By Shatabdi Chakrabarti
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Videographer / Director: Shams Qari
Producer: Shatabdi Chakrabarti, Ruby Coote
Editor: Thom Johnson
A 79-YEAR-OLD man has become famous in India after single-handedly feeding hundreds of monkeys every day.
Self-proclaimed holy man, Shyam Sadhu has been feeding wild rhesus monkeys in the town of Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh for over 40 years.
Due to depleting habitat and forest covers, large populations of these monkeys have adapted to living in close quarters with people in the northern states of India.
Monkeys are considered to be descendants of the Monkey God Hanuman by devout Hindus and hence are never harmed, with many people learning to live with the mischief that these animals can sometimes create.
But Shyam believes that his love for the monkeys comes from an affinity he has always felt with animals.
He said: “ In my whole family, I was the one with a different nature. While going to school as a kid, I saw a sick dog starving. I gave him my lunch and also stole my friend’s lunch for the dog.
"Even though I did get a beating after that incident as my friend complained to my teachers and my parents, I have always served animals and trees and nature.”
Shyam has been so passionate about nature that he started collecting unique plants and trees. He built an impressive garden of fig, almond and kiwi trees and would bring home any animal he found injured on the streets.
He said: “I even advertised in the local newspapers that bring us your wounded animals and you will be rewarded.”
The newspapers caught on to Shyam's story when a vulture he was tending to died due to the injuries it had sustained and Shyam Sadhu performed its last rites.
But his love and devotion towards the monkeys started in 1975 when he fell ill and dreamt of a green monkey.
He explained: “I was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. My health depleted as the medicines had a negative reaction on my body. On the same night, I saw a green-colour monkey in my dreams.
"I spoke to the priest the next morning and he advised that I should read the holy book of the Monkey God Hanuman. But I was skeptical and instead decided to feed some monkeys. And I got better!”
Believing that this is the greatest of good deeds that can be done, he says: "I was scared initially but after a month I got used to it. Then the monkeys and I became friends and it has continued."
“I always tell people that this is a gift from God. It feels like some higher power is making me do this. Otherwise how is it that I haven’t been injured while feeding all these wild monkeys?”
He even says that observing the monkeys all these years has given him immense knowledge.
He said: “I have learnt a lot from the monkeys. We have so many diseases. But these animals know how to cure themselves. They eat specific leaves and plants. Even I live on only a leafy diet as much as I can. I can assure you, if an obese patient comes to live with me and I provide him with this diet, he will be fit in two months!”
Shyam Sadhu collects leftover food from eateries and also buys fruits, bread and grains to feed the monkeys. Every morning he tends to his garden and then sits down to cut the fruits for the animals. He then walks to nearby areas where the monkeys live.
Most of these places are residential and some people object to his work. Jewellery shop owner, Chandrika Bhundal claims that Shyam’s actions have caused problems in the community and also questions his motives.
He said: "He is not interested in working for the animals. His main motto is to get his pictures clicked. There are so many other animal lovers in our city, but they are not like him!
"If he wants to feed the monkeys, he can go a little away from our homes and do it or take them to his own house. We have had instances when children and women have been attacked and bitten by the monkeys.
"It’s also illegal to feed wild animals according to law and these are wild monkeys.”
But criticism from the locals is not new to Shyam Sadhu. He said: "Some people belittle me and have said mean things to me. Some of them call me a mad man. But I don’t care.
"Nowadays, people from other cities and even from abroad get in touch and ask me to go feed the monkeys on their behalf as they know this is a good thing to do.”
There are others as well who support him and his work, specially his wife Satyabhama Mishra.
She says: “I did have my concerns in the beginning and didn’t like it much. But then I understood his passion and realised that he is doing something great.”
Some of Shyam Sadhu’s neighbours and his daughters are animal lovers and help when they can. Even the local vet is impressed with his selfless devotion.
Shyam Sadhu says, “If I can do any good, then I will do it, no matter what.”