Simian Wisdom

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At Yali, we are busy working on the second installment in the Pavan series that chronicles our dromedary friend’s journey from Ahmedabad to Dubai, the city of racing camels. In this book, Pavan makes a stop in the beautiful city of Jaipur, famous for its resident army of monkeys. As you may have guessed, our book will feature hoards of simian citizens; two of them in particular – Tamata & Batata – will play a crucial role in the story.

Sketching all these rhesus and macaque troublemakers reminded me of Gandhiji’s three famous monkeys. Everyone has seen the famous image of three simians sitting side-by-side; one with its eyes closed, the second with its ears plugged and the third, with its paws firmly locked on its mouth. They represent ‘see no evil’, ‘hear no evil’ and ‘speak no evil’, or so we have been told. What is the real story behind these strange creatures?

Many Indians see the three monkeys as a symbol of self-restraint and purification by control of one’s thoughts, speech and deeds. This stems from the fact that Gandhiji kept a small ivory statue of the three monkeys in his possession and they became associated with his ideas of ahimsa and passive resistance.

With a bit of digging, I was amazed to find that the three wise apes aren’t Indian at all. They are associated with the Japanese folk tradition or Koshin. In Japan, the trio is commonly known as ‘sanzaru‘. Their individual names are mizaru (see no evil), kikazaru (hear no evil) and iwazaru (speak no evil). The root word ‘zaru‘ resembles ‘saru‘ or monkey, explaining their simian representation and a example of clever ancient word play!

These monkeys were the attendants of a fearsome six-armed demi-god known as Shoumen-Kongou. Shoumen kept records of  people’s good and bad deeds, doling out punishment to those who strayed. To appease the god, people stayed awake nights, burning images of the three blind, mute and deaf monkeys in the hope that Shoumen would not be aware of their misdeeds.

Now that I am in the know, I am definitely going to keep a tiny Sanzaru statue this Christmas, just in case our ‘Shoumen-Kongou‘ a.k.a Santa decides not to bring me presents!

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