Text & photos by Rupjyoti Rabha
An Assamese macaque receiving fruit from a visitor
at Tukreswari Temple
The temple at a hilltop
Built by Bijni King Kumud Narayan in 17th century, Tukreswari temple is located in Goalpara district of Assam by the side of National Highway 37 at a place called Tukra, about 25km from Goalpara town. The hill as well as the temple got their names from the religious belief that a portion(‘Tukura’ in Assamese language) of goddess Sati fell at the site where the temple is located. Tukreswari hill is an outlying part of the Meghalaya plateau and the entire hill is formed with hard Pre-Cambrian igneous rocks and falls under the subtropical semi deciduous forest.
The main temple is at the edge of a boulder at the hilltop enshrining the spot of the fallen piece of goddess Sati and one has to climb up steep staircases to reach the shrine. The temple situated at the down hill was constructed so as to make it accessible to all devotees without having to trek uphill. Devotees from different corners of Assam come to visit the temple and the number reaches a peak every year during Durga puja. The temple also conducts marriage ceremonies according to Hindu customs and rites that attracts even more devotees to the temple throughout the year.
A view of the Tukreswari hill & temple
The non-human Primates of Tukreswari
Tukreswari is also known for its unique non-human primates in the temple and the hillock. Assamese macaque (Macaca assamensis) are permanently living there since long and they are adapted in a way to the temple environment that they can even recognize the voices and calls of the priests and other staffs engaged with daily routine jobs of the temple!
Macaques resting on the railings of the temple
Assamese macaques are heavy and thickest forest macaques and the females are shorter than the male macaques in size and can be distinguished for their red skin around the eyes. Male Assamese macaques on the other hand are very robust and have darker face with lighter skin around the eyes.
Tukreswari is estimated to have a population size of
around 150 Assamese macaques
A population sustaining on offerings
Assamese macaques are omnivorous and major portion of their diet consists of young and mature leaves, leaf and flower buds, twigs, seeds and fruits that comes from the surrounding vegetation of the temple but they have become highly dependent on the easy foods offered by the temple staffs and the visitors. They get their feast every year during Durga Puja season when thousands of devotees gather at the temple for worshipping and offering Prasad (food items) to the deity. They are also seen feeding on the blood of the sacrificial animals slaughtered at the temple.
A visitor offering chickpeas to the macaques
They are completely unafraid of the visitors and infamous for looting their belongings. During daytime, they spend their time moving around every nook and cranny of the temple often resting and grooming each other on the floor, rocks and trees, railings or concrete beams of the temple. There is a pond inside the temple area that quenches thirst of these macaques and often seen them taking bath during hot summer days.
Macaques grooming during daytime
Like many other primates, Assamese macaques also maintain social hierarchy among them. Dominant male macaques lead the group with their unique style of aggressive dominance upon their rivals whereas female macaques can be seen taking utmost care of their offspring forming small groups of their own for the safety of their infants. Mother macaques usually give birth to a single offspring and their skin around the eyes turns darker red after the successful reproduction of their offspring.
A female Macaque with young ones
The human angle
Monkeys are believed to be the descendants of Lord Hanuman and because of this religious belief people do not mistreat monkeys residing in temples like Tukreswari. However, another species rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) are hated by the people because of the loots and damage they cause to their crops and households. Assamese macaques of the Tukreswari temple are highly revered and the temple has been arranging ceremonies for enthroning King of the macaques since long. According to a popular lore, the enthroned monkey King of the temple gets high respect and priority from other macaques of the temple.
An adult male Macaque sitting on a bur flower tree hollow
Thoughts for a threatened species
Although these macaques have no natural enemies at the temple but yet they are not free from threats. The primary threat to the primates residing in temples is the loss of natural habitat due to increasing human settlements around the site. Apart from this, there is a possibility of being overpopulated to their ecological niche that will further increase conflicts among the macaques and there is more chance of losing food source from their natural habitat. Such a situation will further increase raiding crops and households near human settlements leading to human-primate conflicts. Increase in human-primate conflicts will have negative impact on the traditional beliefs of the people that can change their attitude towards these macaques in future.
Monkeys not only play important role in the socio-cultural and religious lives of the people but also have significant contribution to the health of the environment on which every living species on earth has to rely. Primates play significant role in the regeneration of forests by dispersing seeds.
Macaques sleeping on tree branches after sunset
Assamese macaques are one of the twelve primate species found in the northeast India. A detailed study on Assamese macaques can help understanding their ecology that will help taking adequate conservation initiatives before being driven to extinction in the future by the unsustainable human activities.
About the Author:
Rupjyoti Rabha is a PSU bank employee by profession with keen interest in wildlife conservation. He utilizes his holidays to explore places and document wildlife for storytelling. He is also a general member of Aaranyak.