into the trees.

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