High drama as monkeys wed in India
Talwas - The tale, set in the forests of northwestern India, had all the ingredients of a perfect Bollywood love story: Emotion, celebration, star-crossed lovers and a nail-biting climax.
The only difference was that the lovers were monkeys, taking part in India's first simian wedding - with the whole unfolding drama a classic clash between age-old village belief and the demands of modern life sceptical of that way of thought.
Hindu belief includes worship of animals as avatars of the gods. Monkeys have an especially significant role in Hindu mythology where they are worshipped as avatars of Hanuman, the mighty ape that aided Rama in his fight against evil.
So when plans for the wedding of "Raju" and "Chinki" were laid in the small village of Talwas, deep in the forests of Rajasthan, villagers responded with excitement.
Raju, the "groom", was famous in Banetha village, about 55km from Talwas, attracting crowds whenever he went outside. He was known for eating, sleeping and smoking cigarettes with his owner, Ramesh Saini, who treated him like a son.
"I want to enjoy the feelings of a son's marriage through Raju's wedding," said Rajesh, a 38-year-old married but childless auto rickshaw driver who nursed Raju back to health after finding him unconscious three years ago.
Hundreds of invitations
So he was overjoyed two months ago when he met Chinki's caretaker, a priest in a nearby village, who proposed that the two monkeys be married.
"We will welcome the bride in our house in Banetha after the wedding with all rituals," said an excited Ramesh while offering tea to Raju at a roadside tea shop.
Hundreds of invitation cards were sent out to nearby villages for the wedding, planned according to traditional Hindu customs that include seven rounds of the sacred fire as the wedding vows are recited by a priest. A huge pre-wedding feast was planned, along with a procession with Raju on a horse.
"It's an open invitation to all the villagers. I am expecting more than 2000 people for the feast," Ramesh said as he stood with Raju near a huge cooking pot to supervise.
But no good love story is complete without a little hiccup.
As news of the marriage spread, the state forest department officials stepped into action. Since monkeys are protected in India as government property, no one can pet them, train them or - as in this case - marry them, even to a fellow monkey.
"It's illegal to marry a monkey. Anyone found doing that or attending the marriage ceremony will be arrested," said forest range officer Bhavar Singh Kaviya.
Tensions rose in both villages after officials issued their final warning. The monkeys and their owners went into hiding.
On the day of the planned wedding, more than 200 guards poured into Talwas, where they confronted hundreds of people from nearby villages who had arrived to see the rare spectacle.
"I have come all the way just to watch God's marriage and now the police are telling me to go back and stay away from the temple," said Prem Jain, an angry 72-year-old villager, after arguing with a policeman.
"They told me the monkeys have been captured. They can't capture God!"
But then came the news - the monkey couple had been secretly married off in a ceremony somewhere deep in the forest. The villagers erupted in joy and began celebrating.
Forestry officials immediately set out to look for the pair and finally found Chinki tied to a tree. She sported the vermillion mark worn by married Hindu women on their foreheads.
The officials couldn't resist congratulating Chinki and posed for pictures with her.
"She is like my daughter and I am doing the duties of a good father," said a smiling Kaviya, carrying the monkey to a jeep.
Both monkeys were captured and officials said they hoped to release them soon in nearby forests, but Ramesh was confident of their eventual return.
"I know my son Raju, with his wife Chinki, will come back home," said an emotional Ramesh, mingling with the crowd to avoid being caught. "I will have a big reception for them."