I visited Jakhu Temple, the highest point in Shimla, India, almost 9,000 feet in the sky on a clear day in March. Our car left us at the base of a slate stairway that stretched so far up I couldn't see the top. I grabbed a bamboo walking stick and started up, not sure whether I could make it all the way. Stopping to catch my breath, I felt like a world-class wimp when a tiny, shriveled, gray-haired, Indian woman smiled as she passed me by.
Halfway up, something big and heavy hit me in the head and almost knocked me over. I didn't know what happened until I saw a monkey sitting a few steps away holding the sunglasses that I'd been wearing a moment before. He just sat there, looking smug, and I was ready to kiss my glasses goodbye when a bored looking caretaker threw the little thug a pre-packaged monkey treat. The cunning thief grabbed his treat, dropped my glasses, and ran. Blackmail!
Turns out, Jakhu Temple is overrun by monkeys who make their living by terrorizing tourists, but no one really minds. It even seems appropriate, since the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. The bamboo poles were not walking sticks at all; they were handed out to beat off the monkeys. Oh, and remember that silly fuss about whether President Obama was a Muslim or a Christian? My driver insists he's Hindu, and particularly devoted to Hanuman.
At the top of the stairs, we came to the small but elaborate temple where I took off my sandals, rinsed my feet under a cold tap and walked back a couple thousand years. As you walk into the Jakhu Temple, you ring a bell suspended by garlands of flowers and enter a small, dim, smoky room. I thought the bell must be a solemn ritual until I saw a little boy jump up to whack it as hard as he could and laugh like a little maniac. Apparently, it’s just a casual head's-up for the gods.
Just inside the door, I stepped over a turbaned man who was lying prostrate on the floor and holding a stick of incense in his outstretched hands. The eminently bribable gods sat in a regal enclosure in the middle of the room surrounded by flowers and offerings, while people circumnavigated the room in pious procession, praying and touching their foreheads to the wall. The statues, the bells, the incense, the hushed piety, the people lost in supplication, all of it made me think of the Catholic churches I grew up with. Except for the bare feet and the monkeys, it was pretty much the same.